“As long as I’m not taking it every day, I think I’ll be fine,” Sarah said. It was around the one-year mark of our relationship that she was prescribed Ambien for insomnia after many sleepless nights that left her irritable and unfocused the following day. Slowly, I watched her fall into an increased pattern of usage that pushed her into addiction. Despite being able to sleep, she was overcome with a sense of helplessness at the hands of the medication and a feeling of guilt for needing to take them.
Although she expressed her desire to break free from the cycle of drug use, she also felt that it was a lost cause. After becoming terrified at the memory problems she began to experience, she realized the hurt that her addiction was causing both herself and me and decided that it was time to take the first steps toward recovery.
Insomnia is a problem that many people struggle with on a regular basis—around 30 to 35 percent of adults experience brief symptoms, whereas 10 percent have a chronic disorder. People are increasingly turning to sleeping medications to switch off their brains at night, using them as a fast and easy way to ensure that they get a proper amount of sleep. But without taking into account how addictive they can be, addiction can creep up on you and take hold of your life. Much as it did for Sarah, suffering from an addiction to sleeping medication creates a sense of helplessness as you feel that you can no longer sleep and function normally without their help, even when the negative effects begin to stare you in the eyes.
The Rise of Z-Drugs
Although some benzodiazepines are still prescribed for insomnia for their hypnotic effects, many doctors are turning to Z-drugs—a moniker that stems from the common first letter of their chemical names—for this purpose. Much like benzodiazepines, Z-drugs such as Ambien and Lunesta act on gamma-aminobutyric acid-A (GABA-A) receptors, which create widespread inhibition of the brain when activated. However, they are much more selective of the receptors they bind to; research shows that they do not disrupt sleep architecture in the way that benzodiazepines do and also create fewer residual effects the next day.
Despite the decreased risk of side effects, data suggest that Z-drugs still pose risks of physical dependence, shifting the perception that they are relatively harmless. More and more cases of individuals becoming addicted to these medications are surfacing, making doctors realize the dangerous addictive potential that they pose and the havoc that they can wreak on unsuspecting individuals. Unfortunately, this realization has come too late for many who are already in the midst of addiction.
Sleeping medication addiction is difficult to break free from, due to the rebound insomnia that comes with stopping, leaving you feeling like the problem that you began with is even worse than when you started medicating. To make matters worse, abrupt cessation can produce withdrawal effects including nausea, fatigue, and hand tremors. Luckily, with the right effort and guidance, you can gradually reduce your dosage, all the while using holistic treatment to regain control over your thoughts and give you the extra push needed to sleep during the harsh realities of withdrawal.
Mindfulness meditation is a form of western meditation that spawned from Vipassana, a 2,500-year-old Buddhist practice that places emphasis on living in the present and seeing things the way that they truly are. In focusing on accepting any thought that seeps into your awareness in an open-hearted, non-judgmental manner, mindfulness meditation helps us become aware of the things that we experience in both the inner and outer world and strengthen our connection to the present moment.
Sleeping medication addiction creates a sense of despair that can be difficult to climb out of. You can no longer sleep without the medication, and when you try to, you get caught up in worrying that you won’t sleep, creating a vicious cycle that puts your mind into overdrive. Using mindfulness meditation, you can learn to accept and become aware of every worry, anxiety, and sensation that you feel prior to sleep. After this process of acceptance, you will find that you have greater control over these thoughts and emotions, promoting a sense of relaxation and freeing yourself from the clutches that they have over you.
Current research supports the benefits of mindfulness meditation on sleep. One study revealed that in combination with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), mindfulness meditation can help insomniacs go to sleep twice as quickly as prior to treatment. After the study, approximately 60 percent of the subjects no longer met the criteria for insomnia. An additional non-controlled study examined the effects of a sleep therapy developed by researchers from the University of Massachusetts Medical School that incorporated meditation on insomniacs. Of those who used sleeping medication, approximately 91 percent either cut down their dosage or stopped using it altogether.
Mindfulness meditation allows you to face the thoughts and sensations that you experience prior to sleep and resolve them in order to bring yourself to a peaceful state of mind that promotes sleep. Research has shown that it decreases the size of the amygdala, the region of the brain that deals with emotion and fear, which is typically connected to increases in the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain that is related to awareness, decision-making, and concentration. By reducing fear and emotion, you are better equipped to face the thought of overcoming your addiction and achieving the thing that you thought was not possible: healthy, natural sleep.
Turning Awareness into Progress
Each night, you lay awake and stare at the ceiling, telling yourself that tonight is the night that you’re going to sleep without your medication, and each night you inevitably reach for your prescription hours later and tell yourself that you’ll do it another time. In order to begin the process of recovery from sleeping medication addiction, you must understand that you can sleep without the drug—you just don’t have the proper tools to do so yet.
Tapering off of sleeping medication can stimulate depression, anxiety, and insomnia, making it very hard to focus on the root problem of why you have trouble sleeping in the first place. A controlled taper plan in a residential treatment setting is the most effective way to minimize sleeping medication withdrawal symptoms and take a step closer to recovery. With the added help of mindfulness meditation, you can restore the balance in your brain during this difficult period and better understand the thought processes that promote and work against healthy sleep. Using this newfound awareness, you will come to realize that freeing yourself from dependence is not only achievable, but it’s also the path you need to take to gain a deeper understanding of yourself and your sleeping habits.
Alta Mira offers comprehensive addiction treatment that uses mindfulness meditation to help clients break free of the cycle of sleeping medication dependency. If you or a loved one needs more information on how to break free from this addiction and promote healthier sleep habits, contact us today to learn more about our unique treatment program.
Lead Image Source: Unsplash user Eli DeFaria