What are minor tranquillisers?
Minor tranquillisers belong to a group of drugs known as benzodiazepines (pronounced benzo-dye-assa-peen). Some people call them 'benzos' for short. When taken, they are absorbed into the bloodstream and act on the central nervous system. This has the effect of slowing down your physical, mental and emotional responses.
This calming effect can help you:
- during severe anxiety and sleeping problems
- for relief from muscle spasm (as in cerebral palsy)
- with epilepsy
- to cope with grief.
Taking minor tranquillisers can make you feel better in the short term when faced with severe problems or trauma.
Common minor tranquillisers
Some people don't realise that the prescribed medicines they are using may be minor tranquillisers. Check the following list to see if you are using one of these common minor tranquillisers:
- Valium - Ducene - Antenex (drug name - diazepam)
- Serepax - Murelax - Alepam (oxazepam)
- Mogadon - Alodorm (nitrazepam)
- Euhypnos - Normison - Temaze (temazepam)
- Ativan - Emoten (lorazepam)
- Rohypnol - Hypnodorm (flunitrazepam)
- Lexotan (bromazepam)
- Rivotril (clonazepam)
Why would my doctor prescribe minor tranquillisers for me?
Minor tranquillisers are prescribed by doctors for a number of reasons. These include specific medical conditions such as epilepsy and cerebral palsy. They are also prescribed to people experiencing anxiety, severe emotional distress, depression, or sleeplessness.
Over two-thirds of those who use minor tranquillisers are women.
Minor tranquillisers help many people. Your doctor may prescribe them to you if you have trouble sleeping. The death of someone close to you such as a partner or a child, or other serious traumas, may warrant the use of minor tranquillisers.
However, when used in large amounts or over a long period of time, minor tranquillisers can cause problems.
The problems with minor tranquillisers
Although they may provide some relief during crisis periods, minor tranquillisers don't usually solve your problems. You may find that the 'calming effect' will reduce your ability to sort out problems. You may also get into a situation where you find that you can't cope without them.
Other difficulties can also develop, like withdrawal symptoms when you try to stop.
Australia's leading medical research organisation, the National Health and Medical Research Council, advises that minor tranquillisers should be avoided if there is a more specific and suitable therapy available. If used, they should be prescribed for the shortest period of time at the lowest effective dose.
There are alternatives to minor tranquillisers, especially if you are experiencing stress which you can't manage on your own. At the end of this information sheet you will find where to get further information.
Are there any side effects of minor tranquillisers?
Like most drugs, minor tranquilliser produce side effects. The intensity and frequency of these side effects will depend on the dose and the length of time over which they have been taken. Some people experience side effects even after only a few days of continual use.
Age and weight are also factors which influence individual reactions to minor tranquillisers.
Side effects of short term use
Physical effects include:
- blurred or double vision
- slurred speech/stuttering
- mild memory loss to possible short term memory loss
- poor judgement of distances.
Emotional side effects include:
- mental confusion
- mood swings
- jitteriness or excitability (especially as the dose wears off).
Side effects of long term use
Physical effects include:
- skin rashes
- loss of sexual function
- increased appetite
- weight gain
- menstrual problems.
Emotional side effects include:
- loss of sexual interest
- disturbed dreams
- lack of motivation
- becoming angry and arguing a lot.
It is important to remember that minor tranquillisers slow you down physically and make you less alert. So driving or operating equipment or machinery while taking these drugs can be dangerous.
Mixing minor tranquillisers with other drugs, including other prescribed drugs and alcohol, can make the psychological and physical effects even more powerful. Under these circumstances, avoid driving or doing anything that could result in an accident or injury to yourself or someone else
Pregnancy and breastfeeding
Some drugs pass to the foetus through the mother's bloodstream. If you take minor tranquillisers and become pregnant or are planning to become pregnant, make sure you tell your doctor. Problems can arise, especially during the late stages of pregnancy.
Babies can show signs of withdrawal symptoms at birth if their mother has used minor tranquillisers in late pregnancy. Also, these drugs can pass from mother to baby during breastfeeding causing drowsiness and feeding problems.
Tolerance, dependence and withdrawal
Your body becomes tolerant to minor tranquillisers when the prescribed dose no longer gives you the desired effect. A larger dose may then be required. Tolerance to some minor tranquillisers may take as little as three days.
Dependence on minor tranquillisers occurs when you feel you can't do without them. Becoming dependent can happen in as little as 4-6 weeks.
Signs of dependence include:
- taking more pills than intended
- taking the pills over a longer period than intended
- trying but failing to cut down or control use
- finding it difficult to carry out normal daily work or activities because of the effects of the drugs
- devoting a lot of time and effort to obtaining, taking and recovering from the effects of the drug
- always carrying the pills with you
- experiencing withdrawal symptoms (see below) when trying to stop.
If you have become dependent on minor tranquillisers, then you'll experience withdrawal symptoms when trying to stop. If you are taking very large doses of minor tranquillisers, you may get withdrawal symptoms even while still taking the medication. Some people find withdrawal more difficult than others.
Withdrawal symptoms may include:
- severe anxiety and sleeplessness (even more severe than when you began taking the tranquillisers)
- tremors, palpitations, sweating, muscle spasms, panic attacks
- being super sensitive to light and touch
- strange physical sensations, e.g. feeling as though things are moving or have a metallic taste in the mouth
- feelings of persecution, unreality, paranoia
- blurred or distorted vision
- flu-like illness
- increased menstrual bleeding and breast pain
The important thing to remember is that you should never stop suddenly or without medical supervision, even if you have been taking minor tranquillisers for only a couple of weeks.
Coming off minor tranquillisers
Begin by talking things over with your doctor. Discuss how quickly or slowly your dose should be reduced. As only you know how you feel, it is important to maintain regular contact with you doctor while you are withdrawing. This way your dose may be decreased more gradually if you're having problems. As well as keeping an eye on your progress, the doctor should provide you with some of the support and encouragement you will need to persevere.
There are programs that can help you with withdrawal and may provide a way of dealing with stress, anxiety, depression, and insomnia, including:
- relaxation exercises, massages, yoga
- one-to-one counselling
- group sessions with other women who are coming off minor tranquillisers
- improving your diet and taking up regular exercise
- becoming more confident through an assertiveness training course.
Ask your doctor about alternatives or contact a Community or Women's Health Centre.
Alcohol and Drug Information Service (ADIS) is a 24 hour confidential telephone counselling service. Phone: (02) 9361 8000 or toll free: 1800 422 599.
Drug and alcohol service intake numbers
These centralised numbers are the first point of contact for people seeking assistance for drug and alcohol problems. Callers may be assessed by telephone and referred to relevant services within the local health district.
Centralised intake lines operate Monday to Friday during business hours.
Metropolitan local health districts
Northern Sydney/Central Coast
- North Sydney - 1300 889 788
- Central Coast - (02) 4394 4880
South Eastern Sydney/Illawarra
- South East Sydney - (02) 9113 4444
- Illawarra - (02) 1300 652 226
Sydney South West
- South West Sydney - (02) 9616 8586
- Central Sydney - (02) 9515 6311
- Wentworth - (02) 4734 1333
- Western Sydney - (02) 9840 3355
Rural local health districts
- Greater Murray - 1800 800 944 or (02) 9425 3923
- Southern - 1800 809 423
- Far West - 1800 665 066 or 08 8080 1556
- Macquarie - 1800 092 881 or (02) 6841 2360
- Mid Western - 1300 887 000
- Hunter - (02) 4923 2060
- New England - 1300 660 059
- Local health district - 1300 662 263
- Mid North Coast - (02) 6588 2882
- Northern Rivers - (02) 6620 7612