What are minor tranquillisers?
Minor tranquillisers belong to a group of drugs called ‘benzodiazepines’ (or benzos). They are prescribed by doctors to relieve stress and anxiety and to help people sleep.
Some minor tranquillisers are also used to treat epilepsy, to relax muscles, to help people withdraw from alcohol, or as an anaesthetic before surgery.
Some people use minor tranquillisers just to get intoxicated.
Minor tranquillisers are usually used in capsule or tablet form. They are sold under many different names. Some of the more common minor tranquillisers are:
These drugs are called ‘minor tranquillisers’ to differentiate them from ‘major tranquillisers’ which are used to treat psychiatric problems such as schizophrenia. The term ‘minor’ does not mean that these drugs are less powerful, it simply indicates that they are different types of drugs.
Minor tranquillisers are ‘depressant’ drugs. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they make you feel depressed. They work by slowing down the activity of the brain and central nervous system. They slow down the messages going to and from the brain to the body. Alcohol, cannabis and heroin are also depressants.
The effect of any drug (including tranquillisers) varies from person to person. It depends on how much is taken, how it is taken, whether the person is used to taking it, the mood of the person and other factors.
Any given amount might have a slight effect on one person, but a much greater effect on another person.
Short term (less than two weeks) use of minor tranquillisers may have the following effects:
RELIEF FROM ANXIETY:
Minor tranquillisers reduce your emotional reactions. They make you feel calm and relaxed and relieve tension and anxiety. They are often prescribed to help people though a major crisis in their life.
Minor tranquillisers relax the muscles.
Minor tranquillisers are often prescribed to help people sleep. They can cause drowsiness, tiredness and lethargy.
Some people feel isolated from their surroundings after taking minor tranquillisers.
Large doses may produce an effect similar to alcohol intoxication. You may become confused, have slurred speech, poor coordination, impaired judgement, difficulty thinking clearly, and loss of memory. You may also have blurred or double vision and/or dizziness. Mood swings and aggressive outbursts may also occur.
COMA AND DEATH:
Very high doses of minor tranquillisers can cause unconsciousness or coma. Death rarely occurs from overdose of minor tranquillisers alone but some deaths have occurred when large doses were combined with alcohol or other drugs.
Tranquillisers and other drugs
Combining tranquillisers with alcohol, barbiturates, antihistamines, antidepressants, cannabis or heroin can greatly increase the effects of the drugs taken. This can be very dangerous, especially if you intend to drive.
The use of minor tranquillisers over a long period of time (more than two to four weeks) is not recommended.
Minor tranquillisers can help to relieve anxiety in the short term. But they do not solve the problem that caused the anxiety in the first place. They treat the symptoms but not the cause.
The long term use of minor tranquillisers may cause:
- lack of motivation
- difficulty thinking clearly
- memory loss
- personality change
- changes in emotional responses
- difficulty sleeping
- disturbing dreams
- skin rash
- menstrual problems
- sexual problems
- greater appetite
- weight gain
Very high doses of minor tranquillisers over a long period of time may cause confusion, lack of coordination, depression and slurred speech.
Pregnancy and breastfeeding
If you are pregnant, are planning to get pregnant or are breastfeeding it is safest not to use minor tranquillisers.
Minor tranquillisers taken during pregnancy cross the placental barrier and can affect the growth and development of the foetus. Breathing problems and poor sucking ability in babies and learning disorders in children have been linked to minor tranquilliser use. Tranquillisers can also be passed from mother to baby through breast milk.
Tranquillisers and driving
It is dangerous to drive after using tranquillisers. They make you drowsy, reduce concentration and coordination and impair judgement. They can also make you dizzy and affect your vision. It is even more dangerous to drive when tranquillisers are combined with alcohol or other drugs.
Dependence can be psychological or physical, or both. Dependence can occur after using tranquillisers for a few months and affects about 40 per cent of people who use them.
People who are psychologically dependent feel as though they can’t cope without tranquillisers. They crave the drug and find it very difficult to stop using it.
Physical dependence occurs when a person’s body adapts to tranquillisers. The body gets used to functioning with the drug present.
If a dependent person suddenly stops taking the tranquillisers (or cuts down their dose), they will have physical withdrawal symptoms because their body has to readjust to functioning without the drug.
Withdrawal symptoms from tranquillisers vary from person to person but can be quite severe. Some people have no symptoms at all while others may have symptoms lasting a few weeks or months, or even up to one year. A small percentage of people have even longer lasting symptoms. The symptoms are usually related to the length of time the person has taken tranquillisers rather than the amount used.
Withdrawal symptoms can include:
- anxiety and panic attacks
- poor appetite
- nausea, vomiting and stomach pains
- inability to sleep properly
- numbness of the face
- feelings of isolation and unreality
- delirium and paranoia
Withdrawal symptoms tend to come and go but all withdrawal symptoms will eventually disappear as the body adjusts to functioning without the drug.
Withdrawal symptoms can be severe if these drugs are stopped suddenly, especially if on high doses. Fitting can occur. Medical experts advise that people who have been using tranquillisers for more than two or three weeks should not suddenly stop taking them without seeing a doctor or health worker.
Health experts usually recommend a slow reduction in dose over two or three months. This reduces the severity of the withdrawal symptoms.
People who are physically dependent usually develop tolerance to the drug. That is, they need to take more and more to get the same effect. This can happen very quickly with minor tranquillisers. The effectiveness of tranquillisers used as sleeping pills can wear off after three nights.
Coping with problems
In the short term, minor tranquillisers may help you get through a difficult period of your life. However, when you stop using tranquillisers the problems will still be there. It is important to try and deal with those problems.
There are many ways to deal with stress and anxiety without using minor tranquillisers. Relaxation techniques, stress management courses, counselling, a healthy diet and plenty of exercise all help. Contact your local community health service to find out alternative ways of dealing with stress and anxiety.
Tips to remember
If you have concerns about your own dosage, it is best to talk first with the prescribing doctor. Remember, there is no one set dosage suitable for everyone.
If you are using tranquillisers, consider whether you still need them. Talk to your doctor and ensure medical support for a gradual withdrawal program.
If you haven’t seen your doctor for a while, make an appointment to have your medication reviewed and to discuss alternatives.