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Can Your Anti-Anxiety Medication Kill You?

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Many people have heard that anxiety medications can have some serious side effects, such as addiction, memory problems, impaired driving, and sleepiness. But a provocative new study claims that taking anti-anxiety medications leads to greater long-term mortality.

Anxiety is the most common mental health challenge; an estimated 40 million Americans every year experience anxiety. Although contemplating such a serious side effect can be frightening, is one study reason to give up on anti-anxiety medications altogether?

The Study

The study tracked 35,000 people prescribed anxiety medications and compared them to 70,000 people who did not take such drugs. Study participants were tracked for about seven years, on average. Even when the researchers controlled for variables such as socioeconomic class, medical conditions, and age, the group taking the anti-anxiety medications was more likely to die early.

The study’s authors argue that anti-anxiety medications cause four excess deaths per year for every hundred patients. Although the numbers may seem alarming, they’re relatively low. The numbers also reveal nothing about an individual patient’s personal risk of death.

Are Anti-Anxiety Drugs Dangerous?

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Every drug poses some risks, and anti-anxiety drugs are no exception. However, it’s important to note that the study tracked long-term use of anxiety medications. Doctors have known for a while that long-term use of certain anti-anxiety drugs carries risks such as cognitive impairments. Many people take anti-anxiety drugs for brief periods of time, and the effects could be different for short-term users.

Although the study’s authors controlled for several factors that could increase long-term mortality, they couldn’t control for everything. It could be that doctors are more likely to prescribe anti-anxiety medications to people with more severe anxiety or that people with severe anxiety are more likely to continue taking medication for years.

Anxiety itself is correlated with a host of health problems that may increase the likelihood of death. The study could simply be tracking the effects of severe, chronic anxiety.

If you take anti-anxiety medication and are worried about the drug’s effects, talk to your doctor. A variety of lifestyle and health factors can alter your relative risks. Your doctor can recommend specific steps to take to reduce your specific risk factors. Because anxiety itself can be damaging to your health, you may find that the risks of anti-anxiety medications don’t outweigh the benefits.

Options for Coping with Anxiety

Although medication can help you fight anxiety, drugs aren’t the only antidote. If you’re concerned about taking medication, consider therapy. Treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy can aid you in detecting and reversing anxious, negative thoughts.

If you have specific fears, your therapist might use exposure therapy. Your therapist may also recommend other strategies to amplify the effects of therapy, such as meditation, exercise, a healthier diet, or a regular sleep schedule.

The study did not find that antidepressants increase the risk of death, and these drugs can be effective at treating anxiety. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac and Zoloft are popular options, but your doctor might also recommend a nontraditional antidepressant such as Bupropion.

No matter what treatment option you choose, be honest with your treatment provider about your concerns, as well as any specific medical risk factors you have. Only then can you and your doctor properly evaluate the right course of action.

References:

  1. Facts & statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics
  1. Raison, C. (2010, March 23). What are the long-term brain effects of Xanax? Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/expert.q.a/03/23/xanax.long.term.use.raison/index.html?hpt=Mid
  1. Salzman, C. (2000). Cognitive improvement after benzodiazepine discontinuation. Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology, 20(1), 99. doi: 10.1097/00004714-200002000-00017
  1. Weich, S., Pearce, H. L., Croft, P., Singh, S., Crome, I., Bashford, J., & Frisher, M. (2014). Effect of anxiolytic and hypnotic drug prescriptions on mortality hazards: Retrospective cohort study. BMJ, 348. doi: 10.1136/bmj.g1996

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Comments
  • nancy edwards April 4th, 2014 at 1:17 PM #1

    To me, the very most important problem with benzos wasn’t even mentioned in this article: the high degree of addiction and the severe withdrawal effects. It’s hard to understand just why these weren’t even addressed.

  • Kendall April 4th, 2014 at 3:49 PM #2

    Another thing that I am not sure about here- are we sure that it is the medication that could be this harmful, or is it just that the long term effects of living with anxiety take such a cumulative toll on a person that they tend to have a higher risk of early death? I am sure that living with this over so many years has to be harmful to both the body and the spirit.

  • kent April 5th, 2014 at 5:39 AM #3

    too many meds, not enough emphasis on holistic and natural approaches to reducing stress and anxiety

  • Tamara April 5th, 2014 at 5:25 PM #4

    Can this be right? So many people rely on these types of medications to make their lives more bearable and now I am reading that they could be deadly if not taken or dministered properly? This has to be so scary to so many people just because of the sheer numbers who rely on these to help them to get through every single day. To be honest though this is the very first time that I had heard about this so I am surprised that more information about it has not gotten out.

  • burt April 7th, 2014 at 4:07 PM #5

    While I personally would rather approach things from a more holistic and organic standpoint, there are those for whom nothing will help besides medications. There fore I don’t understand why there are these growups who insist on frightening the bejesus out of those individuals by telling them that now don’t be alarmed but their medications could kill them. is this really the kind of message that you think will make someone who already takes this kind of medication feel safe and secure? The numbers seem awfully low to me to say that definitively they cause more harm than they do good, and I too agree that there are a number of other health factors as well as environmental factors that could have been ignored here to skew the numbers in favor of the message that the authors of the syudy would like to present. I would not go so afr as to say that the study lacks validity because I think that there can be cause for soncern no matter where you look when we are talking using medications for a long period of time in anyone, but you do have to also be careful from whom you always get your information.

  • Connor April 8th, 2014 at 3:52 AM #6

    Why not a good mix of several different modalities of treatment? Change things up, mix it up a little and work with a good therapist to determine what is going to be the most suitable overall treatment method for you. And don’t be afraid to speak up when something doesn’t seem to be working. What works for you one month may need a little tweak the enst and it is fine to speak up and say so.

  • franklin rhodes April 9th, 2014 at 11:57 AM #7

    I really don’t believe that they would continue to be marketed and sold if there was this much solid proof that they were doing this much damage

    I know the drug companies have clout but not that much

  • Vanessa April 10th, 2014 at 3:50 AM #8

    There are so many other options available, so if this scares you, why not try something new?
    Try therapy, try meditation, try working with a group, something that does not have to involve taking any medications if this makes you feel better.
    Personally I think that this has been blown way out of proportion but I know that there are people who are going to take this very seriously and be super concerned. That’s fair, I understand that. Just do your research before you make a permanent decision.

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