Sleeping Pills: The Hidden High-Performance Addiction

“Getting hooked on sleeping pills and painkillers is not only the preserve of people in the public eye. There’s also a silent epidemic going on in society.”

Max Pemberton, The Spectator

What is sleeping pill addiction?

In the last twelve months, sleeping pill addiction has been featured in several high-profiled press items, most recently an interview with English Premier League football player, Dele Ali. Most people have heard of sleeping pills and their use, but it’s only in recent years we’re starting to see a growing trend of individuals misusing sleep aids and developing a dependency often leading to a full-blown addiction. Some people addicted to sleeping pills will have been prescribed sleep aids, whilst others have purchased online to self-medicate and use as a self-soothing aid. Typically, a medical doctor will prescribe non-benzodiazepine or benzodiazepine (BZDs) sleeping pills or hypnotics to treat insomnia. In some cases, a person may develop a dependency within a matter of weeks, and some after a couple of months. The longer this continues, the more likely an addiction will ensue. At Addcounsel, we know how hard sleep medication addiction is to face and recover from.

Sleeping pill addiction is characterised by an inability to control or stop using sleeping pills, craving for sleep medication, and showing signs of a withdrawal if an individual stops using. In an article Using medication: What can help when trying to stop taking sleeping pills and sedatives? it writes: “People who take benzodiazepines and Z-drugs for too long or in too high a dose can easily become dependent. That is why it is important to take as low a dosage for as short a time as possible. It is not possible to say at what stage their use becomes a problem—it varies from person to person. But people might become dependent after only a few weeks. But it is quite common for these drugs to be taken for several months or even on a permanent basis.”

The challenges of winding down after a major natural high

Many high-performance athletes, executives, ultra-high-net-worth individuals, and those in the public eye are well aware that their line of work causes them severe stress and intense adrenaline surges, making it very hard to naturally wind down and relax after a long day/night of peak performance.

Imagine performing to eighty thousand people in an arena, or to a roaring crowd of fans in a sports stadium, or feeling on cloud nine/invincible after a great gig or a major sporting victory? How then does the performer or athlete come down from such a high and naturally wind down so as to get sufficient sleep to keep going? When a popular recording artist is on tour for three months, or if an elite footballer has four matches in ten days, it wouldn’t be irrational for them to seek a sleeping aid, especially if their adrenaline surge is keeping them awake. But what happens once the tour has ended, or at the culmination of an arduous football season? It’s quite likely that that the performer/athlete will have felt the benefits of getting some sleep and may very well continue self-medicating with sleeping pills.

It’s not just British athletes struggling with sleeping pill addiction. It’s widespread around the world. For instance, in recent years the National Hockey League (NHL) Player’s Association in the States have aired their concerns on professional hockey players misusing sleeping aids. In The Denver Post it writes: “Professional hockey players are no exception. Many have trouble sleeping and turn to prescription drugs such as Ambien. But like any other drug, Ambien can be abused and lead to harm.” The article continues: “When it came to problems associated with sleep, the NHL has had its wake-up call. The league, in accord with the NHL Players’ Association, instituted rules this past offseason related to getting enough rest as part of its new collective bargaining agreement. Among them: Players must receive at least four days off per month during the season. Previously, days off were at the coach’s discretion. Also, from the time a team’s plane lands after a flight, no practice can be started before at least nine hours has elapsed.” It concludes: “The NHL and NHLPA formed a joint committee to study the use of Ambien by league players, and will make recommendations for monitoring and controls based on its findings.”

At Addcounsel, we recognise that individuals don’t set out to become addicted to sleeping pills; as with so many things in life, events and circumstances pave the way for an addiction to become entrenched. Working in a super-stressful, high-powered environment, or performing to crowds in the tens of thousands twice a week, will certainly have a marked impact on the nervous system. If such an individual also happens to be neurodiverse, perhaps autistic or has ADHD, further complications will ensue; for example, an athlete with ASD will really struggle to adapt to the inconsistent schedules and media engagements expected of them at the height of their career.

Addcounsel’s team of world-class experts have identified some of the most universal reasons a peak performance athlete will use sleeping pills:

  • Elite athletes will be acutely aware how important sleep is, from preventing an injury (which could end their career overnight) to managing digestion
  • Mitigate the pressure to consistently perform at the highest level
  •  Alleviate pain from a physical injury
  • Fear of failure/performance anxiety leading to sleep deprivation
  • Immense stress associated with being tied down to a four- or five-year lucrative contract with a football club and/or sponsorship deal, demanding the highest performance. Being tied to a contract, especially if an athlete has fallen out of favour with the head coach or club, may cause the athlete to feel trapped, exacerbating severe insomnia

What are the side effects of sleeping pills?

Some individuals will experience side effects whilst misusing and abusing sleeping pills. It’s recommended by health professionals to speak to a medical doctor immediately if presented with such side effects. Here are some of the most recognisable side effects associated with sleeping pills addiction:

  • Difficulty breathing/shortness of breath
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Heart palpitations/pounding heart/heart burn
  • Chest pain
  • Blurred vision and dizziness
  • Lack of coordination
  • Impaired memory
  • Vomiting
  • Light-heartedness
  • Itching/hives/rash
  • Uncoordinated movements
  • Stomach pain

What are the signs of sleeping pill addiction?

As with all addictions and/or addictive behaviours, the withdrawal symptoms associated with trying to cease regular use/curb dependency on sleep medication may take the individual by surprise when faced for the first time. It can be alarming, causing panic and emotional distress if undertaken unsupervised or without medical guidance. The stigma and shame associated with an addiction to sleeping aids, however, often impedes elite athletes from getting help or seeking professional treatment. They fear that a withdrawal from sleeping pills will cause a massive disruption to their rigid routine and grueling schedule, thereby causing a drop in form whilst the brain rewires itself and the nervous system resets. The stakes are so high in elite sport (with the difference between a win and loss sometimes being down to the most minute of things) many an athlete will prefer to stay on the treadmill and keep going until they simply can’t physically compete anymore.

Here are some of the signs of sleeping pill addiction:

  • Memory loss
  • Hallucinations
  • Experiencing rebound insomnia, which occurs when an individual goes through a withdrawal. Typically, rebound insomnia happens when a person discontinues using benzodiazepine hypnotic drugs
  • Ambivalence and confusion
  • Panic attacks and anxiety
  • Drowsiness
  • Mood swings
  • Finding it unimaginable to cope or sleep without sleeping pills
  • A withdrawal kicks in when remaining abstinent during the first couple of days
  • Withholding information from medical professionals about the severity of the addiction, or seeking prescriptions from multiple doctors (often seeking medication online/over the counter/A&E)
  • An unusual change in habits such as neglecting personal hygiene
  • Craving sleeping medication —obsessing about it during waking hours

Addcounsel’s approach to sleeping pill addiction

At Addcounsel, we understand the impact that sleeping pill addiction can have on your day-to-day life, particularly in your personal life. You might find it near impossible to sleep without medication, have less and less time for loved ones, and find yourself feeling trapped and helpless.

You don’t have to go through this alone. With the right treatment and support, you can go on to lead a happy and fulfilling life. Our private clinic takes an integrative and ‘whole person’ approach to treatment, focusing on the symptoms, triggers, and causes of your sleeping pill addiction. We’ll set you up with a personalised sleeping pill addiction treatment plan designed to help you recover, and create a robust aftercare programme to support re-integration into your family and lifestyle.

Our dedicated team is here for you every step of the way and will help you navigate treatment smoothly, giving you the support and care you need to recover and flourish after leaving one of our clinics in Mayfair, Knightsbridge, Notting Hill and Chelsea, London.

Contact us today to start your recovery. Alternatively, complete our drug addiction self-assessment test.


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