Sleeping pills and minor tranquillisers

Explains what sleeping pills and minor tranquillisers are used for, how the medication works, possible side effects and information about withdrawal.

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What are sleeping pills and minor tranquillisers?

Sleeping pills and minor tranquillisers are prescribed for severe anxiety and sleeping problems. They include:

Sleeping pills and minor tranquillisers are sedatives. This means they slow down your body and brain’s functions, such as your breathing, heartbeat and thought processes.

These drugs are sometimes called sleeping pills, minor tranquillisers, sedatives or anxiety-busters. Doctors may also call them hypnotics and anxiolytics.

How could sleeping pills or minor tranquillisers help me?

If taken correctly, they can:

  • reduce symptoms of anxiety, such as feeling very agitated or shaky
  • help you break a period of insomnia and return to a more healthy sleep pattern

They can’t cure anxiety or sleeping problems, as they don’t address the underlying causes, but they can help you to feel calmer and more relaxed.

Who can prescribe sleeping pills and minor tranquillisers?

You should be prescribed sleeping pills and minor tranquillisers according to guidelines produced by NICE (the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence), the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the British National Formulary (the main guide for professionals on the use of medication).

These guidelines say that you should be given sleeping pills and minor tranquillisers only:

  • if you have severe anxiety or insomnia that is having a significant impact on your day-to-day life
  • for short periods of time
  • if other forms of treatment, such as cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), are not suitable or have not helped

How long will I have to go on taking my medication?

Sleeping pills and minor tranquillisers work best if you take them on a short-term basis, rather than as continuous treatment. This is because, for most people:

  • they become less effective if taken over a period of time
  • they can be addictive if taken regularly

For most people the following guidelines apply:

  • take sleeping pills for no more than three weeks, and preferably for no more than a week
  • take anxiety drugs for no more than four weeks, including the withdrawal period
  • try to avoid taking them every day

On balance, I would argue that sedatives are an excellent short term solution but not something to depend for more than a few weeks at a time.

This information was published in August 2016. We will revise it in 2019.

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