Having feelings of anxiety throughout life is normal, said Salcedo. Yet when these feelings begin to negatively impact one or more areas of your life and limit functionality, it transitions into a disorder. Symptoms of general anxiety disorder typically include racing, catastrophic thoughts and difficulty breathing, she said.
"They just feel like they can't relax like they used to," said Salcedo of sufferers.
The disorder can also get physical, causing muscle tension, fatigue or restlessness and cause a vicious cycle. "These kinds of symptoms then can kind of feed into each other," said LaPilusa. "The more a person worries, the more physically drained or agitated they could get, which could lead to more worry."
Panic attacks, which are usually marked with shortness of breath, feelings of dread and a racing heart, occur in the most severe cases, said Salcedo. The attacks can last anywhere from several minutes to several hours. LaPilusa described panic or anxiety attacks as a blitzkrieg of symptoms that could even cause fainting.
Psychotherapy, particularly cognitive brain therapy, said Salcedo, is another way to treat anxiety. CBT usually spans over 12 to 16 sessions and helps patients learn to recognize and challenge anxious thoughts, along with behaviors that could be contributing to the anxiety. Within four to six sessions, people usually feel a change and improve, she said.
There's also acceptance and commitment therapy. According to LaPilusa, the therapy, which focuses on teaching mindfulness, can be given by a therapist or psychologist. It encourages people to stay in the moment and rediscover their values, meaning and purpose. This is especially helpful in the age of social media, where people often have hundreds of "friends" online but lose touch with their own identity.
While Lembke touts meditation, exercise and good sleep hygiene as sound alternatives to benzos, she also said that if medicine is your best option, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, a class of antidepressants, would be a safer alternative, since they're typically are not habit forming. She added that they also exhibit safer side effects and work better in the long term.
Compton, deputy director of the NIDA, and Ken Duckworth, director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, both said they don't think benzodiazepines have the potential to be as catastrophic as the opioid crisis.
"It'd be hard to predict the next great catastrophic public health epidemic," Duckworth said. "My colleagues use these medicines for the short term, the vast majority of the time."
Compton pointed to the fact that people typically don't begin to like the feeling of benzodiazepines the way that they like opioids. And while he doesn't think benzodiazepines could be the next opioid crisis, he said they are dangerous — even more so when combined with opioids.
In fact, the Food and Drug Administration began requiring "boxed warnings and patient-focused Medication Guides" on labels to inform consumers about the risks of combined use of opioids and benzodiazepines in 2016, and said that combined use could cause risks including respiratory depression, dizziness and death.
"You have two different agents or medications ... that are both reducing our automatic breathing response, so the respiratory centers of our brain are suppressed by all of these different substances," Compton said. "The combination is what makes people stop breathing."
More from Modern Medicine:
A new, personalized vaccine is being tested to cure cancers
The key to weight loss may be in the palm of your hand