The list of possible benzo withdrawal symptoms is lengthy. Thankfully, we don’t usually experience all of them. The most common benzo withdrawal symptoms fall into three main categories: anxiety, pain, and what we call in the benzo community “head symptoms.” Let’s take a look at the more common symptoms and how to best cope with them.
Anxiety. Anxiety includes worrying, intrusive thoughts, looping thoughts, insomnia, fear, dread, panic, and full-blown terror. We experience anxiety in benzo withdrawal because our GABA receptors have been downregulated; unable to put the brakes on our threat detection circuitry. Even people who have never experienced anxiety before taking a benzo may experience anxiety during withdrawal. We experience anxiety in our thinking, emotions, and bodies. I experienced intense anxiety, especially in the mornings, which is very common in withdrawal. My body felt as it was plugged into an electrical socket, humming with toxic electricity. My mind raced with horrible thoughts and images. At times, I was filled with ice-cold terror that swept through me like a tsunami. Anxiety, in whatever form it took, tortured me.
I learned to cope with anxiety by distracting, slowed breathing, safety reminders, and neutral observing. To distract, I gardened, learned to draw, painted, did word puzzles, and watched countless hours of positive, upbeat YouTube videos. These activities help me take my mind off of what I was feeling.
I used breathwork to calm down: inhale to the count of five, pause, exhale to the count of eight. This simple action sends a signal to the threat-detection circuitry, commanding it to calm down.
Another way to cope with any form of anxiety is to remind yourself that you are safe. Dr. Stephen Porges, the father of polyvagal theory, highlights the importance of safety for our nervous system. I like to gently rock side to side, hands on opposite shoulders, stroking my arms, while I say, “I am safe.” It’s good to look around, ground yourself, and remind yourself that you are safe. Even with all the unpleasant benzo withdrawal symptoms happening in your body, you are safe. When you remind yourself, use positive words. Do not say, “I am not in danger,” but instead say, “I am safe.” The brain will glom onto the word danger, overlooking the word not.
When you are anxious, become a neutral observer. Pull back and observe your thoughts or what you are experiencing in your body. Don’t judge it. Allow it to be, and allow it to pass. The less we get upset or fight what is going on in our bodies, the better off we will be.
You may be tempted to use medication to help with insomnia, but please be careful. Ambien and Lunesta are considered “baby-benzos” and should be avoided. Antipsychotics are often prescribed because they are effective. However, they can be challenging to withdraw from, and they can cause permanent movement disorders. Antihistamines are used in the benzo community with some success. They are not suited for long-term use, but they do help while in benzo withdrawal. Melatonin is an over-the-counter hormone that has been used with success as well. Remeron is often prescribed for benzo withdrawal-induced insomnia; however, some people experience a withdrawal syndrome. Tricyclics are old-fashioned antidepressants prescribed for insomnia. They have many side effects, and for some, tapering off can be problematic. I coped with insomnia by accepting it. Eventually, normal sleep returned as I healed. Practicing acceptance around insomnia, as well as good sleep hygiene, can be helpful.
Intrusive thoughts and looping thoughts are part of the anxiety that one may experience in benzo withdrawal: acceptance, distraction, and neutral observation are ways to cope. We may fear going insane because we can’t control our thoughts, but we don’t. We may worry that we are horrible people because our thoughts in withdrawal are violent, perverted, evil, etc., but we are not. We must remember that our thoughts are just a body function, like any other body function. We are not our thoughts. I was the poster-girl for intrusive thoughts. They were, by far, one of my worst symptoms. They came with withdrawal, and they left with my recovery.
Pain is another common benzo withdrawal symptom. Muscle, bone, joint, and nerve pain top the list. Headaches, eyes, ears, teeth, burning skin, tingling skin, and formication (the sensation of bugs crawling under the skin) are other ways to experience pain in benzo withdrawal.
Pain management is a bit tricky in withdrawal because some medications can flare withdrawal symptoms. Prescription pain meds can rev up symptoms and should be used with caution. If you are still on a benzo, combining pain meds can be dangerous. Please consult with a benzo-wise doctor.
Over-the-counter pain meds can be used (sparingly as they upset the gut microbiome and cause the liver to work harder at detoxification). Tylenol seems to be better tolerated than Advil for the benzo community.
Ice packs, heat packs, soothing showers or baths (no Epsom salt as the magnesium content can flare symptoms), or gentle massage are other ways to manage pain. Gentle walking, stretching, Yoga, swimming, and meditation, are healthy ways to cope with pain. I used ice packs and heating pads for my pain. Towards the end of my recovery, I got regular light massages.
Head symptoms can be any of the symptoms we feel in our head: tinnitus, hyperacusis, head pressure, vertigo, disequilibrium, tight band around the head, visual disturbances, stuffy ears, or crackling ears, etc. We cope with these symptoms by distracting, practicing acceptance, and reducing stress and sensory input from our environment. I used a walker for a time as my balance was so off. I also used earbuds to reduce outside noises.
All benzo withdrawal symptoms can be frightening and overwhelming. It is essential to remind yourself that you are safe and distract and accept as much as possible. Living the four cornerstones of well-being helps: eat right (wfpb), move enough, stress less, and love well. Benzo withdrawal is a season, albeit a challenging one. However, it does fade away, and we go on to live happy lives. Many of us report that life after benzo withdrawal is the best it has ever been. That is certainly my experience. I never knew such peace, love, and happiness existed. I am the best version of myself. You can be, too! Keep healing, my friends.