Beware the Benzos

Let’s say you can’t get an unpleasant compulsive liar out of your life. Every time he sees you, he says something designed to upset you: “You look terrible… you’re falling apart, your wife doesn’t love you… your job is in jeopardy… your kids will end up badly….” He lobs a malignant whopper every time he sees you. Knowing this, would you take dangerous and addictive drugs to prevent feeling anxious around him? Or as a mature person would you try to avoid him as much as possible?

Your brain can be that compulsive fibber, throughout the day telling you distressing lies about danger and disappointment. Your heart, an organ without reasoning capacity, replies by beating faster, to which your brain replies, “Wow! My heart is really beating – there must be danger, I gotta get outta here!” This gossip between your brain and cardiovascular, and other neurological reactions is termed anxiety.

Taking anxiolytic medication, especially the benzodiazepines, to numb the unpleasant feelings of anxiety amounts to poisoning yourself in response to an empty lie.

Anxiety is a real biological reaction to imaginary danger. It is the most common mental problem in post-scarcity societies such as America. Generally, people facing real danger and existential struggle don’t have the energy to spend on anxiety. That is why PTSD, a severe anxiety disorder, arises after the danger has subsided, and why military PTSD especially is worse after service than during it.

No matter how many books you read, how much you pray or meditate, you cannot get your brain to stop fibbing. Your brain remembers danger not primarily through tuition, but through association with the sensate circumstances -- the sights, sounds, and smells – present when you experience harm, loss, punishment or humiliation. Thereafter, similar sensate circumstances, even in the absence of similar factual circumstances, can trigger feelings of anxiety. The milder anxiety conditions such as generalized and social anxiety arise as the brain associates memories of past psychological threats, such as disapproval or judgment, to present circumstances. The more serious anxiety disorders such as PTSD and the phobias arise as the brain associates memories of physical threat to life to present circumstances. All anxiety disorders, mild or severe, result from falsehoods that the brain tells, which transport reactions to past dangers into the present moment.

The reason some people are highly anxious and others don’t give a hoot lies in the wide individual differences in the tendency of the brain to be permanently reconditioned by distress and danger. PTSD arises in conditions of objective horror and helplessness, such that any healthy brain is reconditioned to memorize what’s going on and be triggered in similar circumstances.

The point is, the best way to counteract a lie is with the tranquilizer of truth. The best way to neutralize anxiety is to be compassionate and curious about the fibs your brain is telling, and calmly tell yourself the truth. Taking addictive drugs, like benzodiazepines, intensifies the irrational sense of danger. “Benzo rebound” impedes the tuitive, rational part of the brain from telling yourself fact-based truth that there is no actual danger.

I recently took a three-week ocean cruise. After disembarking I continued to feel as if I were rocking back and forth. I recognized that it was probably no coincidence that experiencing vertigo for the first time in my life immediately followed a long ocean cruise. After about six weeks, an ENT doctor diagnosed mal de debarqment syndrome. As he wrapped up his feedback, he offered me a prescription for Xanax. Xanax? To prescribe Xanax in this case is the medical equivalent of, “You feel a little dizzy? I’ll give you something to cry about.” Xanax. The very name sounds like a biological weapon.

Physicians are abdicating their scientific and compassionate responsibility to provide pain care, but seem to have no comparable reluctance to prescribe benzodiazepines. There is a value in American justice that it is better to let one-hundred guilty people go free than to put one innocent person in prison. How many innocent people have to suffer untreated pain to save the life of one addict? Pain medication has been rigorously monitored by governmental and private insurers for years, even before the current opioid crisis, but there has been no equivalent monitoring of addictive and sometimes lethal benzodiazepines.

“Between 1996 and 2013, the number of adults who filled benzodiazepine prescriptions increased by 67 percent, from 8.1 million to 13.5 million. Unlike opioid prescribing which peaked in 2012 and has decreased nearly 20 per cent since then, benzodiazepine prescribing continues to rise. The risk of overdose death goes up nearly fourfold when benzodiazepines are combined with opioids, yet rates of co-prescribing benzodiazepines and opioids nearly doubled between 2001 and 2013. Overdose deaths involving benzodiazepines increased more than sevenfold between 1999 and 2015.”  Anna Lembke

The renowned clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson was reported by his family to have been in Russia, recovering from near fatal benzodiazepine use. According to his daughter Mikhaila, he tried to “[q]uit the drug cold turkey, but it led to a horrific withdrawal, putting his life at risk.” She has reassured his millions of students: “Although he has trouble walking and typing on his own… he is on the mend.”

Perhaps Dr. Peterson had his nose in illuminated Jungian psychoanalysis folios for too long and did not know that suddenly stopping benzos can cause life-threatening seizures; more likely, he knew but thought he could manage it. Either way, Dr. Peterson’s horrific experience is a cautionary tale. One of the most important contributions of scientific psychology has been to create the cognitive behavior therapies. These are well-honed formulae for challenging the fibs implanted in the brain, which cause anxiety. Professor Peterson would have been well served to deploy such therapies and reject benzos for dealing with his anxiety.

Dr. Peterson and his then 20-year-old daughter gave a 2012 interview about their depression. Mikhaila seems an older soul than her intense, childlike father. She started taking anti-depressants at age 11. Anti-depressants are a safer class of medications than benzos, but they are still drugs and no one ever learned anything worth knowing from a pill. Regarding selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), Professor Peterson said, “I will never stop taking them… ever.” The problem with that passionate declaration is that SSRIs, like every other medication, often lose their efficacy over time. Dosages are increased or other medications are added to maintain the effects of the original medication, all with their own side-effects and dangers.

Dennis Prager, who has featured Peterson’s work at PragerU, tells us, “Many people are good, but few people are brave.” Jordan Peterson is brave. It is worth a psychologist’s career to challenge LGBTQ cultural supremacy as Dr. Peterson has. In 2016 he stood up against Canadian legislation, Bill C-16, because it compelled the use of government-approved speech regarding “gender identity and expression.”

It takes courage to stand up to the falsehoods of the world and be willing to pay the price for doing so. It is even more difficult to spurn the sly, unceasing falsehoods of our own mind. May Dr. Peterson recover fully from the clutches of benzos and return to his great work in psychology.

If you experience technical problems, please write to