Monday 11th July is World Benzodiazepine Awareness Day. “What awareness day???” I hear you ask. I’m here to explain the important things you need to know about ‘benzos’ in the hopes to spread awareness about the aspects that not enough people are talking about.

What are Benzos?

When we say ‘benzos’ we are referring to a class of prescription medication called Benzodiazepines (you can see why we shorten it huh? Such a mouthful!). In Australia, almost 7 million prescriptions for benzos are issued every year. This medication is generally prescribed for two reasons: 1.) as a sleeping tablet or; 2.) as a tranquilliser to assist with anxiety.

How do I know if my medication is a benzo?

There are a few really commonly prescribed benzos that you may have heard of- Valium (Diazepam), Xanax (Alprazolam) or Temaze (Temazepam) just to name a few. The best way to know if your prescription medication is a benzo is to ask your General Practitioner (GP). However, these days we have a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips, so feel free to search the name of your medication online and you will find information about the class of drug. Keep in mind that any information you read online about advice or side effects should be discussed with your GP.

How do I use benzos safely?

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners released some new guidelines for GPs in 2015 with the aim of improving patient care. These guidelines state that benzos should not be the first line of treatment and that non-drug therapies should also be explored. What does this mean? Basically, it means that if you are having difficulties with sleep or anxiety, other treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy should be explored first or in conjunction with medication. Why? Well the guidelines also state that benzos should generally be regarded as a short-term therapeutic option, and if used daily, rarely should be continued beyond four weeks. So you’re really going to have to learn to manage your symptoms without medication if you can only use benzos for such a short period of time.

What are the risks associated with taking benzos?

As with all medication, it is a good idea to be aware of the possible side effects of benzos prior to taking them. That being said, most people experience few side effects when taking them. The biggest risk is becoming dependent on benzos if taking them for longer than four weeks. What’s so bad about becoming dependent? There’s a few problems with this:
– You never really learn to manage your underlying symptoms.
– Your body becomes used to having the medication in its’ system, and may start to require a higher dosage in order for it to continue being effective.
– If you choose to resist taking a higher dosage, you may start to feel withdrawal symptoms even though you’re still taking it.
– If you attempt to cut back or stop taking it, you may experience some unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.

How do I know if I am dependent on this medication?

There are some tell-tale signs that perhaps you are becoming dependent on your benzo medication if you have been taking them long-term. Ironically enough, they can start to cause the symptoms they are designed to prevent- i.e. anxiety and difficulty sleeping. If you feel you cannot cope without taking them, if you experience increased discomfort close to the time of your next pill, or if the medication is not having the same effect as when you first started taking it, these may be indicators that you are dependent on this medication.

Should they be banned altogether?

Benzos are usually very effective at managing anxiety and improving sleep. If used short term or every now and then, and used in conjunction with psychologically therapy, they are generally quite safe. Banning them altogether would probably be a bit extreme, but we do need to ensure that the word is spread about their potential risks so that they are used in the safest possible way.

Should I stop taking this medication if my GP has prescribed it?

Definitely not!!! If you have been taking benzos for months or even years, it can be very dangerous to go cold-turkey and stop taking your medication altogether. A slow reduction in the medication is necessary, and only to be performed under the guidance of your GP and with support from your psychologist.

Where do I get help if I am concerned about dependence?

There are several places to get help:
– Speak to your GP about your concerns.
– See a psychologist or mental health practitioner for assistance in managing your symptoms. At The Psych Professionals, we have several psychologists who can help with anxiety and sleep concerns.
– Reconnexion is a fantastic organisation that specialises in anxiety and benzodiazepine dependency. Their website is a wealth of information and they have a telephone support line for anyone who may require assistance or information (1300 273 266).