Fear can show up while we are still on our normal dose of a benzo, tapering, or off completely. Fear, anxiety, paranoia, panic, terror, etc., are common benzo withdrawal symptoms. Why? Because the drug damages our GABA receptors. GABA is an inhibitory (calming) neurotransmitter. Without the proper amount of receptors available to interface with GABA, we are left in an excitatory state; in other words, we’re anxious. We are also in pain, unable to sleep, tense, etc. Without enough working GABA receptors, the world can often feel like it is a very scary place. Many of us in benzo withdrawal assume that our fears are our pre-existing fears and phobias coming home to roost (that’s usually incorrect) or we worry that we’ve acquired new fears or phobias. I couldn’t walk past any knife, hammer, screwdriver, etc., without having a very scary intrusive violent thought complete with a visual image. It was dreadful! Even petting my sweet cat Sam would send an ice cold jolt of terror through my body. (I never figured out what that fear was all about!) My main emotion during my recovery from having taken a benzodiazepine as prescribed was fear. The good news is that once our receptors recover from the damage the benzo caused, we go on to find that our old fears are non-existent and that the new ones that popped up in withdrawal fade away. That’s something to look forward to, but what do we do until we arrive at recovery?
The tools I used to get through the fearful days were these:
- This is NOT me. Remind yourself that the fear you feel now is not emanating from the real you. It is due to damaged GABA receptors; therefore, the fear isn’t real. It’s my favorite definition of fear: False Evidence Appearing Real. I had to tell myself over and over again, that what I was experiencing wasn’t “me” and that it would one day go away when my receptors healed. It’s exhausting work to have to constantly tell yourself that what you are feeling (or thinking) isn’t who you truly are and that one day it will go away. However, this is the work we have to do in order to navigate our days with less suffering.
- Look the other way. In other words, distract! I gardened every day for years. Being outside in the sun, amid my flowers, helped me to take my mind off of what I was thinking or feeling. It wasn’t a cure, by any stretch of the imagination, but it did help dampen the amount of my suffering.
- Turn towards. Instead of running away from my fears, I learned to lean into them. I came to accept it as any other emotion. I learned to go about my day and do what needed to be done no matter what I felt. If I was afraid, I did what needed to be done while afraid. Fear couldn’t hurt me. It was uncomfortable, yes, but It wasn’t dangerous in an of itself. Eventually, the cycle of fearing fear broke, and I was left with a backbone made out of titanium. Not much ruffles my feathers these days, which is pretty amazing given that I was an anxious person pre-benzos.
- Acceptance. Practicing acceptance is a powerful panacea for all of life’s hardships. When I stopped complaining to every person who would listen, and I accepted that withdrawal was going to take some time, I stopped suffering so much. The more I fought the cards that had been dealt me, the worse off I was. Acceptance allowed me to navigate my days with some degree of grace and dignity. Acceptance allowed me to find more patience, which I sorely needed.
Benzo withdrawal eventually comes to an end. It is not a permanent condition. The fear you feel today will not stick around the rest of your life. It is here only because of your damaged GABA receptors and they are healing. If you scraped your knee, you’d trust the healing process. Trust the healing process of your brain, too! While you are healing, do your best to rise above the fear and get on with your life as best as you can, knowing that the “fire” you find yourself in at the moment is forging you to be as stronger than ever before. You are being transformed, my friend. Please hold on! It’s worth it. Life after benzo withdrawal is incredibly sweet and precious.