Answering calls for Christmas stress


WHEN Peter Tallant of the Council for Involuntary Tranquilliser Addiction (CITA) answers the phone at the council's offices in Liverpool during Christmas, he may speak to at least 60 people a day who simply cannot cope with the festive season.

The charity, established in 1987, runs a national helpline offering information and advice on coping with the withdrawal from prescribed drugs, especially at Christmas time. "We even get calls from Texas and Australia," he says.

"In the 1960s the use of barbiturates was seen as fairly trendy," he explains. "They were prescribed by doctors and it was very easy to overdose on them. They were known affectionately as `Mother's little helpers' and lots of women used them when they were stressed out just to get through the day.

"Of course nowadays, benzodiazepines such as valium and temazepam are very difficult to overdose on and can become addictive after seven days. Only recently we had a 63 year old woman call our helpline 22 times in one day. You see, Christmas can be a really stressful time and this lady was taking valium, she had spent time in a psychiatric ward where she was given electric shock treatment.

For those people who attend the surgeries or telephone the helpline it is "a point of contact, someone to talk to", as well as the opportunity for the counsellors to talk them out of reaching for the valium when life gets tough.

"Most people have been prescribed the drugs for bereavement or post natal depression when they can't sleep. They are usually prescribed for a period of seven days during which it can be therapeutic. Any more than that and they become addictive."

But CITA does not deny that in many cases a simple telephone call will prevent addiction or overdose. Peter says: "Yoga breathing over the telephone is one of the ways we can reduce stress, and many people say that it is just a chance to talk. We can only advise them to avoid stimulants that will increase the build up of adrenalin in the body and lead to stress."

The drugs belonging to the benzodiazepine family, in particular, are water soluble and lodge in the fatty tissue of the stomach and they can remain in the body's system "for years".

A survey for CITA has confirmed what many people already know about Christmas; when people feel compelled to spend time with relatives they don't like, or to spend money on presents they cannot afford, increases in the levels of stress are commonplace.

More than half of all adults in Britain will have suffered significantly increased levels of anxiety by New Year's Day. A fifth of these will feel sufficiently affected, to contact their doctor.

A survey claims that "post festive syndrome" affects one in five people who admitted seeking their doctor's help. More than a quarter of the people surveyed turned to alcohol to deal with the problem.

"One in 10 people are seeking help for anxiety already from their GPs, but after Christmas the problem seems to get worse. People, particularly women, have been under pressure to organise a festive Christmas and everyone overdoses on stimulants like chocolates, coffee, cola and alcohol. On top of that many people spend more than they can afford and the end result is not a refreshed approach to the new year, but high anxiety."

CITA's follow up research shows that four out of five callers found the service helpful in reducing stress levels and assisting them to regulate sleep.

Council for Involuntary Tranquiliser Addiction, Cavendish House, Brighton Road, Waterloo, Liverpool L22 SNG.

Telephone: (0044) 151 474 9626.