The dangers of popping pills while flying


Popping pills that aren’t prescribed to you can be dangerous– especially while traveling. (iStock)

For too many people the holiday season causes stress and anxiety.

From long check in lines, flight delays and lost luggage, to traffic jams, family fights and a burned turkey, there are a dozen or more things that can go wrong —sending even the calmest person into a tail spin.

We have all heard the horror stories of people popping a pill to help them relax on a flight and then taking off all their clothes off and running riot around the plane.

An easy solution for many adults is to take anxiety-reducing drugs to calm themselves down during this stressful time. A recent Yahoo Travel study found that about one in ten adults traveling for the holidays turned to pills to reduce their holiday stress.

But that might not always be the best remedy.

Yes, the sedative properties of benzodiazepines such as Ativan, Klonopin and Xanax can help reduce anxiety and stress and in some cases are completely necessary. But these medications, particularly when used without the advice of a doctor, come with a whole host of baggage.

While many individuals are prescribed these medications for very real anxiety and depressive disorders, there are just as many who “borrow” pills from friends in order to “relax” during a flight or a particularly grueling holiday dinner. The problem with taking these drugs without the oversight of a medical professional is that they can be incredibly addictive.

“If you take sedatives, such as the anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) drugs Ativan or Klonopin, they are addictive,’ explains psychotherapist and author John Tsilimparis, MFT.

“So you use the medication to get you through the holidays and you use too much of it, you can become dependent on it when the holidays are over.” 

These addictive properties come with another problem. Taking the pills or increasing your intake over the holiday season and then stopping can cause withdrawal symptoms including insomnia, muscle spasms, fearfulness, gastric issues, even depression, giving a whole new meaning to post-holiday blues.

Other side effects of these medications include fatigue, memory loss and reduced coordination. In some cases they will even increase the anxious or stressed feelings you took them to help with in the first place.

Sedatives do not mix well with other drugs. Alcohol included. And one thing we all do over the Christmas period is overindulge – usually starting with a celebratory cocktail on the plane. But drinking while taking sedative pills for stress or anxiety is a bad idea.

“If you are taking pills you do not want to layer them with alcohol,” recommends Tsilimparis, author of Retrain Your Anxious Brain. “That can get you in trouble.”

Combining alcohol with these medicines will increase the drug’s effects on the nervous system causing dizziness, drowsiness and decreased concentration.

We have all heard the horror stories of people popping a pill to help them relax on a flight and then taking off all their clothes off and running riot around the plane. Or snoring so loudly, while drooling, that the flight attendant has to wake them up to appease the other passengers.

So what can you do instead of taking pills to help with holiday travel stress?

Firstly, it is helpful to understand why, exactly, this time of year can be so anxiety and stress provoking.

“It can be a big brouhaha of high drama mostly because there are problems around time management, around high expectations and around the spending of money,” explains Tsilimparis. “And people tend to forget the true nature of the holidays because of all that.”

So whether your holiday travel stress starts before you have even left the house, mid flight, or once you have reached your destination, there are multiple ways to ease your anxiety without the use of pills.

Before you travel

Set a reasonable, realistic budget for your holiday spending so that you don’t feel uncomfortable and maxed out once the credit card bill comes through.

Limit the time you actually spend with your relatives and try to turn the trip into a vacation for yourself too. So rather than spending a week with the family, limit it to four days and do something else the other three.

During travel

When stress levels rise, try some breathing and stretching exercises. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing itself or picture something wonderful in your head. It could be the beach or somewhere in the forest. Try doing progressive muscle relaxation where you tense your muscles and you let them go. Lift your ankles up so you feel the tension in your shin then pushing your ankle forward so you feel it in your calf. And you can do that all the way up your body. This is particularly good if you are on a train or plane because you can do this sitting down.

Try holistic therapies such as lavender aromatherapy oil or Kava Kava root that help calm the mind and soothe tension.

At your destination

Find time to do things for yourself like go to the gym or get a massage.

If stress flairs up again, excuse yourself to a quiet place, lie down and take a few minutes to slow everything down.

“Travel and holiday stress have a lot to do with expectations,” John admits. “So keeping your expectations realistic is important. It is ok to say no to people when you think you have taken on too much to make sure you don’t go crazy trying to make sure all the decorations are perfect or all the presents you bought are perfect, that everything in your home looks perfect. It is really a time to slow everything down and try to remember that most people don’t really care about that stuff.”

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