With many anxiety disorders being diagnosed across the country every day, the need for medication that helps alleviate symptoms for sufferers continues to grow. The most commonly prescribed medications for the treatment of anxiety come from a class of drugs called benzodiazepines, or benzos, for short. Unfortunately, it is easy to become physically dependent on benzodiazepines, which can lead to an addiction to these anti-anxiety medications. For some users, the addiction to benzos can be worse than their anxiety disorders ever were.
Benzodiazepine abuse is more common than many people know. When it is left untreated, benzo addiction can negatively impact an individual’s relationships, work life, and physical and mental health.
What Are Benzodiazepines?
Benzodiazepines are a class of medications that produce a calming and sedative effect. They reduce excitatory activity in the central nervous system, which makes the user feel relaxed and sometimes drowsy. Benzos are typically prescribed for generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder, but they may also be prescribed to reduce muscle spasms, sleeplessness, and seizures, in some cases.
Several prescription medications fall in the benzodiazepine classification, including:
- Valium (diazepam)
- Xanax (alprazolam)
- Klonopin (clonazepam)
- Restoril (temazepam)
- Ativan (lorazepam)
Benzodiazepines have the potential for abuse and addiction, even though users may begin taking the medications for legitimate mental health disorders. Other users consume benzos for nonmedical or recreational uses. They may swallow the pills or crush and snort them to feel the euphoric effects or get high.
What Are the Warning Signs of Benzo Abuse?
There are numerous signs and symptoms that someone is abusing benzodiazepines. These indicators vary depending on the individual, the type and amount of benzo they are using, and whether they are using benzodiazepines in combination with other substances, like alcohol.
Common signs of benzodiazepine abuse include:
- Lack of coordination
- Fatigue or extreme drowsiness
- Slurred speech
- Impaired cognitive ability and memory loss
- Nausea or vomiting
- Changes in appetite
- Respiratory depression
- Shaking or trembling
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Slow reflexes
- Mood swings
- Erratic or aggressive behavior
There are also behavioral signs that an individual is abusing or addicted to benzodiazepines, including:
- Isolating from friends and family
- Losing interest in activities, relationships, and goals that were previously important
- Often seeking emergency refills from emergency rooms and doctors due to “loss”
- Crushing pills before use
- Snorting crushed pills or dissolving pills in water to inject the solution
- Doctor shopping to obtain multiple prescriptions for benzos
- Trying to fill prescriptions at multiple pharmacies
- Purposefully combining benzodiazepines with the use of alcohol or other drugs
- Lying about drug use
- Experiencing personality changes
How Does Benzodiazepine Addiction Affect The Brain?
Benzodiazepines are pills that are taken orally. They may be short- or long-acting, which refers to how long the drug stays in an individual’s system, not how long they take to become effective. No matter which type of benzo is taken, the effects will be felt quickly, which makes them ideal for treating panic attacks. Typically, users feel the effects within 15 to 30 minutes.
Benzodiazepines work by increasing the level of the inhibitory neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain to provide a calming and sedating feeling. These drugs also affect the central nervous system and relax muscles.
When benzos are abused, or someone becomes addicted to them, they can become dangerous because they actually change brain chemistry. Over time, the altered brain cells will no longer function at optimal levels without benzodiazepines in the system. Brain cells will call out for the drug, causing a craving in the user, and that call is very difficult to ignore. Any type of benzodiazepine can cause this reaction, whether long- or short-acting.
What Are the Health Risks of Benzodiazepine Abuse?
There are numerous health risks and potential negative consequences associated with taking benzodiazepines. Unfortunately, many of these adverse effects can happen with prolonged use, even when the medications are taken as prescribed.
Impaired cognitive ability – Benzodiazepines slow down the functions of the body and the brain, including how the brain manages information and responds to stimuli. And it happens while an individual is under the influence of the medication as well as when the effects wear off. Users who have taken benzos for an extended period of time may find that it affects their ability to manage commitments at home, function well at work, and make sound decisions in general.
Impaired driving ability – One of the most significant and dangerous effects of benzodiazepine use is a marked decline in the ability to drive safely. Even when benzodiazepines are prescribed by a doctor, users can be charged with driving under the influence of a mind-altering drug. Driving while taking benzos can be fatal to drivers, passengers, and other people on the road.
Physical dependence – When someone takes benzodiazepines regularly for a period of time, they may become physically dependent on the drug – even when it’s taken as prescribed and under a doctor’s care. Over time, users build a tolerance to the medication. That means they need to take higher doses of the drug to achieve the same effects. Once an individual reaches this point, they will typically suffer withdrawal if they discontinue or reduce their use of the drug.
Medical emergencies, including overdose – Benzodiazepines cause a slowing of the heart rate and breathing. If someone takes too high of a dose, these functions can stop completely. The risk increases significantly if the user takes benzodiazepines in combination with other depressant substances, like painkillers or alcohol.
Addiction – When someone is physically dependent upon benzodiazepines, and they develop a psychological dependence on the medication too, it is a full-blown addiction. Cravings for and compulsive use of the drug will take over, even when negative consequences develop. Benzodiazepine addicts are at risk of accident or overdose every day they use. Once addicted, individuals are unable to stop using the drug on their own, and they should not attempt to do so without medical supervision and treatment. Stopping cold turkey can result in life-threatening symptoms. Detox should always be completed in a hospital or addiction treatment center.
Treatment for Benzodiazepine Addiction
Fortunately, addiction to benzodiazepines, like addiction to other substances, is treatable. The best way to begin addiction recovery is by seeking help from a reputable addiction treatment facility. At an addiction treatment center, medical professionals and therapists will evaluate the individual and determine what the best course of action is for the person’s specific needs. They will collect a medical history and detailed history of substance use to make the decision.
Once a treatment plan is established, the user will undergo a detoxification program. In this program, the person is medically monitored as the body rids itself of benzodiazepines. This can be an uncomfortable and dangerous process, which is why it is important to do so under medical supervision. In detox, medication may be given to ease the discomfort.
Following the detox program, a recommendation will be made regarding continuing treatment. Depending on the individual and the extent of their addiction, outpatient or inpatient treatment will be suggested. It is in these programs that individuals learn the tools and techniques they need to manage their addictions and live lives without benzodiazepines or other substances.