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Anxiety drug overdoses in U.S. hit record levels

The number of Americans overdosing on anxiety drugs recently hit a record high. What is even more worrisome is that the reasons for this trend remain largely unclear.

A new study brought forward some overwhelming facts and identified brands such as Valium and Xanax as topping the list. More and more citizens are consuming greater quantities than ever before. Hence, when the number of prescriptions rose three-fold from 1996 to 2013, the number of overdoses quadrupled simultaneously.

The study was published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Benzodiazepines – an emerging trend

The new research shows benzodiazepines steadily rising in the charts of overdose deaths, amid its well-established yet still growing popularity in the U.S.

“We found that the death rate from overdoses involving benzodiazepines, also known as ‘benzos,’ has increased more than four-fold since 1996 – a public health problem that has gone under the radar,” said Dr. Marcus Bachhuber of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and lead author of the study.

“Overdoses from benzodiazepines have increased at a much faster rate than prescriptions for the drugs, indicating that people have been taking them in a riskier way over time.”

Researchers from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York used data from the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to identify trends in benzodiazepine prescriptions and overdose fatalities.

The study revealed some overwhelming statistics:

  • Prescriptions for the drugs rose from 4.1 percent in 1996 to 5.6 percent in 2013, depicting a 37 percent raise at a rate of 12.5 percent a year
  • The rate of overdose deaths observed throughout the study showed more than a 500 percent increase
  • Between 1996 and 2013, benzodiazepine prescriptions surged by 67 percent
  • Benzodiazepines held responsibility for 31 percent of the narcotic overdose deaths in 2011, up from 13 percent in 1999
  • Prescription anxiety drugs and narcotic painkillers were liable for at least 30 percent of narcotic painkiller-related deaths
  • More than 5 percent of U.S. adults fill a benzodiazepine prescription every year, for conditions such as anxiety, mood disorders and insomnia

The dangers of anxiety drugs

The reasons accounting for the overdoses still remain unclear. Authors suggest that people taking these drugs for longer durations, may raise their risks of eventually overdosing, or that the medication might be in hands of individuals who don’t have prescriptions.

Because benzodiazepines take longer to metabolize, there are significant chances of the medication accumulating in the body when consumed through longer periods of time. This may result in oversedation.

Long-term use of benzodiazepines is also associated with depression, and higher doses are believed to increase the risk of both depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts and feelings. Furthermore, benzodiazepines can cause an emotional block. The medication relieves the anxiety, but it also blocks feelings of pleasure or pain.

Anti-anxiety medications, particularly popular benzodiazepines such as Xanax, Klonopin, Valium, and Ativan, are meant for short-term use because they can quickly lead to physical dependence. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, benzodiazepines lose their therapeutic anti-anxiety effect around 4 to 6 months of regular use.

Sovereign Health is a leading behavioral health treatment provider, providing evidence-based treatment for substance abuse disorders and mental illnesses. We aim to see our patients not just succeed in treatment but also thrive in their daily life. If you or a loved one is currently taking benzodiazepines for four months or longer and are finding it hard to withdraw, call us right away.

About the author

Sana Ahmed is a staff writer for Sovereign Health Group. A journalist and social media savvy content developer with extensive research, print and on-air interview skills, Sana has previously worked as an editor for a business magazine and been an on-air news broadcaster. She writes to share the amazing developments from the mental health world and unsuccessfully attempts to diagnose her friends and family. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at     

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