Should you take Xanax?

Pill bottle

A look at a popular anxiety medicine

Increased heart rate, mind racing, sweaty palms, shortness of breath. These are all symptoms of something we've all felt at least once in our lives: anxiety. Whether it was during take-off in a plane or on the day of your wedding, a little ping of anxiety is extremely normal. However, what would you do if you started feeling those symptoms all the time, regardless of your circumstance? And, what if you could just take one little pill that would make it all go away -- would you?

For more than 40 million Americans, every day is a constant struggle with anxiety. Whether it be obsessive compulsive tendencies, a panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder or a set of extreme phobias, each day is filled with shortened breath, sweaty palms, a racing mind and severe paranoia.

Because of this, a third of the people suffering from anxiety seek treatment from their doctor, and many are given relief in the form of medication; the most popular and highly prescribed is Xanax. We take a look at this popular anxiety medicine and talk to two different people, Mary* and Lauren* who are taking it to overcome their issues with anxiety.

*Names have been changed to protect their identity.

What is Xanax?

Xanax, or alprazolam, is used to treat anxiety orders by decreasing abnormal excitement in the brain. It's prescribed in tablet form, ranging from 0.25 milligrams to 2 milligrams, and the strength of the tablet is prescribed based on the severity of your condition. There are some side effects, including drowsiness, headaches, dizziness, difficulty concentrating, dry mouth, increased salivation and weight changes, to name a few. Despite only available by prescription, there are an estimated 9 million Americans who misuse this drug, including taking other's prescriptions or selling it on the street.

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When should you take it?

For those 40 million Americans suffering with mild to severe anxiety, when did they realize it was time to seek help? For Lauren, a 25-year-old marketing professional in Richmond, Virginia, it was during her sophomore year in college.

"It was in 2006, I was a sophomore in college and noticed I was having a hard time concentrating on conversations, studying and sleeping due to racing thoughts. When I went to my doctor (my pediatrician - he was my doctor since I was a baby!) he made me take a test that measured my level/type of anxiety. After completing the test he diagnosed me with generalized anxiety disorder. For the times I couldn't deal and I felt severely anxious I was prescribed Xanax to help me take the edge off of my stress and anxiety."

For Mary, 25, from Arlington, Virginia, it was before she had to take an overseas flight.

"My mother had asked her doctor for something to help her sleep on flights, and they ended up giving her a few Xanax. She said it helped calm her down, so I asked my regular physician. They immediately agreed to write the prescription. [The Xanax] was necessary in order to help with the fact that I get severely anxious when I have to fly."

How does it help both cases of anxiety?

For Lauren, who suffers from a severe case of general anxiety disorder, the drug not only helps with her panic attacks and mood fluctuations, but also helps better manage her relationships and physical health.

"Xanax helps my anxiety so much. When I know I am going to be put in a severely stressful situation I take one pill before hand so I can avoid becoming severely anxious or an onset of a panic attack. For more, Xanax allows me to not have a strong emotional tie to situations I would usually get worked up about."

Mary, who only takes the drug before flights, has also noticed a difference.

"Xanax allows me to relax and focus less on the flight/odds of crashing and more on sleeping/iPod/any other distractions. Yes, it improves my experience, and though I still hate flying, I'm not quite as on edge."

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Addiction and side effects -- are they real concerns?

We've seen how it's helped -- however, like any drug, some of the side effects can make anxiety or depression worse, especially in younger children and adolescents. In 2004, the FDA released a message stating that taking some anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications led to higher rates of suicidal thoughts and behaviors. In addition, experts who study the drug state that when used recreationally, the drug has the effect of being "high" or "drunk," and creates a state of euphoria. Because of this feeling and the cheap cost to get (some dealers charge as little as $1 a pill), Xanax, Oxycontin and Vicodin overdoses are at an all-time high and have tripled since 2000, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis.

Mary, who takes it only during flights or high-stress situations, hasn't experienced any severe side effects or feelings of addiction, but does see it as a potential threat.

"I take it so rarely so I don't experience those. However, I do feel people who need it/take it on a regular basis would probably get addicted."

For Lauren, who takes it regularly to help combat her severe anxiety, doesn't feel addicted to it, however, does see it as a crutch.

"The only real downside is that it can be a crutch. You know in the back of your mind you have the pill and it can sometimes cause you to not try and deal with your anxiety in an alternative way."

"You know in the back of your mind you have the pill and it can sometimes cause you to not try and deal with your anxiety in an alternative way."

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Is it too easily accessible?

With the rate of overdose increasing at a steady and alarming pace, and thousands of people checked in to drug rehabilitation programs because of it, we have to wonder: Is getting Xanax too easy for those who don't need it to combat anxiety? Should there be a stricter protocol to prescribing this powerful anxiety medicine? Mary, whose doctor didn't test or question her, and just wrote a prescription when asked, believes it's way too easy for this drug to get in the wrong hands.

"It probably is too easy to obtain. The fact that my doctor didn't question me at all before writing the prescription is not encouraging, but I'd like to think it's because I do not ask on a regular basis. There seem to be very casual attitudes about it both with doctors and patients; it is a sedative, but it seems to be perceived as something that's no more dangerous than Tylenol or other over-the-counter drugs, despite being stronger and having a genuine addiction risk."

If you're struggling with addiction or know someone who is, don't wait to seek help. Call an addiction hotline or visit this online addiction helpline immediately.

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