Two prominent psychiatrists say the pandemic has sparked an increase in anxiety attacks but warn that turning to medication may do more harm than good in the long term.
Jack Turban, a resident physician in psychiatry at The Massachusetts General Hospital and Jessica Gold, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis, say that using benzodiazepines, the most common anti-anxiety class of drugs, may be a temporary fix as we cope with coronavirus stress, but prolonged use could pose a deadly risk to patients.
The experts wrote in an article for Cognoscenti that during the pandemic, doctors may be letting their own good judgment lapse because of their fears.
“The pressure to prescribe benzodiazepines can be intense,” they said. “Patients are asking for them and it’s a quick fix. Psychotherapy and SSRI drugs have stronger evidence, but they take more work to administer and take longer to work.”
The American Psychiatric Association said that 40% of Americans are concerned about their health and even their lives because of the pandemic, according to Cognoscenti. The stress of bring quarantined adds to their anxiety, said the authors, and “we are left with a perfectly anxious storm.”
According to the Miami Herald, prescriptions for anti-anxiety medications spiked 34% from Feb. 16 to March 15. These numbers were based on a report from Express Scripts, a pharmacy benefit manager owned by Cigna.
“We’re seeing increasing levels of anxiety in the U.S. over a relatively short period of time,” Vaile Wright, director of clinical research at the American Psychological Association said, according to the Herald.
The timing is unfortunate, said Turban and Gold, who reported that prescriptions of “benzos” had actually decreased by 12% prior to COVID-19. They pointed out that drugs like Xanax, Klonopin, Ativan, and Valium which are the most popular benzodiazepines cease to be effective over time as people build up resistance. Ironically, they can also cause an increase in anxiety levels leading to cognitive decline with long-term use.
“Chronic users build up dependence,” the doctors told Cognoscenti. “Benzodiazepine withdrawal is one of the scariest things we see as psychiatrists. If not carefully monitored it can result in seizures and death.”
The experts recommended that people take only the amount of medication prescribed and never mix it with alcohol or other drugs.
“Remember that they aren’t meant to be long-term medications. If you’ve been on them for a prolonged period of time, raise the issue with your doctor,” they advised.
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