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How to manage sleeping pill addiction

It’s not that difficult to become addicted to sleeping pills without realising that it’s happening. Taking sleeping pills could start off as a short-term solution to difficulties in getting to sleep, but can slip into a long-term habit that’s tricky to break.

People start taking sleeping pills for all sorts of reasons. For seniors, ageing and health issues can be at the root.

  • As people age, they tend to need less sleep in general, but they may also have more difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep.
  • Other health conditions can interfere with sleep, such as arthritis, heart disease, and chronic pain. These conditions can make it difficult to get comfortable and fall asleep.
  • Depression and anxiety can also make it difficult to relax and fall asleep.
  • Some medications, such as antidepressants and pain relievers, can interfere with sleep.

Why are sleeping pills addictive?

There are lots of different kinds of sleeping pills that work in different ways – for example, antihistamines are common over-the-counter sleeping aids, which cause drowsiness and are primarily used to treat allergies. A doctor may prescribe zoplicone, antidepressants or benzodiazepines. Zoplicone is particularly common, and prescribed for short-term insomnia.

The trouble with taking sleeping pills in the long term, is that they are addictive.

Sleeping pills work by affecting the part of our brains, known as GABA receptors, that regulate our emotions, how we feel pain, our cognitive abilities and, of course, how we sleep. This kind of medication activates these receptors, helping to relax the nervous system.

It is very easy to become dependent on the more relaxed state of mind that sleeping pills encourage, as they also have the ability to lessen feelings of anxiety – depending on the type taken. This could, in turn, lead to an emotional dependency.

Why is addiction a problem?

After a while, people often feel like they can’t sleep without the pills. That’s potentially because their bodies are adapting to continuous medication as their tolerance to their effects increases. In some cases this could lead to taking the medication too often or in too large a quantity in one go.

Taking any kind of addictive medication can be habit-forming, especially when it helps with something that is as important as sleep. Addiction can begin without anyone even realising it.

Signs and symptoms

Many of the symptoms can be signs of other age-related challenges, such as cognitive function decline, dementia, and urinary tract infections, amongst others. But if you notice these trends, it is worth trying to find out what is going on.

Symptoms of sleeping pill addiction can include confusion, memory loss, loss of balance, irritability when awake, hallucinations, nightmares, constipation, nausea, dizziness, a very dry mouth.

Finding help and support

Martin Preston, Addiction Specialist at Private Rehab Clinic Delamere, explains that it is important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of sleeping pill addiction, and offers advice on how to help someone you think may be struggling.

  • Initiate a conversation and see whether your friend or relative brings up the topic themselves. This way, they are less likely to think you are prying.
  • If this does not happen, confess that you have noticed changes in their behaviour. Explain that they do not seem like themselves and that you were wondering whether they were doing anything differently.
  • If they choose to confide in you, reassure them that there is no judgement between the two of you – you only want to be a listening ear and help.
  • It could be helpful to suggest therapy of some kind, but start small, such as speaking to a therapist over the phone or on Skype.
  • Depending on the level of your loved one’s addiction, you may have to suggest eventually going to rehab – but be sure to reiterate that nothing has to be done right away, as the whole process can be gradual and at a pace that suits the individual.
  • Depending on how receptive your loved one is being, you could gently explain that despite the fact the medication seems to be helping them sleep right now, a sleeping pill addiction could lead to worse insomnia – known as ‘rebound insomnia’.
  • Make it clear that addictions can fall upon anybody and that millions of people suffer from them all over the world. They are not alone in this situation.
  • If the conversation turns sour or your family member or friend is showing signs of denial and resentment, leave the chat there and pick it up at a different time. It is imperative that your loved one knows you are not trying to force them to do anything they do not want to.

There are other ways to improve sleep, such as lifestyle changes, relaxation techniques, and cognitive-behavioural therapy. If you are concerned that you, a friend or a family member may be addicted to sleeping pills, your doctor can help an individual develop a plan to safely reduce use.


Image by DCStudio on Freepik

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