Steps to freedom - Overcoming panic attacks and tranquilliser addiction

Overcoming tranquilliser addiction - One step at a time

Francesca Townsend's* story can be read here.

Uncovered’s Psychologist Colin Matthews takes a look at Francesca’s story and tells us why diazepam is not a long term solution to anxiety. He also tells us what steps to take and what ones to avoid when tackling panic attacks.

What is Diazepam?

Diazepam is one of a class of tranquillisers known as benzodiazepine.  These tranquillisers produce a sedative effect and are sometimes prescribed to treat anxiety.  The purpose of a drug such as Diazepam, in this case, is likely to have been to take the edge off of any anxiety symptoms.  This, on the surface, would appear to be a very good idea.  Anxiety can be extremely disabling.  The physical effects can be frightening and debilitating.

Fear of fear

People who suffer from anxiety can end up fearing the anxiety as much as the original situation they were frightened of.  If we can take a pill that stops us being anxious about something, then why not take it?

Francesca tells us about two problems she encountered while taking diazepam.  One was that the panic increased and she eventually became frightened of everything and the other that she became addicted to diazepam.

The psychology of stress

Francesca’s initial panic attack came after a series of major difficulties (separation, bereavement, illness).  She was doing two jobs and looking after two young children.  There is little doubt that she was stressed and exhausted.  When we are under stress, even little things can get on top of us and we are likely to get upset and irritated easily.  We might worry more and our mood can drop.

Francesca was able to face work and life with the aid of diazepam for a period of time.  She noticed however that she needed to take more as time went on.


She also grew dependent on the drug.  While there may be biological characteristics of the drug that both reduce its effectiveness over time and increase user dependency, there are also psychological explanations.  These explanations are not only applicable to diazepam but to any drug, including alcohol, used for the purposes of reducing anxiety.

Symptoms of anxiety such as our heart beating faster, butterflies in our stomach, shaking and sweating, are our body’s responses to perceived danger.  They are the result of, amongst other things, increased oxygen and adrenaline in our body.  This physical response prepares our body either to fight the danger or run away from it. It is sometimes known as the “fight or flight” response.  While this response is useful if we need to run or fight, it can be of little use if we are sitting at our desk in the office. In our modern lives, anxiety is often a response to worrying thoughts that we have about a situation.

Tackling anxiety

Anxiety is most often best tackled by thinking about what it is that frightens us about a situation and determining how realistic our fears are.  Often the best way of doing this is to put ourselves in the situation we are frightened of and find out at first hand.  What we will generally find is that things are never as bad as we thought they were going to be.  Through the process of putting ourselves in the situation that initially frightens us and challenging our fears about the situation, we can reduce the anxiety we have about the situation to a manageable level.  We might actually enjoy the things we were once frightened of.

There are, however, two things that keep our anxiety high.  One of these is avoidance and the other is using what we call safety behaviours - ways of soothing our anxiety about a situation.


If we avoid a situation, we never get the chance to challenge our anxious thoughts about that situation.  Our anxiety is likely to either increase or stay at a significantly high level.  For example, if we fear that we will panic and will need to pull over on the motorway if we drive on one, we might never give ourselves the chance to find out if what we fear will happen. When we decide not to drive on the motorway and find an alternative route instead, any anxiety we had about having to do so will go down.

We can then forget about motorways - until the next time.  When that next time comes, our anxiety will be every bit as high as it was before.  The longer we leave it, the more of an obstacle it will become.  Each time we avoid the situation, we reinforce the message that this is a dangerous, difficult situation that we cannot cope with.  We also reinforce a more general message that we lack the ability to cope with situations.  This can affect our confidence and our self esteem.

Safety behaviours

Safety behaviours also keep anxiety high about a situation.  When we cannot avoid a situation, we might find a way of doing it that helps us get through the situation with less anxiety.  In the example above, this might be taking a friend with us in the car while we drive on the motorway.  While this is a really good way of beginning to face situations we are frightened of, we should look to drop these behaviours as soon as possible.  Initially, we may be able to give ourselves positive messages about how well we coped.  If we continue to take a friend with us, however, we might find that we begin to doubt that we could do it on our own, telling ourselves that the only reason we coped is because we had our friend with us.  Now substitute "friend" for diazepam, cocaine or alcohol and substitute the motorway for work or socialising or staying at home alone.

Facing addiction

Francesca found that she had become frightened of everything.  She eventually wanted to hide in the wardrobe.  Faced with this prospect, she understood she could not go on the way she was.  She then showed phenomenal courage to face not only a physical addiction but also an emotional attachment and dependency on diazepam.  She talks about how she did things with the support of a professional, one small step at a time, facing as much as she was able to.

Expert advice

This is important.  While I am suggesting that the best way to deal with your fears is to face and challenge them, do this at your own pace and at a level you can cope with.  Seek professional help and advice where appropriate.  Also, because it takes so much courage to face things you are frightened of, you need the motivation to do so.

More information on anxiety, and help in overcoming it, can be found here.

If you are taking Diazepam or any other benzodiepine and would like help or advice on how to come off then please speak to your GP.  Our Prescription Medication Addiction article can be found here.

Withdrawal from such drugs needs medical advice.

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