Taking a benzodiazepine, even as prescribed, can damage the calming system in our bodies. The consequence of that happening is that we are easily emotionally triggered. Anger or rage can erupt instantaneously, or fear, terror, or panic engulf us in the blink of an eye. It’s not our fault that our emotions are easily activated— our hyperactive nervous system causes such extreme reactions. What can we do while our nervous system recovers from the benzo damage? We can do two things. One, understand why we react as we do, and two, find ways to cope with the intense feelings.
- Downregulated GABA receptors. Benzodiazepines can cause our calming system, the GABA receptors, to stop working. Without enough functioning calming receptors, our nervous system can’t calm down, which means we are in a state of hyper-excitability. Knowing this can help us accept our uncomfortable reactions and take them in stride. It’s common to be easily triggered, even over innocuous things. One morning I was triggered when I lifted my hand to pet my sleeping cat. Fear flashed through me for no apparent reason. I remember I pulled back my hand, unable to pet him, even though I KNEW there was no danger. It’s easy to judge ourselves when we are triggered and think we are weak-minded or going crazy, but that’s not helpful— having compassion for our damaged nervous system is. It is also beneficial to know that the brain is a make-meaning organ. It categorizes and labels things so that we know if they are safe or dangerous. This “make-meaning” happens almost instantly, without our having to think about it. With the brain in a hyper-excited state due to a lack of calming GABA, it stands t reason that it will often make the wrong meaning of people, places, or things. If our nervous system becomes too activated with anger or fear, it can shift into a state called a parasympathetic dorsal vagal freeze, and depression or overwhelm can occur. It is less common to be instantly depressively triggered, but it can happen.
- Coping mechanisms are unique to each person; what works for one may not work for another. You’ll have to find what works best for you. Anything that helps metabolize stress hormones is beneficial: walking (especially out in nature), yoga, shaking your body (here is a video that shows the release of stress hormones), prayer, meditation, chanting and saying a positive mantra. I gardened to help me cope with benzo withdrawal symptoms. (Every year, I plant a demonstration garden to teach and encourage others how to use gardening as a therapeutic healing/coping tool.) Distraction and learning something new are good ways to take our focus off our feelings and sensations in our bodies. Reminding yourself that you are safe is an essential coping tool. Safety is the prescription for everything, allowing our nervous system to shift into the default state called connect, a parasympathetic ventral vagal response. It is in the connect state where we are happiest and healthiest.
What triggers you? What coping skills might you use to help soothe your over-excited nervous system? Please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.