So many of my benzo withdrawal symptoms were torturous, but man, fear was one of the worst. I dreaded waking up to it every morning. I’d come into consciousness and feel somewhat normal for about thirty seconds or so, and then BAM! fear washed over me. (It was more like ice-cold terror, actually.) I felt it move through my body, cascading into every cell, every fiber of my being. It took well into the afternoon for it to recede to a more tolerable level. I hated it with a passion.
Of course, any doctor I spoke with about the fear told me I had an anxiety disorder and needed medication. (Eventually, I stopped talking to doctors, they were all so uneducated about benzos, but that’s a whole other story.) “Yes, I was put on Clonazepam for anxiety and panic,” I’d agree with them. “But my anxiety, even at its worst, NEVER felt like this,” I tried my best to explain. Not one doctor gave me any advice on how to cope with benzo withdrawal fear (or any other benzo withdrawal symptom, for that matter!)
Fear is a very common benzo withdrawal symptom. It often bubbles up in the morning and loosens its grip on us in the afternoon. It can pop up at any phase, tapering, off, or protracted, triggered by seemingly innocuous events or things. There was a time when I couldn’t pet my beloved cat, Sammy. I had no idea what I was frightened of, but I felt fear whenever I’d reach my hand out towards him. That’s the thing with fear in benzo withdrawal: it is frequently incredibly irrational. And we KNOW it’s irrational, but there is little we can do about it. It’s damn near impossible to talk your way out of benzo withdrawal fear. The best we can do is to dance with it.
That’s right, dance with it! We move with the fear. We don’t fight it or run away from it. When we fight it or try to flee from it, we keep our nervous system in what is called the protect state of fight, flight, or freeze (sympathetic and parasympathetic dorsal vagal responses). In other words, our threat detection system is geared up, at the ready to defend us. Making fear the enemy isn’t how to best cope with it. So we dance with it, allow it, even lean into it, knowing that as uncomfortable as the fear feels, it is, after all, simply an emotion, and we are safe.
We remind ourselves that fear is a typical benzo withdrawal symptom, and thankfully, not based on anything in the world that is a real threat. Even our scary symptoms are 99.99% of the time harmless. So we use all of our senses to be fully present in the moment and know that we are safe. We take slow, calming breaths, breathing in through our nose to a count of seven, pausing, and breathing out through pursed lips to the count of eleven. Breathing this way sends a signal to our threat detection circuitry that we are indeed safe. We also use gentle movement to help our body metabolize stress hormones: rocking side to side: easy walking, stretching, yoga, etc.
Other ways in which to cope with fear are singing, chanting, or humming. These three “vibrational” activities help strengthen the vagus nerve and, in turn, allow our nervous system to settle down a little bit. We can combine any of these with movement, such as gently rocking left to right.
We can also use visualization to cope with benzo withdrawal fear. I used to close my eyes and think of the happy years I lived in Colorado. I’d imagine myself standing out in the snow at the foot of Ajax mountain, smelling the cedars and woodsmoke, feeling the soft snowflakes touch my face. Using our imaginations to create safety in our minds helps encourage the nervous system to settle down and shift out of the protect state and into the connect state— a parasympathetic ventral vagal response.
That’s the key: inviting our nervous system to shift into the parasympathetic ventral vagal response called connect. In this state, we can connect with others, the world around us, and ourselves in kind, compassionate, healthy, and loving ways. In this state, our bodies are at their optimal best. The connect state is our default state; however, it is challenging to shift into it when our GABA receptors have been damaged from taking a benzodiazepine, even taken as prescribed. But we do our best to shift towards ventral vagal, learning more ways to invite ventral vagal energy into our lives.
Two other tools we may want to consider using to cope with fear are learning and distraction. Learning something new makes the brain create new neural connections and takes the spotlight off of our suffering. (Learning is also a form of distraction with added benefits of acquiring new knowledge or wisdom.) You can search YouTube and learn almost anything! I learned to knit, crochet, and draw during my roughest months of withdrawal. Distration is a great way to take our minds off of fear, thus turning down the volume on suffering. The way I distracted was with my gardening. It kept me focused on something other than what I was feeling. Sometimes the fear was so great that I could barely hold a trowel to dig; my hands shook so hard. But I kept going, breathing slowly and leaning into the fear as best as I could. I also distracted with painting, word puzzles, and watching short YouTube videos.
Fear in benzo withdrawal comes from the damage the drug has caused to our inhibitory (calming) system, namely, GABA receptors. No matter which coping mechanisms we use, one or all, our nervous system may not extinguish the fear right away. These are not means by which we immediately turn off fear, but instead, they are means by which we cope with fear and help our brain rewire itself in a more positive way. In time, as our nervous system heals from the damage the benzo caused, the fear will fade away on its own.
In a nutshell, the antidote for fear is safety. Safety, as Dr. Porges, the father of Polyvagal theory, reminds us, is the prescription for everything. When we “dance with fear,” reminding ourselves that we are indeed safe, that the fear is not based on a real threat, we invite our nervous system to shift out of the protect state and into the connect state, which is where our bodies are at their best.
Fear goes away, in time. As hard as it may be, acceptance and patience is key. You are safe. You are healing. You will recover.
What coping mechanisms do you use for coping with fear in benzo withdrawal? Please feel free to share in the comments below.