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During the past 25 years, tranquillisers have been widely prescribed by doctors for anxiety, insomnia and certain rare conditions of muscle abnormality or seizures.

There are two main varieties of tranquillisers - major tranquillisers or anti psychotics which may be prescribed for a number of years for the treatment of mental illness; and minor tranquillisers which have anti-anxiety, sleep inducing and general anaesthetic effects.

Minor tranquillisers are currently one of the most commonly prescribed drugs in Australia. About a third of Australian adults have used the common benzodiazepines (as minor tranquillisers are known), such as Librium, Valium, Mogadon, and Serapax. Apparently 4% of males and 6% of Australian females currently use these drugs daily or on most days.

As with any drug, the effect of tranquillisers depends on the amount taken at any one time, the manner in which it is taken, the individualís age, sex, health, bodyweight, mood, tolerance, past experience and activities, and the circumstances in which the drug is taken.

In most people, however, a therapeutic dose reduces emotional reactions and mental alertness. Mild anxiety, tension and agitation are relieved with few obvious effects on thought processes or perceptions. A person normally feels relaxed, has a sense of well-being and some loss of inhibition.

The most appropriate use of tranquillisers is during a short term crisis, such as the death of a close friend or relative, where anxiety or unhappiness interferes with normal sleep. In such a situation, tranquillisers will provide relief. But they should only be used for a few days to avoid dependence on the drugs for sleeping or relaxing.

Responses to tranquillisers vary according to the individual and dose. Some people become drowsy; others feel isolated from their surroundings. Some people experience a floating sensation and most exhibit mental confusion and physical unsteadiness with a large dose. Other side effects can include skin rashes, nausea, dizziness and paradoxically, sleep disturbances, rage or personality changes.

It can be dangerous to drive a car or operate machinery while taking tranquillisers because they may impair judgment and remove some inhibitions. Such activity is particularly hazardous if tranquillisers are taken together with alcohol, other sedative hypnotics or antihistamines (cough, cold or allergy remedies).

Repeated use of tranquillisers over a period of weeks or months may lead to increased aggressiveness in some users rather than the expected calming effect.

Even when prescribed in recommended doses, some people develop a dependence on tranquillisers. This means that the drug becomes so central to their thoughts, emotions and activities that it is very difficult to stop using it or to maintain vary reduced consumption.

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