Freaky Phobias, part deux
Hello, people- I hope everyone had a great weekend! Last week, I introduced the subject of phobias, and we’ll continue that discussion today. Fear is an important evolutionary tool, allowing humans to survive dangerous encounters and develop appropriate responses to hazardous situations. But when fear becomes debilitating, when it becomes a greater threat than the actual person, place, or thing causing it, it has become a phobia. Phobias are a type of anxiety disorder where a person has a persistent, excessive, unrealistic fear of an object, person, animal, activity, or situation. That leaves the field pretty much wide open, and in fact, a person can have a phobia of almost anything. They’ll try very hard to avoid that thing, otherwise they’re basically forced to white knuckle through it with much anxiety and distress, potentially to the point that it produces physical symptoms like nausea and dizziness, and possibly even a panic attack.
Everyone has something they fear to some extent, and for most people, it doesn’t affect one’s quality of life. But for patients with diagnosable phobias, the level of fear and discomfort when confronted with specific objects or situations can be exceptional, and can significantly impact their daily life. Some phobias are very specific, so this limits the impact the phobia has. As an example, a person may only fear spiders and cats- meaning they have arachnophobia and ailurophobia- and so they live relatively free of anxiety simply by avoiding spiders and cats. But some phobias pose an issue in a wider variety of places and situations, so they affect people’s lives more drastically. For example, symptoms of acrophobia- the fear of heights- can be triggered by looking out the window of a high rise office building, by climbing a ladder, or by driving over a tall bridge, just to name a few. Because it comes into play in so many places and forms, acrophobia has a much greater impact on the person’s life, and it may influence or even dictate the person’s employment type, job location, driving route, recreational and social activities, and/ or home environment.
Cause and Risk Factors
There is always an argument about whether a particular psychological trait or symptom is genetic in origin or a product of one’s environment… the old “nature vs. nurture” debate. Most of the time, the proper answer is “both,” and in fact, that’s the case with phobias. The reasons why phobias develop aren’t fully understood, but research does indicate that both genetic and environmental factors play a role.
Specific phobias tend to begin in childhood, a time when developing brains are still learning appropriate ways to respond to the world around them, and phobias can start in any number of ways. A child may develop a phobia of dogs after being bitten by one, but there are many more subtle ways that a child’s brain can take in information that teaches them to fear something. For example, they could learn to fear a dog by watching a movie that features a scary dog, or by watching a family member respond in fear to a dog’s bark or presence. Ultimately, fear is easily passed from one person to the next, either through watching and learning, or through genetic inheritance.
Certain phobias have been clearly linked to a very bad first encounter with the feared object or situation, though researchers don’t know if this first encounter is required, or if phobias can simply occur in people who are more likely to have them. As to what makes a person more likely to have them, there is no phobia gene- it’s never that easy- but we know that when it comes to risk factors, there is a genetic component. Research and surveys indicate that individuals with a parent or a close relative suffering from a specific phobia are three times more likely to develop that same phobia. That said, more research is needed to elucidate the genes responsible for triggering these phobias.
In addition to a complex interplay of genetic and environmental factors, a person’s temperament can also contribute to risk of developing phobias. A negative affect, meaning a propensity to feel negative emotions such as disgust, anger, fear, or guilt, seems to increase the risk for a variety of anxiety disorders, including specific phobias. Behavioral inhibition, often due to parental overprotectiveness, especially in childhood, is another risk factor for phobia development. A history of physical and/ or sexual abuse also increases the likelihood of an individual developing a specific phobia.
Phobias can be debilitating, but fortunately, there are ways to treat them. One treatment method that’s used very successfully is exposure therapy. We’ve discussed this before in relation to OCD; it’s a type of cognitive behavioral therapy, aka CBT, whereby you are repeatedly presented with your phobic trigger in a controlled manner, and you challenge yourself to get through it. It’s done in the presence of a therapist, and they essentially talk you through it, discussing what you feel, why you feel it, what is happening, and what you fear may happen. Afterwards, there’s usually discussion about feared outcome versus actual outcome, and what thoughts helped you get through the exposure. It’s often done in stages, as opposed to jumping straight in the deep end. For example, let’s say you have an insect phobia; you might start by just thinking about an insect, then move to looking at a picture of one, and then maybe being close to one in a terrarium, and eventually, even holding a living one.
Anxiety reduction techniques may also be helpful in combating phobias, things like yoga, breathing exercises, meditation, and mindfulness. The ultimate goal is to be mindful of the trigger, as opposed to afraid of the trigger. Unfortunately, the majority of patients don’t seek treatment for phobias, and of those who do, many don’t follow through. As a result, only 20% percent of people recover completely from them; the majority of people experience a recurrence of their phobia, which is referred to as a relapse. Captain Obvious says if you have a phobia, your best bet is to get the help of a medical professional for treatment.
It might (but really shouldn’t) surprise you to hear that celebrities have phobias too. Just for funsies, here are a few I found while surfing the interwebs.
Tyra Banks has been very open about her long standing fear of dolphins. She doesn’t swim in the ocean, because she imagines them swimming near her and touching her legs.
Christina Ricci has a fear of indoor plants, botanophobia, and says that touching a dirty houseplant feels like torture.
Khloe Kardashian has a phobia of belly buttons. Her half sister Kendall Jenner revealed that she struggles with trypophobia, an aversion to the sight of holes. She says that pancakes, honeycomb, and lotus heads are too much for her to take.
Nicole Kidman has been deathly afraid of butterflies since childhood, and would do anything to avoid having to go through the front gate of her home if even one butterfly was sitting on it.
Jennifer Aniston has a serious fear of being underwater, due to a traumatic experience she had as a child.
Billy Bob Thornton has a fear of antiques; according to him “…old, mildewy French/English/Scottish stuff, dusty heavy drapes and big tables with carved lions’ heads…” creeps him out.
Oprah Winfrey has an intense dislike for chewing gum that goes back to her childhood days. Growing up poor, her grandmother used to try to save gum to chew more than once, so she put it on the bedpost, or stuck it on the cabinet for later. Apparently little Oprah used to bump into it, and it would rub up against her, and gross her out. Evidently, she even barred gum-chewing in her offices.
Kyra Sedgwick is apparently terrified of talking food. Her husband, Kevin Bacon, actually had to turn down an apparently lucrative offer to be featured in ads for M&M’s for fear that she would leave him.
Katie Holmes has a longtime fear of raccoons, and once barked at one in an effort to scare it away. It worked… it left, but her phobia stayed.
Jake Gyllenhaal developed a phobia of ostriches while filming “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” after the animal trainers warned him not to make any noise around them, because “they’ll tear out your eyes and rip out your heart.”
Helen Mirren has a fear of phones, and evidently never returns calls because the phone makes her so nervous.
One of Channing Tatum’s biggest fears is porcelain dolls. Yep, Magic Mike is afraid of dolls.
Tyrese Gibson has no problem performing stunts in action movies, but he won’t get near an owl for any amount of money.
Singer Adele has a serious fear of seagulls after a scary incident in her childhood, when one flew in and swiped an ice cream she was eating. Its claw scratched her shoulder, leaving physical- and emotional- scars.
Megan Fox can’t stand the feeling of dry paper, so when she reads through scripts, she constantly licks her finger to keep it wet.
Alfred Hitchcock lived with ovophobia, the fear of eggs. People who worked with him claimed cracking an egg made him gag, and he once told a reporter “…Have you ever seen anything more revolting than an egg yolk breaking and spilling its yellow liquid?”
Actor, producer, and musician Johnny Depp has a phobia hat trick- three phobias- clowns, spiders, and ghosts.
Sean “P. Diddy” Combs has a phobia of people with a long second toe, to the point that it influences his dating life. He must see the toe on the first date… it’s mandatory. He may not go for a kiss, but he’s definitely going to check out that second toe, to see if it’s too long.
Ellen Page has a phobia of tennis balls, and can’t even watch a tennis match on television.
Kristen Bell is afraid of pruney fingers, specifically the feeling of pruney fingers on normal skin, and even wears gloves when she goes in the water to avoid touching herself with her own pruney fingers.
Some fun phobia facts…
In the United States, approximately 19 million people suffer from various phobias, with varying levels of severity.
The prevalence of phobias is approximately 5% in children, 16% in teenagers, and 3% to 5% in adults.
Women are nearly twice as likely to be affected by a phobia as men are, but men are more likely to seek treatment for phobias.
Symptoms of phobias tend to begin in early to mid childhood, with the average age of onset being about 7 years old.
While specific phobias usually begin in childhood, their incidence peaks during midlife and old age.
Phobias can persist for several years, decades, or be present throughout one’s life in 10% to 30% of cases.
The presence of a phobia is strongly predictive for the onset of other anxiety, mood, and substance use disorders.
Specific phobias can and do affect people of all ages, backgrounds, and/ or socioeconomic classes.
A part of the brain called the amygdala is responsible for triggering specific phobias.
There are approximately 400 specific phobias, and new ones are added to the list as necessary. Some are rare, unusual, or downright weird. Here are a few of those.
Ablutophobia, fear of bathing
This phobia can sometimes be the result of a traumatic, water-related incident, especially if it involves bathing during juvenile years, though many sufferers will grow out of this phobia as they get older. This phobia can cause a great deal of social anxiety and friction as it can often result in unpleasant body odor.
Anatidaephobia, fear of being watched by a duck
This is funny, but it’s for real. People with this phobia fear that no matter where they are, or what they’re doing, a duck is watching them. Not a hen, not a rabbit, specifically a duck, like Daffy.
Arachibutyrophobia, fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth.
While this may sound like a minor issue, this phobia likely stems from a fear of choking or inability to open one’s mouth. While some sufferers may be able to eat small amounts of peanut butter, especially if it’s not very sticky, many will not eat peanut butter at all for fear of it sticking to the roof of their mouth.
Arithmophobia, fear of math
While plenty of people hated math class, arithmophobia takes this anxiety to the next level. This phobia isn’t so much a fear of numbers or symbols, as it is a fear of being forced into a situation where one has to do math, especially if that person’s math skills are subpar.
Chirophobia, fear of hands
This phobia can be a fear of one’s own hands or another’s. This is often the result of a traumatic event like a severe hand injury, or a persistent condition like arthritis.
Chloephobia, fear of newspapers
This phobia is often connected to the touch, sound, and smell of newspaper. Sufferers may become anxious at the sound of a rustling newspaper, or from the smell of newspaper ink and paper.
Eisoptrophobia, fear of mirrors
Sometimes referred to as spectrophobia or catoptrophobia, sufferers are often unable to look at themselves in a mirror. In more severe cases, this anxiety can even extend to reflective surfaces like glass or standing water. One genesis of this phobia revolves around the superstitions tied to mirrors, the fear of seeing something supernatural or breaking a mirror and being cursed with bad luck. In other cases, this phobia can stem from low self-esteem and an aversion to seeing oneself.
Geniophobia, fear of chins
This one sounds a little unreal, because how can anyone fear a chin, but people with this phobia have an aversion to chins, and cannot interact or look at people whose chins bother them. It’s unclear if this is all chins or Jay Leno chins…
Genuphobia, fear of knees or kneeling
People who have this phobia have a fear of knees, their own and/ or someone else’s. This gives me flashbacks to confirmation classes, with all the kneeling, aka genuflecting.
Globophobia, fear of balloons
This phobia often originates from a traumatic event, often when a popping balloon causes a scare at a young age. Sufferers of this phobia can have varying levels of anxiety, with some casually avoiding balloons, while other, more severe cases are prohibited from being anywhere near a balloon. Globophobia is also often linked to the fear of clowns, coulrophobia.
Hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia- I kid you not- is the phobia of long words. Of course a 15 syllable word represents this fear…can people with it even say what they’re afraid of? Hmmm…
Omphalophobia, fear of belly buttons
Just like Khloe Kardashian! Sufferers will often avoid areas like the beach, where exposed belly buttons are common. This phobia can be the result of a previous infection in the umbilicus, but can also just be random. In severe cases, sufferers may cover up their own belly button with tape or a bandaid. Interestingly, this phobia may be related to trypophobia, the fear of holes that Kendall Jenner, Khloe Kardashian’s half sister has… hello, genetics!
Optophobia, fear of opening your eyes
This phobia is generally the result of a traumatic event, especially during childhood. This phobia can be extremely debilitating, as sufferers will often avoid leaving their homes, and naturally seek out dark or dimly lit areas.
Nomophobia, fear of not having your cell phone
This is an anxiety that so many people feel to varying extents, but it becomes a phobia when the anxiety turns into a consistent fear or panic at the mere thought of being without a mobile phone. This phobia also extends to having a phone with a dead battery or being out of service, thereby making the phone unusable. Someone with nomophobia will feel intense anxiety if they have no phone signal, have run out of data or battery power, or even if their phone is out of sight. Nomophpia is often connected with an addiction to phones and the need to be constantly connected. A recent study showed that many people under the age of 30 check their phone at least once every 10 minutes- 96 times a day- so this is far more common than you can imagine.
Plutophobia, fear of wealth
This phobia deals less with the fear of physical monetary currency and more with the anxiety around wealth or being wealthy. Sufferers dread the responsibility and weight that accompanies wealth, and fear that they will be targeted for their wealth, and subsequently put into danger. They may even sabotage their career or money-making opportunities in an attempt to avoid feeling it.
Pogonophobia, fear of facial hair
This fear is often the result of a traumatic experience with someone who has significant facial hair or a beard. Beards also partially hide someone’s face, creating an additional layer of anxiety for those that struggle in social situations, or reading social cues. In more severe cases, a sufferer of pogonophobia may not even be able to look at a picture of someone with a beard.
Sanguivoriphobia, fear of vampires
Sufferers have a fear of vampires and blood eaters. In fact, the word literally translates to ‘fear of blood eaters’. At least people with this won’t have to sit through the torture of the Twilight movie series.
Somniphobia, fear of falling asleep
While some people just can’t do without their regular eight hours a night, sufferers of this phobia may associate going to bed with dying, or fear losing time while asleep.
Turophobia, fear of cheese
A fear of cheese can often be traced back to an incident with cheese, especially in early childhood. Being forced to eat cheese, especially when lactose intolerant, can create an aversion to, and anxiety towards, cheese. More severe cases can even result in fear just from the sight or smell of cheese.
Xanthophobia, fear of the color yellow
This is a difficult phobia to deal with, as some things in nature and many man made things are yellow. Sufferers may fear something seemingly benign like a flower, school bus, or wheel of cheese. This phobia could be an artifact, originating from survival-based evolution, as animals that are brightly colored, like frogs or snakes, are sometimes poisonous or venomous.
That’s a good place to end for this week, before everyone develops bibliophobia, the fear of reading! I hope you enjoyed this blog and found it to be interesting and educational. Please feel free to share it with family and friends. Be sure to check out my YouTube channel with all of my videos, and I’d appreciate it if you would like, subscribe, leave comments, and share those vids! As always, my book Tales from the Couch has more educational topics and patient stories, and is available in officeand on Amazon.
Thank you and be well people!
Hello, people… welcome back to the blog! Last week, we finished a two part series on N-acetyl cysteine, the latest and greatest amino acid supplement that’s showing major promise in helping to treat some heavy hitting psych disorders, especially bipolar depression. This week, I want to talk about a very intriguing topic… phobias.
What is a phobia? A phobia is an irrational fear of something that’s unlikely to cause you any harm. I want to highlight the most important point here: irrational fear. Irrational, without rationale. What does that mean exactly? It generally means not thinking, but sometimes it means thinking, but without logic. So a phobia is when you’re afraid of something, often without even thinking about it, sometimes despite thinking about it- which just causes more anxiety btw- and the thing that you’re afraid of is usually nothing to be afraid of in the first place. But despite that fact, the fear can be intense. The word phobia comes from the Greek word phobos, which means fear or horror. Generally, the name of the phobia is a telling label, one basically made up as the need arises, typically by combining a Greek (or sometimes Latin) prefix that describes the phobia, along with the -phobia suffix. For example, the fear of water is named by combining hydro (water) and phobia (fear), so you end up with hydrophobia.
When someone has a phobia, they experience very intense fear of a certain object, thought, or situation. This fear is more extreme than fear in the normal everyday sense, and it develops when a person has an exaggerated or irrational perception of danger about a particular thing. But where’s the line? Being a little wary of spiders isn’t the same as being arachnophobic, right? And btw phobias aren’t always entirely irrational… some spiders ARE dangerous- they can kill you- so they should be avoided. But a phobia will assume that ALL spiders- even a teeny tiny harmless house spider- is a real threat. That’s how phobias are a little different than regular fears, because they cause significant distress, potentially enough to interfere with life at home, work, and/ or school. You’re afraid of serial killers, I’m afraid of serial killers, I imagine everyone is afraid of serial killers. Actually, are serial killers afraid of serial killers? Hmmm… don’t know. Anyway, is this a phobia? Not for most folks, but it sure is for some. What’s the difference? It has to do with interference. Why and how does that phobia, that thing, interfere with your life? Because people with phobias actively avoid the phobic object or situation- that’s another difference- they’ll do nearly anything to avoid it- or else they’ll just white knuckle through it with super intense fear and anxiety. Are you so afraid of serial killers that you avoid going to a nearly deserted truck stop diner at midnight, or so afraid of them that you refuse to leave your house… ever? If you’re the latter, you might have foniasophobia, fear of dying at the hands of a serial killer.
Ultimately, phobias are a type of anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are very, very common- I see them all day long- and they’re estimated to affect more than 30 percent of U.S. adults at some point in their lives. Specific phobias affect fewer people, with an estimated 12.5 percent of American adults experiencing one at some time in their lives. You can have a phobia without having a true anxiety disorder, and you can have an anxiety disorder without having a phobia, though I can’t think off the top of my head of a patient with a generalized anxiety disorder that hasn’t told me about a specific phobia, though I’m sure there are some.
In the shrink bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, aka the DSM-5, it outlines several of the most common phobias, and they typically fall within five general categories:
-Fears related to animals, like spiders, dogs, and insects
-Fears related to the natural environment, like heights, the dark, and thunder
-Fears related to blood, injury, or medical issues, like injections, blood draws, and medical catastrophes, like falls and broken bones
-Fears related to specific situations, like flying, riding in an elevator, being on an escalator, and driving over bridges
-Fears of other more random things like loud noises or choking
The thing is, these categories encompass an infinite number of specific objects and situations. A person can conceivably be afraid of anything they can physically do, think about, or feel. And let me tell you, I’ve heard some doozies. Some people are genuinely afraid of some weird stuff! Not even making fun… most of the time, they’ll even tell you it’s weird too. One of my patients that I’ve treated forever has a wind phobia, anemophobia, or sometimes called ancraophobia. Whatever it’s called, she hates wind… anything more than a light breeze is like nails on a chalkboard for her. What’s really wild is that this very specific, and fairly rare phobia appears to be genetic for her- it runs in her family- and she never even knew that until they all “hurricaned” together several years ago. She, her father, who evidently never really admitted it, and her aunt on her father’s side… all three of them were climbing the walls together during the hurricane. And apparently she always hated wind. As a kid, she would get up in the middle of the night… even if, maybe even especially, when it was storming… and hello, windy… and climb up on a barstool to take down her mom’s windchimes! Every one of them, and evidently she had a lot. Why? Because they drove her looney, listening to the wind blow them around… ding!! Ching ching bing!!! Ding ding da ding!!! She told me that they all made different noises, varying tones, high and low, and she said that every one of them just reminded her how bloody windy it was. For her mom, that sound was relaxing, but for her… not so much! Now, was she actually worried that the wind would blow her away, like Dorothy, off to Oz? Nope. She always knew that wouldn’t happen. She knew she was perfectly safe in her concrete block constructed house, but nonetheless, the wind made her beyond anxious. That, my friends, is a phobia. Totally irrational. And she’d tell you so herself.
Phobias come in all shapes and sizes, and because there really are an infinite number of objects and situations, the list of specific phobias is very, very long. Did you know that there’s even such a thing as a fear of fears? Phobophobia. How about that? And it’s actually more common than you might imagine. That’s one of the problems with fear, it often begets itself. If you have a panic attack because you go sailing in a 28 foot sloop in 12 foot seas, you may end up with not just a phobia about sailing, but a phobia of water and waves. And because the impact of the fear was so intense that it produced physical symptoms of a panic attack, you can even wind up with a phobia of having a panic attack. Yep, and you can be so afraid of having a panic attack that you can cause yourself to have one. Kid you not.
While there are potentially hundreds, maybe even thousands of different types of phobias, there are some that affect the population at much higher rates than others. Here are a few of the most commonly diagnosed phobias, along with some interesting points on each.
The fear of spiders, or arachnids, is possibly the most well-known of all phobias, and it’s estimated that arachnophobia affects roughly 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men.
Ophidiophobia is the fear of snakes. Interestingly, both ophidiophobia and arachnophobia are thought to be rooted in human evolution, meaning we evolved to fear these critters. It was a matter of survival, so humand learned it generation over generation, to the point it stuck in our DNA. Pretty amazing, no?
This is the fear of heights, which affects over 20 million people. Acrophobia can affect a person in a variety of situations, including air travel, crossing bridges, and even travelling up an escalator. It can be extremely limiting, because this fear in particular is frequently associated with anxiety attacks as well as avoidance of the phobia trigger, and this often prevents people with acrophobia from participating in activities that most of us take for granted.
This is the fear of dogs, and unfortunately, often stems from a personal traumatic experience in the patient’s past, maybe a bite or an attack. I’m a dog lover, and have never had a negative experience with a dog, so while I can’t understand it from an experiential standpoint, I have great empathy for people that are so afraid of dogs for whatever reason that they miss out on the love and companionship they can provide. Cynophobia is an interesting one to me, because it is one of the most commonly treated phobias. In fact, 36 percent of all patients who seek phobia treatment actually do so for cynophobia, which gives you an idea of how much it impacts their lives.
Social phobia involves fear centered around social situations and interactions. Among the most common symptoms of social phobia is fear of public speaking, but it can center on any number of situations, like starting conversations, speaking on the phone, meeting new people, speaking to authority figures, and even eating and drinking in front of others. Social phobia typically first appears during puberty, and it can be lifelong if not properly treated.
Agoraphobia is the fear of entering open or crowded places, of leaving one’s home, or of being in places or situations that trigger a feeling of helplessness, or where a quick escape would be difficult, such as being on public transportation, like an airplane. Agoraphobia is its own unique diagnosis, and is often associated with panic disorder and panic attacks; roughly one-third of patients with an existing panic disorder will also go on to develop agoraphobia as a comorbidity. Statistically, it’s more prevalent in women than men, with two-thirds of patients being female.
Speaking of being on airplanes, aerophobia is the fear of flying, and it affects an estimated 8 million people. Given today’s world of travel and transportation, this one can be particularly difficult to avoid, but it can be addressed with various techniques, like exposure therapy. More on that next week.
That’s a good place to stop. Next week, more on freaky phobias; among other things, we’ll talk about how to rid yourself of them. Because while you might assume that once a person gets to the other side of their phobia and knows they lived through it, that it would go away all by itself… you’d be wrong most of the time. Wah wah waaaah. We’re going to talk about just why the hell that is.
I hope you enjoyed this blog and found it to be interesting and educational. Please feel free to share it with family and friends. Be sure to check out my YouTube channel with all of my videos, and I’d appreciate it if you would like, subscribe, leave comments, and share those vids! As always, my book Tales from the Couch has more educational topics and patient stories, and is available in office and on Amazon.
Thank you and be well people!
Welcome back, people! Last week we continued our foray into all things Xanax and talked about dependence and use disorder. The next step in the chain- withdrawal- can be a special kind of beastie, definitely deserving of its own blog, so this week will be all about Xanax withdrawal.
As I mentioned last week, some folks can take their bit of Xanax a couple of times a day as directed for umpteen years, and never develop a tolerance or pathological dependence. Others start out taking it as directed, but develop a tolerance and maybe start to abuse it- take too much too often- and then begin to develop a more pathological dependency. Others may abuse it recreationally on occasion, to netflix and chill, find they really like it, then develop a severe addiction. It may not sound like these people have much in common, but they do. When they stop taking it, they’re all going to go through withdrawal.
They won’t do so alone, though. In 2017, doctors wrote nearly 45 million prescriptions for Xanax, so it’s no surprise that these prescribing practices have contributed to thousands of cases of abuse and dependence. With those numbers, there has been all sorts of research and stats examined on benzos, and I read that in 2018, an estimated 5.4 million people over the age of 12 misused prescription benzodiazepines like Xanax. That’s a lot of people, people.
To many patients that take their Xanax exactly as prescribed, it seems to come as a surprise that they’re facing a withdrawal experience, but Xanax doesn’t discriminate- so anyone taking enough of it for more than a few weeks will develop a physical dependence. Once you have become physiologically dependent on a drug, you will experience withdrawal symptoms when you stop or reduce your dose. Simple as that.
Withdrawal is different for everyone. Depending on the dose and how often you’ve been using it, the withdrawal experience typically ranges from uncomfortable to very unpleasant, but it can also be medically dangerous. The only safe way to quit is to slowly taper down the dose under the direction of a physician, or in an in-patient treatment center setting, depending on the situation. If you’ve been taking high doses of Xanax several times a day, then quitting is going to take a great deal of time, patience, and determination. Please note that quitting cold turkey can cause extremely dangerous withdrawal symptoms. This can include delirium, which is a state characterized by abrupt, temporary cognitive changes that affect behavior; so you can be irrational, agitated, and disoriented- not a good combo. Sudden withdrawal can also cause potentially lethal grand mal (aka tonic-clonic) seizures. These are like electrical storms in the brain, where you lose consciousness and have violent muscular contractions throughout the body. It’s not a risk you want to take, people- so don’t do this on your own! Even if you’ve been taking Xanax illicitly, that doesn’t mean you have to go it alone. Just fess up to a physician and tell them exactly how much you’ve been taking so they can design a taper schedule for you, or help you find a treatment center. There is a lot of help available if you make the effort.
Tapering your dose is the best course of action for managing withdrawal symptoms, but that doesn’t mean it’s a picnic in the shade. While you taper down the dose, you’ll likely experience varying degrees of physical and mental discomfort. You may feel surges of anxiety, agitation, and restlessness, along with some unusual physical sensations, like feeling as though your skin is tingling or you’re crawling out of your skin. But keep in mind that these are all temporary.
Signs and Symptoms
The major signs and symptoms of Xanax withdrawal vary from person to person. Research indicates that roughly 40% of people taking benzodiazepines for more than six months will experience moderate to severe withdrawal symptoms, while the remaining 60% can expect milder symptoms. It’s very common to feel nervous, jumpy, and on edge during your taper. And because Xanax induces a sedative effect, when the dose is reduced, most people will experience a brief increase in their anxiety levels. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, you may experience a level of anxiety that’s actually worse than your pre-treatment level. Support from mental health professionals can be very beneficial during and after withdrawal, as therapy and counseling may help you control and manage the emotional symptoms of benzo withdrawal.
Physical Withdrawal Symptoms
As a central nervous system depressant, Xanax serves to slow down heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature in the body- in addition to minimizing anxiety, stress, and panic. Xanax may also help to reduce the risk of epileptic seizures. Once the brain becomes used to this drug slowing all of these functions down on a regular basis, when it is suddenly removed, these CNS functions generally rebound quickly, and that is the basis for most withdrawal symptoms. Symptoms can start within hours of the last dose, and they can peak in severity within 1 to 4 days. The physical signs of Xanax withdrawal can include: headache, blurred vision, muscle aches, tension in the jaw and/ or teeth pain, tremors, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, numbness of fingers, tingling in arms and legs, sensitivity to light and sound, alteration in sense of smell, loss of appetite, insomnia, cramps, heart palpitations, hypertension, sweating, fever, delirium, and seizures.
Psychological Withdrawal Symptoms
Xanax, as a benzodiazepine, acts on the reward and motivation regions of the brain, and when a dependency is formed, these parts of the brain will be affected as well. When an individual dependent on Xanax then tries to quit taking the drug, the brain needs some time to return to normal levels of functioning. Captain Obvious says that whenever you stop a benzo, because it acts as an anxiolytic, you’re going to experience a sudden increase in anxiety levels. While there are degrees of everything, the psychological symptoms of Xanax withdrawal can be significant, as the lack of Xanax during withdrawal causes the opposite of a Xanax calm, which is to say something akin to panic. At the very least, that can make you overly sensitive, and less able to deal with any adverse or undesired feelings. Withdrawal can leave people feeling generally out of sorts, irritable, and jumpy, while some individuals have also reported feeling deeply depressed. Unpredictable shifts in mood have been reported as well, such as quickly going from elation to being depressed. Feelings of paranoia can also be associated with Xanax withdrawal.
Nightmares are often reported as a side effect of withdrawal. I included insomnia in physical symptoms, but trouble sleeping can also be a psychological symptom, as it is both mentally and physically taxing. People can be overtaken by anxiety and stress during withdrawal, and that may cause this trouble sleeping at night, which then contributes to feelings of anxiety and agitation, so it’s a cycle that can be tough to break free of. Difficulty concentrating is also reported, and research has found that people can have cognitive problems for weeks after stopping Xanax. Ditto for memory problems. Research shows that long-term Xanax abuse can lead to dementia and memory problems in the short-term, although this is typically restored within a few months of the initial withdrawal. Hallucinations, while rare, are sometimes reported when people suddenly stop using Xanax as well. Suicidal ideation is sometimes reported, as the anxiety, stress, and excessive nervousness that can occur during withdrawal can lead to, or coexist with suicidal thoughts. Finally, though rare, psychosis may occur when a person stops using Xanax cold turkey, rather than being weaned off of it.
Xanax Withdrawal Timeline
Xanax is used so commonly for anxiety and panic disorders because it works quickly, but that also means it stops working quickly and leaves the body quickly. Xanax is considered a short-acting benzodiazepine, with an average half-life of 11 hours. As soon as the drug stops being active in the plasma, usually 6 to 12 hours after the last dose, withdrawal symptoms can start. Withdrawal is generally at its worst on the second day, and improves by the fourth or fifth day, but some symptoms can last significantly longer. If you go cold turkey and don’t taper your dose, your withdrawal symptoms will grow increasingly intense, and there really is no way to predict how bad they may get, or how you’ll be affected.
Unfortunately, five days doesn’t signal the end of withdrawal for some people, as some may experience protracted withdrawal. Estimates suggest that about 10% to 25% of long-term benzodiazepine users experience protracted withdrawal, which is essentially a prolonged withdrawal experience marked by drug cravings and waves of psychological symptoms that come and go. Protracted withdrawal can last for several weeks, months, or even years if not addressed by a mental health professional. In fact, these lasting symptoms may lead to relapse if not addressed with continued treatment, such as regular therapy.
Factors Affecting Withdrawal
Withdrawal is different for each individual, and the withdrawal timeline may be affected by several different factors. The more dependent the body and brain are to Xanax, the longer and more intense withdrawal is likely to be. Regular dose, way of ingestion, combination with other drugs or alcohol, age at first use, genetics, and length of time using or abusing Xanax can all contribute to how quickly a dependence is formed and how strong it may be. High stress levels, family or prior history of addiction, mental health issues, underlying medical complications, and environmental factors can also make a difference in how long withdrawal may last for a particular individual and how many side effects are present.
Coping with Xanax Withdrawal
The best way to avoid a difficult and potentially dangerous withdrawal is to slowly taper down your dose of Xanax, meaning to take progressively smaller doses over the course of up to several weeks. By keeping a small amount of a benzo in the bloodstream, drug cravings and withdrawal may be controlled for a period of time until the drug is weaned out of the system completely. It may sound like designing a taper would be a no-brainer, but it’s definitely not recommended to taper without a physician’s guidance. Why? Because Xanax is a short-acting drug, your body metabolizes it very quickly. Controlling that is challenging because the amount of drug in your system goes up and down with its metabolism. To help you avoid these peaks and valleys, doctors often switch you from Xanax to a longer acting benzo during withdrawal, as it may make the process easier. And believe me, that’s what you want. If the physician goes this switch route, once you’ve stabilized on that med, you’ll slowly taper down from that a little bit at a time, just as you would with Xanax.
Another reason not to play doctor on this one is if you start to have breakthrough withdrawal symptoms when your dose is reduced, your physician can pause or stretch out your taper. It’s up to him or her, through discussion with you, to design the best tapering schedule for your individual needs. Sometimes it’s a fluid and changing beastie.
In addition, adjunct medications like antidepressants, beta-blockers, or other pharmaceuticals/ nutraceuticals may be effective in treating specific symptoms of Xanax withdrawal, and you’ll need a physician to recommend and/ or prescribe those as well.
Alleviating Symptoms of Withdrawal
An individual may notice a change in appetite and weight loss during Xanax withdrawal, so it’s important to make every attempt to eat healthy and balanced meals during this time. It may sound obvious, but a multivitamin including vitamin B6, thiamine, and folic acid is especially helpful, as these are often depleted in addiction and withdrawal. There are some herbal remedies that may be helpful during withdrawal, such as valerian root and chamomile for sleep. Meditation and mindfulness are very useful for managing blood pressure and anxiety during withdrawal, so be sure to check out my March 15 blog for more on mindfulness. Considering the insomnia and fatigue that may occur during withdrawal, it may seem counterintuitive to commit to exercise, but it has been shown to have positive effects on mitigating withdrawal symptoms and decreasing cravings. Exercise stimulates the same pleasure and reward systems in the brain, so it stands to reason that it can also help to lift feelings of depression or anxiety that may accompany physical withdrawal symptoms.
Xanax Withdrawal Safety
Some of the things I’ve mentioned are so important they bear repeating. Xanax should not be stopped suddenly, or cold turkey, and vital signs like blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, and temperature need to be closely monitored during withdrawal. This is because these may all go up rapidly during this time, and this can contribute to seizures that can lead to coma and even death.
People with a history of complicated withdrawal syndromes and people with underlying health issues should work very closely with their physician during withdrawal, as should the elderly and people with cognitive issues, as there can be unique risks involved. If you have acquired your Xanax illicitly, you can still work with a doctor to taper down your dose. Start by visiting a primary care physician or urgent care center and tell them that you are in, or are planning to be in, benzodiazepine withdrawal. If you don’t have insurance, visit a community health center. If you plan to or have become pregnant, you will need to discuss your options with your prescribing physician and OB/GYN about the risks and benefits of continuing versus tapering Xanax or other benzos. Some women continue taking them throughout their pregnancy, while others follow a dose tapering schedule.
The key to achieving the goal of getting off of Xanax is to follow the tapering schedule to the very end. By the end of your taper, you might be cutting pills into halves or quarters. Note that some individuals may be better suited for a harm reduction approach, in which the taper leads to a maintenance dose rather than abstinence. If you’re very concerned about the risks involved in Xanax tapering for any reason, discuss these concerns with your physician, because you may be better suited for inpatient detoxification. While this is more expensive, it is covered by many insurance plans.
No matter how you slice it, quitting Xanax takes time, patience, and determination. If you’ve been using it for longer than a few months, quitting can be hard, and there will be days where you want to give up and give in. But with medical supervision and support, you can be successful, and in the long-term, the health benefits are considerable. Withdrawal isn’t a picnic, but if Xanax is both the alternative to it, and a problem for you, it beats that alternative hands down.
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A woman named Marianne messaged me wanting to know how to get off of Klonopin, which is a benzodiazepine, or benzo for short. She has been taking them regularly for more than twenty years, which is a very long time to be on a benzo. That will certainly complicate things. Before I go into how to stop taking benzos, I want to tell you what they are and what they do.
What are they?
Benzos are medications designed to treat anxiety, panic disorders, seizures, muscle tension, and insomnia. Some of the most commonly prescribed benzos include: Xanax (alprazolam), Klonopin (clonazepam),Valium (diazepam), Restoril (temazepam),
Librium (chlordiazepoxide), and Ativan (lorazepam). A 2013 survey found that Xanax and its generic form alprazolam is one of the most prescribed psychiatric drugs in the United States, with approximately 50 million prescriptions written that year. Unfortunately, this class of drug is also highly abused. Another 2013 survey found that 1.7 million Americans aged 12 and older were considered current abusers of tranquilizer medications like benzos. When abused, benzos produce a high in addition to the calm and relaxed sensations individuals feel when they take them.
How do they work?
Benzos increase the levels of a chemical in the brain called GABA. Meaningless trivia: GABA stands for gamma amino-butyric acid. GABA works as a kind of naturally occurring tranquilizer, and it calms down the nerve firings related to stress and the stress reaction. Benzos also work to enhance levels of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is the feel good chemical, the chemical messenger involved in reward and pleasure in the brain. In simple terms, benzos slow down nerve activity in the brain and central nervous system, which decreases stress and its physical and emotional side effects.
Why can using them be problematic?
Benzos have multiple side effects that are both physical and psychological in nature, and these can cause harm with both short-term and extended usage. Some potential short-term side effects of benzos include, but are not limited to: drowsiness, mental confusion, trouble concentrating, short-term memory loss, blurred vision, slurred speech, lack of motor control, slow breathing, and muscle weakness. Long-term use of benzos also causes all of the above, but can also cause changes to the brain as well as mental health symptoms like mood swings, hallucinations, and depression. Fortunately, some of the changes made by benzos to the different regions of the brain after prolonged use may be reversible after being free from benzos for an extended period of time. On the scarier flip side of that coin, benzos may in fact predispose you to memory and cognitive disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s. They’re many studies currently focusing on these predispositions. A recent study published by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) found a definitive link between benzo usage and Alzheimer’s disease. People taking benzos for more than six months had an 84% higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s dementia, versus those who didn’t take benzos. Long-acting benzos like Valium were more likely to increase these risks than shorter-acting benzos like Ativan or Xanax. Further, they found that these changes may not be reversible, and that the risk increased with age. Speaking of age, there are increased concerns in the elderly population when it comes to benzo usage. Benzos are increasingly being prescribed to the elderly population, many of which are used long-term, which increases the potential for cognitive and memory deficits. As people age, metabolism slows down. Since benzos are stored in fat cells, they remain active in an older person’s body for longer than in a younger person’s body, which increases the drug effects and risks due to the higher drug concentrations, like falls and car accidents. For all of these reasons, benzos should be used with caution in the elderly population.
A big problem with taking benzos for an extended period is tolerance and dependency. Benzos are widely considered to be highly addictive. Remember that benzos work by increasing GABA and dopamine in the central nervous system, calming and pleasing the brain, giving it the feel goods. After even just a few weeks of taking benzos regularly, the brain may learn to expect the regular dose of benzos and stop working to produce these feel good chemicals on its own without them. Your brain figures, “why do the work if it’s done for me?” You really can’t blame the brain for that! It has become dependent on the benzo. But as you continue to use benzos, you develop higher and higher tolerance, meaning that it takes more and more of the drug to produce the regular desired effect. This tolerance and dependence stuff really ticks off your brain. It’s screaming “why aren’t these pills working anymore?!” The answer is that it has become dependent and tolerant, so it needs more. Just to prove its point, it makes you feel anxious, restless, and irritable as it screams “gimme gimme more more more!!!” The problem is that the body is metabolizing the benzo more quickly, essentially causing withdrawl symptoms, and a higher dose is needed. The longer you’re on a benzo, the more you’ll need. It’s a vicious cycle and it’s sometimes tough to manage clinically.
The most severe form of physical harm caused by benzos is overdose. This occurs when a person takes too much of the drug at once and overloads the brain and body. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cites drug overdose as the number one cause of injury death in the United States. A 2013 survey reported that nearly 7,000 people died from a benzo overdose in that year. Since benzos are tranquilizers and sedatives, they depress the central nervous system, lowering heart rate, core body temperature, blood pressure, and respiration. Generally, in the case of an overdose, these vital life functions simply get too low.
When combining other drugs with benzos, obviously the risk of overdose or other negative outcome increases exponentially. But mixing benzos with alcohol is a special case, deserving of a strong warning as it is life-threatening. BENZOS + ALCOHOL = DEAD. One of the most common and successful unintentional and intentional suicide acts in my patient population is mixing benzos with alcohol. The combo is lethal, plain and simple. The body actually forgets to breathe. People pass out and just never wake up. If you’re reading this and you take benzos with alcohol and you’re thinking that you don’t know what the big deal is, you do it all the time and have never had a problem, then my response to you is that you’re living on borrowed time, and I strongly suggest you stop one of the two, the booze or the benzos, take your pick.
What about withdrawl from benzos?
Benzo withdrawal can be notoriously difficult. It is actually about the hardest group of drugs to get off of. The level of difficulty is based on what benzo you’ve been taking, how much you’ve been taking, and how long you’ve been taking it. Obviously, if you’ve been on benzos for 25 years, it’s not going to be a walk in the park. To be honest, it’s going to be a rough road. Sorry Marianne. But it can be done. The first and most important thing is that you should never just stop benzos on your own, as it can be very dangerous and can include long or multiple grand mal seizures. Withdrawal from benzos should be done slowly through medical detox with a professional. It is best done with an addiction specialist like myself, because a specialist has the most current knowledge and experience. This is the safest way to purge the drugs from the brain and body while decreasing and managing withdrawal symptoms and drug cravings. As for the symptoms of withdrawl, these can include mood swings, short-term memory loss, seizure, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, depression, suppressed appetite, hallucinations, and cognitive difficulties. Stopping benzos after dependency may also lead to a rebound effect. This is a sort of overexcitement of the nerves that have been suppressed for so long by the benzos, and symptoms can include an elevated heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature. There may also be a return of the issues that lead you to take the benzos in the first place, insomnia, anxiety, and panic symptoms, and they can possibly be even worse than before.
I’m sure that just about everyone currently taking benzos is thinking “I’m NEVER stopping!” right about now. It is not easy to do, but there is a way to manage all of this, to come off of the benzo and deal with all of the physical and cognitive aspects of withdrawl. I do it everyday. I set up a tapering schedule to lessen the specific benzo dosage over time, sometimes over a period of months. I will also often add or switch to a long acting benzo, which can be very helpful. I use several drugs to deal with the withdrawl symptoms: clonidine for tremor and high blood pressure, neurontin for pain and to help prevent seizures, anti-psychotic like seroquel for sleep, and an anti-depressant for depression, thank you Captain Obvious. The drug regimen varies from patient to patient. I also utilize psychotherapy to help work out the psychological kinks associated with withdrawl and rebound effect symptoms. Another trick I strongly recommend to many of my patients, not just those withdrawing from alcohol or any drugs, is transcranial magnetic stimulation or TMS. This is a non-invasive procedure done in the office that uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain to improve symptoms of depression and anxiety, and I’ve found that it seems to calm the nerves and offer relief to some people in withdrawl. Electrodes are placed on the forehead and behind the ears and painless stimuli are passed into certain regions of the brain for 40 minutes in each daily session for about a month. Many patients say it’s the best 40 minutes of their day.
I’d like to wish Marianne good luck. Please feel free to call me at the office at 561-842-9950 if you have any questions.
To everyone else: If you can avoid ever having to take benzos, I strongly suggest that you do. If you’re currently taking them, give some serious thought to finding an alternative medication. I can help with that. For more information and stories about benzos, other drugs, and the process of medical detox, check out my book Tales from the Couch on Amazon.com.Learn More