I don’t want to say I’m anti-pill popping.
Well, okay, yes I do. (Found me out.)
Here’s the thing. Are drugs good? In general, yes. Put me back in the Middle Ages and I’d have been dead eleven times already.
The worldwide availability of medications of all kinds pushed us from a reasonably dominant species with occasional mass localized extinctions to one that now literally covers the globe. When we marry, we don’t plan on having eight children with three survivors among them. A splinter isn’t likely to take our entire arm from the ensuing infection. We are lucky to have medications. Very lucky.
But somewhere around the middle of the 20th century, we seem to have taken a sharp turn into Pillville. My great-grandfather didn’t go to the hospital until he was dying (literally – he always said people only go to the hospital to die, and in his case at least, he was right). Today, we have medications for impotence, bloating, sleepiness, wakefulness, thin hair, lack of concentration and legs that occasionally move at night.
And as you may have guessed, I have something to say about it. Specifically, about anti-anxiety medications, such as Xanax.
But Isn’t Anxiety Bad? Shouldn’t I Take a Pill?
- Not always.
- Not always.
Maybe I should clarify.
Sometimes, Anxiety is Useful
I’ll never discount the suffering that comes with anxiety of all types. It can be crippling, and I’m not one to generally go overboard on the superlatives. And no, I don’t believe you should “just power through” anxiety or “just live with it,” two of my least favorite phrases in the English language.
But one thing we seem to have overlooked in our quest to never, ever, ever feel discomfort of any kind is that there is a biological purpose to anxiety. Normal, appropriate anxiety, that is.
When Anxiety is Good
Imagine it’s the year 20,000 BCE. The leaves rustle before you and a tiger appears. You smile peacefully; it’s all good. This is one of God’s (or the gods’) creatures, let’s all live in harmony, look at his shiny coat, ooo so pretty.
A second later, you’re breakfast.
Not good. Right? The scenario would more likely have gone like this: you see the tiger. You run like H-E-double-hockey-sticks. You possibly live long enough to procreate and continue the species.
Yes. There is a purpose to anxiety. Anxiety sharpens all our senses (this is biological; even our pupils dilate so we can accommodate more in our vision and view what’s coming at us). Our hearing becomes keener. We become on the alert for danger, whether physical or otherwise. Theoretically, we even become smarter, at least during the acute crisis.
We look out for ourselves more, and we look out for others more. We’re more careful than usual. And we survive better – whether it’s anxiety over a big presentation that makes us work all the harder to make it golden, or that sudden adrenaline rush that forces our foot to the brake when a car swerves in front of us.
But somewhere along the line, we caved to the rather novel belief that ALL anxiety is bad….and that in all cases, we should do whatever we had in our power to quash it.
Or more accurately, enter Librium, Xanx’s ancestor. Around the mid-1950s, a phenomena arose: housewives suddenly began expressing their dissatisfaction with their lot (they’d felt it all along, I’m sure, one just didn’t say so). Many overcompensated by becoming “supermoms” and “superwives,” an interesting effect that continues today.
The conflict between wanting and not wanting the traditional life, as well as the added burdens of being the perfect wife and mother, led to a sharp rise in anxiety among this particular group. A few brave souls went to the doctor to admit their frightening feelings.
The solution? “Mother’s little helper,” a catch-phrase for a whole assortment of drugs. The great-granddaddy was Librium, introduced in the 1960s. Librium’s love child was Valium, popular in the 70s. Today, it’s Xanax. They’re all part of the drug class benzodiazepenes – in a word, sedatives.
“We popped them like candy,” my mother some years ago. “Good people, normal people, the doctors were just prescribing like crazy.” “You took drugs?” I said in a squeaky little half-scream. “Not nearly for as long some of my friends did,” she sighed, “just when you and your brother were both babies and such handful. And honey, I was so tired, yet I could never sleep. I was so, so tired and so scared all the time and I didn’t know why.”
Side tidbit: I was fascinated a few years later to observe a virtual replica of that conversation on the then-hit TV series Thirtysomething between the main character and her own mother. (The actors were actually talking about uppers, but the gist was the same.) Nope, Mom was not weird at all. She was simply doing what the medical profession told her would help. But did it?
And the Results Are In: Yes, We Still Have Anxiety
Times change and drugs grow up. Today, the sedative du jour is Xanax.
But what has really changed? We’re still feeling that anxiety, obviously…and it’s not just housewives, or working women…or working men. It’s old people, young people, students, the military, the very poor, the overindulged, whites, Asians, blacks, doctors, secretaries and sewerline repair people…and the unemployed.
Call me crazy, but 70 years later, I’m getting the feeling that this whole “drug” thing for anxiety isn’t working. And in fact, it might even hurt. Which leads us to…
What Isn’t Cool About Drugs
Xanax and its predecessors were supposed to save a whole generation from themselves and their very real, legitimate feelings about life and its circumstances. And to be fair, there is a place for drugs when anxiety pops up. In the short-term, they can keep us from crushing fear that threatens our jobs, our relationships and our happiness.
But not only do they seem to have not done the job, they have brought with them some pretty serious consequences.
First of all, there are the side effects. The most obvious are the hazy, sometimes dizzy, flattened-affect bleariness so many seem to experience while taking them. (Makes sense, since their purpose is to sedate.) People are taking these medications before driving their children to school – or driving thousands of miles for shipping jobs. They’re on them while they operate that machine right next to you. Some are on them while teaching your kids…or while performing your outpatient surgery.
I repeat: many thousands of people go through their day half-aware, unaffected by real dangers, and slow to respond. Sometimes a few days a month. Sometimes a day or two a week. For some people, every day. After all, another serious side effect of benzos is that they are, over time, addictive.
Here’s another fun fact: Xanax and other benzos are a popular street drug class, contributing to criminal activity.
And by the way, yes, an overdose can kill you.
No, I’m not just trying to be cranky or sound off ominous tomes a la everyone’s health teacher. But just think about all this for a minute. Are you a little scared? I know I am.
Dude, You’re a Downer Yourself. Is There Any Good News?
Sure. And that news is: you have a choice.
If there’s anything we have our hands on today at the click of a button, it’s information. You don’t have to take one specific drug (or any drugs), and you don’t have to take one doctor’s advice. If you’re suffering from anxiety, get as much information as you can on as many legitimate therapies as possible for treating it.
Then make a decision.
In fact, the single thing that I’ve found anxiety survivors to have in common is that they learned as much as possible about their condition, and they tried a variety of therapies – from herbs to meditation to, yes, sometimes drugs (in the short term) – to combat the issue. There’s several natural panic attack treatments you could try before drugs. It really is true that the more you know and understand about anxiety and about your body, the less scary it all becomes.
Anxiety in and of itself doesn’t mean you’re sick. It isn’t something you automatically have to squash as soon as it rears its head. Some degree of anxiety is a part of daily life, and a little bit is good for you. Every mammal on the planet experiences it. It’s the fear of having anxiety that can make it so crippling. Our own terror of feeling things that aren’t pleasant is probably the single thing that has contributed to over-anxiety.
Ironic, isn’t it?
Educate yourself. Talk to your doctor. Better yet, talk to a few doctors. Talk to your friends. Get on the internet and Google like mad (I’ll help you). Take anxiety out of the realm of “mysterious and scary” and put it back where it belongs: in a place where sometimes it’s a life hindrance, and sometimes it’s just necessary.
We need to take the fear of anxiety down a notch. When we’re in that place, we’re better able to address every aspect of our lives, anxiety issues included. It’s a long road – but it’s a start.
And knowing there’s hope is a beautiful thing.