Sedatives, hypnotics and anxiolytics (or SHAs) are a group of drugs developed to induce sleep and reduce pain and feelings of anxiety. They are sometimes used to treat cases of severe depression.
This classification of drugs includes two main types:
- Barbiturates, which can be injected into the veins or swallowed in pill form, were prescribed frequently in the 1960s and 1970s to treat anxiety and insomnia. They work by depressing the central nervous system.
- Benzodiazepines are commonly prescribed as pills to treat insomnia, seizures, anxiety and panic disorder. They are the most widely used type of SHA today.
What are Painkiller, Sleep and Anti-Anxiety Medications?
The DSM-IV classifies sedatives, hypnotics and anxiolytics together because they treat similar conditions and affect the body in comparable ways.
While SHAs are a safe and effective medication for many people, they carry a significant risk of dependence. Patients can develop tolerance after prolonged use, and cessation can induce withdrawal symptoms.
According to eMedicine, 12.5 percent of the U.S. adult population uses a prescribed anti-anxiety medication each year, and about 6 percent of the population has used these drugs outside of prescription requirements (2010).
The Biology of Painkiller, Sleep and Anti-Anxiety Medication Addiction
In a healthy brain, a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) opens chloride (Cl-) channels, allowing chloride to flood the neuron and inhibit its activity. GABA receptors are responsible for controlling sleep and regulating anxiety.
By targeting these receptors, SHAs can reduce feelings of anxiety and induce drowsiness. High doses of SHAs can lead to slurred speech, nystagmus (jittery involuntary eye movements), and in extreme cases, coma or cardiac arrest.
Long-term use of these drugs disrupts healthy GABA receptor function. This can lead to dependence on the drug and withdrawal symptoms in its absence.
Painkiller, Sleep and Anti-Anxiety Medication Addiction Risk Factors
Several factors raise one’s risk of SHA dependence and abuse. These include:
- A history of alcoholism
- Age (Anti-anxiety medications are prescribed more often to older patients, but non-prescription use occurs most among those between the ages of 26 and 35.)
- An SHA prescription that extends longer than one month
- Gender (Women are thee times more likely to become addicted to SHAs.)
- Genetics (SHA abuse appears to run in families.)
- Race (Caucasians are at higher risk than people of African descent.).
Painkiller, Sleep and Anti-Anxiety Medication Addiction Warning Signs
Signs of SHA intoxication include agitated mood and behavior, disorientation and slurred speech.
Warning signs of SHA addiction include drug-seeking behaviors that take precedence over relationships and job performance, as well as the appearance of withdrawal symptoms when the drug is discontinued.
SHA withdrawal symptoms include anxiety, nausea, vomiting and tremors. In cases of high-dose withdrawal, seizures and delirium can occur.
Discontinuation of a medication for anxiety can cause a reemergence of the symptoms that led to the prescription in the first place. This symptom reemergence is not a sign of withdrawal and doesn’t suggest anti-anxiety, painkiller and sleep medication addiction.
Painkiller, Sleep and Anti-Anxiety Medication Addiction Treatment
Most cases of anti-anxiety, painkiller and sleep medication addiction are handled in similar ways. Treatment programs involve careful observation and the controlled tapering of the addicting agent. Withdrawal symptoms can be mitigated with a long-acting barbiturate administered in steadily decreasing doses.
How to Seek Help
Help is available if you suspect anti-anxiety, painkiller and sleep medication addiction in yourself or a loved one. The list below offers a few places to begin your search for treatment and support: