Photo courtesy of Pixnio
Photo courtesy of Pixnio

Health Corner: Is Xanax a Treatment or a Threat?

November 20, 2020

Xanax – an effective medication, or a dangerous escape? 

Alprazolam, most commonly known as the trade name Xanax, is one of the most commonly prescribed medications to help people deal with anxiety and panic disorders. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most abused prescription medications among older teens and young adults. 

And in combination with other forms of “stress relief,” such as alcohol and/or marijuana, the result can be lethal. 

Xanax belongs to a class of medications called benzodiazepines, which work in the brain by enhancing the effects of a natural chemical in the body called GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid) to produce a calming effect. It is often prescribed for mental health conditions like anxiety or panic disorders when non-medicinal avenues are ineffective. When used as prescribed, the effects are often positive and non-addicting, especially when combined with counseling and support. 

But high amounts of drugs in circulation increase the chances of abuse. With more than 44 million prescriptions of Xanax written each year, it is the 8th most prescribed drug in the country. 

Colleges have been reporting increasing percentages of students with anxiety, making it the number one mental health concern for colleges. There are numbers as high as 61% according to a study of over 100,000 young adults treated at student health centers across the country. Because of this, it’s not hard to find Xanax on a college campus.

Add in heightened uncertainty around college campus plans, isolation due to the pandemic restrictions, and freedom from adult guidance—coupled with readily available reprieves such as alcohol, marijuana and prescription drugs—and it’s a recipe for disaster. 

Before the pandemic, teachers in classrooms may have noticed students who seemed “off” or unusually tired or confused. But these students now may need to rely on their peers to help them if their behavior or mental health seems out of control, which can lead to more prescription drug abuse.

Any misuse of Xanax, with or without other substances, is cause for reaching out, so here’s what you need to know.

What are the symptoms?

When used recreationally or in excess, the effects of Xanax depress the central nervous system, including respiration and heart rate, and produce a calm sedative effect. Not only does it decrease the neurotransmitter that produces fear, but it also increases natural dopamine release. This is a chemical transmitter associated with feelings of pleasure and relaxationthe “Xanax high”and it reinforces the desire for repeated use. This cycle creates the psychological and physiological addiction pattern that can develop from misuse. 

Symptoms of Xanax abuse include drowsiness, dizziness, confusion or trouble concentrating, and muscle weakness. You might also experience blurred/double vision, gastrointestinal issues, impaired memory and judgement, and slowed reaction time or a lack of coordination. In extreme cases, patients have reported difficulty breathing, being in a stupor, or falling into a coma.

What can happen? 

Xanax abuse CAN be deadly, and often by accident. In 2015, there were 9,000 benzodiazepine-related deaths. 8,000 of these deaths were combined with opioids (prescription pain medicines like Norco, Oxycontin, codeine), another often-misused prescription drug. Alcohol, like opioids, can depress the respiratory system, which is often the case when an overdose occurs. 

What you can do? 

If you suspect or know that a friend is abusing Xanax, and the person isn’t in crisis, reach out to a trusted adult or contact Millikin’s Student Mental and Behavioral Health (SMBH) services at 424-6360. If you need help after regular business hours, (because we all know this stuff doesn’t happen on a schedule), call public safety at 217-464-8888 and ask to be connected to the on-call staff member on duty no matter what time it is. Another option is to call the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). 

If you are in a crisis, calling 911 is essential for survival if someone is in a stupor or experiencing difficulty breathing. The reversal for Xanax is only given in the emergency room intravenously to reverse the exaggerated effects.

Don’t let anxiety and experimentation with methods to treat it—or even taking Xanax just to “have fun”—put you at risk for unexpected and irreparable consequences. Utilize trusted adults and trained staff, and get the help you or your peer needs. 

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