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Therapy goal for anxiety with addiction is to manage symptoms with non-drug options

May 21, 2014
by Julie Miller
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Individuals who experience anxiety might turn to addictive behaviors to manage or avoid their anxiety symptoms, particularly by using prescribed benzodiazepine drugs. Addiction can occur in as little time as a few weeks, according to Christopher Hastings, MA, LSPE, director of outpatient services for the Foundations Recovery Network, speaking during an Addiction Professional webinar today.

Addiction is especially concerning when a patient with anxiety symptoms seeks medication therapy alone.

“A problem we have with most of our culture is that people are bypassing the psychologist and going to the primary care physician and relying heavily on medications, while not developing any other type of coping strategies that could be obtained through therapy,” Hastings said.

The dangerous cycle of medication use, followed by relief, then the experience of subsequent symptoms might lead an individual to increase medication use. For example, Hastings said, someone with social anxiety might take additional doses of a benzodiazepine before a meeting at work, hoping to prevent his anxiety symptoms. By relying on medication, the individual doesn’t develop other skills to relax and calm the body’s nervous system.

“Even a minor experience of anxiety will become overblown,” he said.

And the overuse of the medication can quickly lead to tolerance and addiction. However, some individuals who use prescription anti-anxiety medications without a clinical need for the treatment might eventually experience anxiety symptoms during withdrawal from the medication.  Alcohol use and other drugs will exacerbate the addiction issue.

Treatment Recommendations

Rather than prescribing benzodiazepines, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or beta blockers, for example, Hastings recommends drug-free alternatives such as progressive muscle relaxation; mindfulness; guided imagery; hypnosis and cognitive behavioral therapy. Integrating the treatments will help patients deal with fear and stress that comes from all directions in today’s fast-paced world. Managing the anxiety effectively will help stop the addiction.

“Medications are often used in the onset of treatment to help the person overcome the negative symptoms of anxiety,” Hastings said.  “It is very important to incorporate other forms of therapy and treatment so the individual learns to control their symptoms without the need for medication.  Effective therapy is when the goal is to have the individual overcome their symptoms of anxiety without the use of medication.”

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