As many might know there is a new Netflix documentary called Take Your Pills: Xanax and it combines interview footage from physicians, patients, and journalists about anxiety and the use of Xanax. For the most part I thought there were a lot of reasonable discussions about anxiety, its treatment, and the role of medication. I feel like this is an appropriate way to cap off our recent discussions about anxiety disorders and treatment.
Fear and Anxiety: Are They the Same Thing?
The documentary made it seem like anxiety and fear are the same thing and that the exact same neurobiology is involved in each case. I think about anxiety and fear as two separate things that require different approaches.
Anxiety is what an individual feels when they are worried about something that could potentially happen in the future. If you watched my other videos on generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) then you know the Diagnostic and statistical manual (DSM) has made excessive worry the hallmark of GAD.
Fear is a core emotion along with sadness, anger, joy, excitement, and disgust. It’s different than anxiety, which is a fear of some future event happening. Fear is triggered in the moment. When you see that bear walking on the hiking trail or hear the rattle of a snake the fear centers of our brain are activated immediately in that moment. It’s not that we are obsessing about some future outcome, there is something present in the environment that is threatening and demands immediate action.
The Fear Center of The Brain
In humans the fear center of the brain is called the amygdala which stands for almond and that’s because they taste like almonds. No, wait that isn’t right, it’s because they are shaped like an almond. The amygdala is what fires when you see that bear in the woods. This triggers the fight or flight response which leads to things like increase blood flow to the muscles, and increased energy. It prepares the body to run away or fight if necessary.
Benzodiazepines enhance GABA activity by acting as allosteric modulators of the GABA-A receptors. This is the major inhibitory neurotransmitter in the body, and it acts to dampen everything down. Benzodiazepines increase the frequency of opening of chloride ion channels which in turn inhibits the cell and prevents the neuron from firing.
Anxiety Is a Part of Life
As I’ve said before we all have anxiety under certain circumstances. It’s not always a bad thing to have anxiety. In many ways anxiety reminds us that this situation is important, and we need to be appropriately prepared. A healthy amount of anxiety is a good thing overall.
Things go sideways when the anxiety is chronic, persistent, and severe. As I’ve stated in the previous videos some people are just more prone to anxiety. These individuals are high in the big 5 personality trait of neuroticism. While most of us will fall somewhere in the middle there will be outliers on either side with some having significantly less anxiety and others having significantly more.
The one thing that made this documentary hard to follow is that they combined all the anxiety disorders together, at one point they were describing panic attacks, social anxiety, and GAD as if they are all part of the same disease process. While there is significant overlap, the course of illness, and treatment plans will vary greatly which is why proper diagnosis is so important.
Xanax Works great for Physical Symptoms of Panic Attacks
When the interviewees start talking about Xanax it’s in the context of people experiencing panic attack. This is an important distinction to note as most of the symptoms of panic attacks are physical and thus will have a greater response to benzodiazepines. If we are talking about GAD, or social anxiety the anxious thoughts will still be there, and the benzodiazepine may be less effective.
Why Temperament and Environment Deserves More Attention
Much of our baseline temperament is genetic and will be part of the story that determines if you will have more or less anxiety. The other part of the story is environment. The experiences we have matter a lot too. In child psychiatry, there has been this huge focus on minimizing adverse childhood events (ACES). We discovered that things like sexual abuse, physical abuse, and loss of a parent can result in significant risk for poor health outcomes in the future. Baseline temperament that predisposes someone to anxiety combined with significant lifetime trauma could set the table for a future anxiety disorder.
The Prevalence of Benzodiazepine Use
In this documentary they make it seem like benzodiazepine prescriptions have skyrocketed over the last several decades. These prescriptions have increased but we need to explore why. One thing I see all the time is primary care providers prescribing benzodiazepines for patients early in treatment for depression and anxiety. Before exploring psychotherapy or other medication options the person walks out with a Xanax prescription. There is a reason the research tells us most people who see a primary care provider for depression and anxiety do not get better. In fact, as few as 20% of those started on antidepressants by primary care will show significant clinical improvement. This is not a knock on primary care, it’s more that they have been thrown into a mental health crisis and are usually the first person to encounter a patient with anxiety.
The important trends I would like people to pay more attention to is the risk of prescribing opioids and benzodiazepines in combination. This can result in increased risk for overdose death and a significant risk for severe respiratory depression. In addiction treatment people often feel very anxious when stopping opioids and it’s common to want to address that anxiety as a doctor. What ends up happening is people are on medication treatment for opioid use disorder, a benzodiazepine for anxiety, and gabapentin for that little extra relief. All these medications in combination put the patient at risk for adverse outcomes. Another thing to pay attention to is where all the opioid prescriptions are coming from. The highest rates are in many southern states and in places like West Virginia where the opioid epidemic hit the hardest. The final item to discuss is the increased rates of benzodiazepine prescribing in the elderly. There seems to be an increase in benzodiazepine use in this population which is more dangerous due to the risk of falls, altered mental status, and possibly dementia.
There has been a lot of talk over the years about the increased risk of dementia associated with benzodiazepine use. There data has been mixed, but I would say it’s largely in favor of using caution when prescribing benzodiazepines in older populations and avoiding the long-term use of benzodiazepines in all populations.
Social Media and Anxiety
I think social media has done as much harm as it has good for people’s mental health. If you believe everything you see on social media, the impression is everyone you know, or follow is winning, and you are losing. In the past you only had to compare your life to people in your community. Now, we get to compare our lives to the world. Not only are we comparing our lives to large pool of people, but we are also comparing them to people who have created online personas under false pretenses. These are individuals rent house for photo shoots to make you believe that is where they live, or people taking steroids then asking you to buy some supplement that does not provide the results it promises. We all like to think we are immune to these types of schemes, but we are not. In our minds we are comparing our worst moments to other people’s best moments and assuming that this is reality. This is clearly a recipe for anxiety and depression.
Dangerous Coping Strategies for Anxiety
I do not think using alcohol or drugs to alter one’s state of consciousness is exclusive to the past. People have been doing this forever, and it remains a poor way to cope with anxiety. I think one of our problems is attempting to cure the stresses of life. In my practice I do not believe that taking a medication or using alcohol are ways to “cure” anxiety. Most individuals need to take a long hard look at their life and see where the anxiety is coming from and where life changes can be implemented to reduce the tension. When someone takes time to systematically dissect the cause of their anxiety, they often already know what they should do. Take more time off work, practice better self-care, exercise, eat healthy, and sleep better these examples all come to mind for most patients. Most people feel trapped and do not believe they can carve out the time to do these things and that is part of the reason they turn to medication or drugs/alcohol to cope.
While I still believe benzodiazepines can be useful in the right context, they are designed to be used short term. I set limits with my patients early in the process letting them know up front that we are not using this as a long-term solution for their anxiety.
Potential Side Effects of Benzodiazepine use
They did a nice job of describing the changes in memory that occur because of benzodiazepine use. The ability to laydown new memories is impaired when using benzodiazepines that is why I caution anyone with PTSD who is in trauma-based psychotherapy to avoid the use of benzodiazepines. They also focused on the disinhibition caused by increased GABA-A activity. This is less a side effect and more a response that should be expected from the medication. Most individuals with anxiety are wound too tight and have trouble relaxing. The problem with this response occurs when that disinhibition is excessive resulting in embarrassment or inability to work for example.
Withdrawal from these medications can be deadly. There is risk for seizure, rebound anxiety, rebound insomnia all of which can be very distressing. The problem with benzodiazepine withdrawal is the variability in terms of patient’s tolerance to dose reductions. Some patients can tapper off very quickly and have no issue, others need to be tapered slowly over months to years. While I would say it’s rare to have someone who is very sensitive to dose adjustments it can happen and tapering slowly while watching for withdrawal symptoms is important. The example of the guy pipetting a liquid microdose of alprazolam would not be a normal situation, and if you just watch this documentary, you may think everyone who tries to come off these medications must go through a similar process. Benzodiazepines can be safely reduced under the guidance of doctor.
What we see in the end is more of the same recommendations most of my patients would tell “doc I already know this.” They talked about using complementary and alternative medicine which I am a big fan of, diet, exercise, mindfulness, and psychotherapy to find the underlying causes of the excessive worry. They introduce the idea at the end that the world is broken and defective and we should not have to accept the world as it is. This is fine but significant change on a massive scale takes time and it still leaves people asking the question “what do I do right now.” I’m personally active in advocacy work at the local and state level, which is one approach, but it takes a lot of time and resources to affect policy changes and not every patient will have the time or desire to engage in such activities. The only true way out of anxiety is through it. Daily life is painful, and we need to accept that to some degree. Medicating away feelings that are part of life is certainly not the solution and can be the reason we find ourselves in trouble.