February 15, 2017

Feeling better without medication

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Medication may be right for you in the short term, but it doesn’t come without risks.

Research concludes that strong painkillers and medication often used to treat stress, anxiety and insomnia (benzodiazepines), generally shouldn’t be used for very long. This is because they:

  • can be addictive1,2
  • could lead to stomach and bowel problems including constipation, reduced sex drive and fertility, drowsiness, irritability, mood swings, depression, muscle tension, headaches, difficulty sleeping3,4,5
  • can become less effective over time.6
Benzodiazepines are recommended for no longer than 2-4 weeks7. Strong painkillers such as codeine, oxycodone and fentanyl generally shouldn’t be used for longer than 3 days in row.8

Better treatments

Studies have shown that there are more effective treatments than medication for chronic (persistent) pain, stress, anxiety and insomnia.9,10,11

You don’t have to wait until your medication is finished to start trying these treatments, you can speak with your doctor about using them right away.1 Many of them take practice and you won’t necessarily feel the full benefit of them immediately. But they will help to treat the root cause of your problem instead of being a band-aid solution, so they are likely to help you feel better in the long term.


Psychologists can use a range of techniques to help you get your stress and anxiety under control and help you sleep better. They can also help you manage pain.

Mind-body connection

It might seem strange at first to try and fix a problem that seems to be with your body by working with your mind. But research is showing how powerful the mind-body connection is, and how dramatically things like our thought patterns and expectations affect our actual experiences.12,13,14

Controlling your thoughts

One of the most important things you can do to get your pain, stress, anxiety and sleep problems under control, is to improve the way you’re thinking.

It’s natural for us to focus our thoughts on things that distress us, but when we become overwhelmed or worried, we need to think differently. Just like you can control your physical health by eating a well balanced diet and regularly exercising, you can control your mental health by learning how to regulate your thoughts15. Research has shown that the most effective treatment for improving mental health for people with medical problems including chronic (persistent) pain is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)16,6. CBT is provided by trained psychologists.

Where to get help

Relaxation techniques

Relaxation techniques include breathing and relaxing the muscles.16 They can help to relieve the symptoms of stress and anxiety, help you prepare for a better night’s sleep and help you manage pain better.

When you’re feeling stressed or anxious your body releases specific hormones that are part of our ‘fight or flight’ response.13 Regularly using relaxation techniques helps reduce this by calming your body so it doesn’t trigger these hormones. This helps you think clearly and deal with the situation better.

Often pain or the worry about not being able to sleep causes stress and anxiety,6 so relaxation techniques can help a variety of problems.

Where to get help

  • You can learn relaxation techniques by:
    asking your GP
    going to a psychologist
    trying a local yoga, Tai Chi or mindfulness class
    using one of the many online tools and apps, for example ReachOut Breathe.
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Exercise and physical therapy

Getting active can lift your mood17 by flooding your body with feel-good chemicals (endorphins) and distract you from negative thoughts. You don’t have to become a bodybuilder, just getting out walking will help. Exercise not only helps you feel happier and calmer, it’s been also proven to help you sleep better17.

If pain is making exercise or even your day to day activities tough, seeing a physiotherapist could help you get going with a program that works for you. It’s important not to push yourself too hard, starting slowly and building up gradually is the way to go18. This will help you avoid setbacks and keep you in a positive frame of mind.

Where to get help

Ask your GP for a referral to a physiotherapist so you can claim your treatment on Medicare.

Find a physiotherapist

Healthy eating

What you eat has an enormous impact on your body and mind. Good nutrition gives your body the building blocks to make the ‘feel good’ chemicals for your brain, as well as those which regulate your mood and your energy levels.

Cutting down on some things (like processed foods, sugar and alcohol)19,20,21, while making sure you’re eating healthy foods (like lots of vegetables, fruit and wholegrains)21, can help your brain and body work together to keep you feeling your best22.

Trying different diets is often not the best way to get healthy. Eating regular, nutritious meals by following the food pyramid guidance is more likely to give you better results in the long term.

Where to get help

If you are struggling to eat well, ask your GP for some help or a referral to a dietitian.

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  2. M. Y. Frei, S. Nielsen, D. M. D. H and C. L. Tobin, "Serious morbidity associated with misuse of over-the-counter codeine–ibuprofen analgesics: a series of 27 cases," Med J Aust, vol. 193, no. 5, pp. 294-296, 2010.
  3. Alcohol and Drug Foundation, "Benzodiazepine facts," 5 May 2016. [Online]. [Accessed 7 February 2017].
  4. Alcohol and Drug Foundation, Misuse of Pharmaceutical Drugs: Fact Sheet, Alcohol and Drug Foundation, 2013.
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  7. NPS Medicinewise. (2015). Benzodiazepine dependence: reduce the risk.
  8. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.) CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain.
  9. Pain Australia, "National Pain Strategy: Pain management for all Australians," National Pain Sumit Initiative, Sydney, 2010.
  10. eCentre Clinic, "Chronic Pain," Macquarie University, 2015. [Online].
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  15. Better Health Channel, "Cognitive Behavioural Therapy," September 2016. [Online]. [Accessed October 2016].
  16. S. G. Hofmann, A. Asnaani, I. J. J. Vonk, A. T. Sawyer and A. Fang, "The Efficacy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Review of Metaanalyses," Cognitive Therapy Research, vol. 36, no. 5, p. 427–440, Oct 2012.
  17. Beyond Blue, "Staying well: a guide to recovering from anxiety and depression," Beyond Blue.
  18. Better Health Channel, "Exercise programs," State of Victoria, 2016. [Online]. [Accessed 16 February 2017].
  19. Better Health Channel, "Managing and treating anxiety," 2016. [Online].
  20. E. Selhub, "Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food," 17 November 2015. [Online]. [Accessed 21 10 2016].
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  27. D. Cunnington, M. Junge and A. T. Fernando, "Insomnia: prevalence, consequences and effective treatment," Medical Journal of Australia, vol. 199, no. 8, pp. 36-40, 2013.
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  30. J. Sarris, A. C. Logan, T. N. Akbaraly, G. P. Amminger, V. Balanzá-Martínez, M. P. Freeman, J. Hibbeln, Y. Matsuoka, D. Mischoulon, T. Mizoue, A. Nanri, D. Nishi, D. Ramsey, J. J. Rucklidge, A. Sanchez-Villegas, A. Scholey, K. P. Su, F. N. Jacka and I. S. f. N. P. Research, "Nutritional medicine as mainstream in psychiatry," Lancet Psychiatry, vol. 2, no. 3, pp. 271-4, March 2015.

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