Benzodiazepines are highly addictive prescription tranquilizers, and can also be called anxiolytics or sedatives. These drugs are prescribed to help people manage the symptoms of panic disorders, anxiety disorders, seizures, muscle relaxation problems, and insomnia, among other conditions. Benzodiazepines or “benzos” for short, are classified based on how long their effects last, which can be short-acting or long-acting.
One of the reasons why benzodiazepine addiction is becoming so common can be attributed to the fact that the number of prescriptions written by doctors is steadily rising. Between 1996 and 2013, prescriptions for benzos increased by 67 percent, from 8.1 million to 13.5 million per year.
Despite the fact that getting Xanax is relatively easy, the effects on people who misuse the drug can be detrimental. One study found that, among popular prescription medications, benzodiazepines were associated with the greatest risk of early death. Additionally, people who take benzodiazepines for at least 6 months—under a doctor’s orders or recreationally—have an 84% higher chance of developing Alzheimer’s.
Physical signs of benzo addiction can include blurred vision, drowsiness, weakness, and mood changes. Due to the process of building a tolerance, over time a person that is addicted will require more in order to get the same high. When this happens, family and friends may notice doctor shopping, as well as asking friends and family for their benzodiazepine bills. You can also notice risk-taking behaviors after taking benzos such as driving while medicated.
The mental health community uses the term sedative, hypnotic, or anxiolytic use disorder to describe this addiction or abuse. In order to be diagnosed with this, at least two of the possible 11 symptoms must show within the same 12-month period. Some of these symptoms include:
- Taking the sedative in a higher volume or over a longer period than it was first intended.
- A considerable amount of time spent acquiring the drugs, using the drugs, and recovering from the effects.
- More of the drug is needed to achieve the desired effects that are familiar.
- There is an impaired performance at work, home, or school because of the effects of benzos.
The most popular benzos that people abuse are Xanax, Valium, Ativan, and Klonopin. These drugs are some of the most commonly prescribed in the United States and are also widely available on the streets. These drugs act on the central nervous system and produce sedation and muscle relaxation effects that can help lower anxiety levels. Death by benzo or Xanax abuse alone is uncommon, but these drugs can be combined with alcohol, which makes them dangerous and lethal.
It’s also common for users to combine benzos and opioids, like heroin. Taking both drugs at the same time can be very unsafe because they each have sedative properties that can cause breathing to slow, which is the main cause of overdose fatality. In 2015, 23% of people who died as a result of an opioid overdose also had benzodiazepines in their system.
Since most benzos come in pill form, some users will crush and snort the pills to feel the effects more quickly than swallowing the pill. However, snorting benzos increases the risk of overdose because it enters the bloodstream so quickly.
Once someone starts abusing Xanax or another type of benzo, becoming addicted can happen quickly. On average, benzo users can develop a tolerance after six months of continuous use, although it can happen much sooner. One study, in particular, found that nearly 45% of benzo users eventually become dependent on the drug.
Since quitting cold turkey is dangerous, finding the right treatment program is necessary.
Inpatient Treatment: An inpatient treatment center will provide care 24 hours a day, generally in a non-hospital setting. Lengths of stay can vary depending on if it is a long-term or short-term inpatient treatment program. Treatment is structured and there are activities that are designed to help patients examine any beliefs that could have led to addiction in the first place. There are different types of therapy throughout treatment, both individual and group, in order to treat the addiction. This type of treatment can be useful in the beginning, especially as patients are suffering from withdrawal. Sometimes there are programs like Launch Centers that offer partial day with supportive housing which can provide a similar experience to residential inpatient treatment.
Outpatient Treatment: This type of treatment can vary with different types of intensity and this treatment is preferred by people who have jobs or for those who have extensive social support. In many of these types of programs, group counseling is a major component. Some programs are designed to treat patients with other mental health or medical issues in addition to drug addiction.
Support Groups: Ongoing support is necessary during treatment and a support group will offer members support on a number of different issues. These groups are run by others who have gone through the same thing and are designed to help reduce the chance of relapse and make sure members stay sober. Groups like AA will follow a 12-step program to develop a fulfilling life without the need for alcohol.
The withdrawal process can be long and it usually isn’t just a matter of days. The withdrawal time will vary depending on the type of benzo that was being used. A short-acting drug, such as Xanax, has a shorter withdrawal period that can last around seven days. Valium abuse can have withdrawal symptoms that last around ninety days.
The symptoms can be painful and some of the symptoms of withdrawal include depression, anxiety, poor memory, heart palpitations, night sweats, and muscle twitching. Due to the symptoms and the long withdrawal process, going cold turkey is not recommended. When the level of medication becomes too low in the body, then there is the possibility of withdrawal seizures.
A slow taper detox supervised by a medical doctor is necessary to avoid harsh withdrawal symptoms. Tapering off of benzo will usually involve a doctor prescribing a smaller amount of the drug over time or prescribing a different one that is less potent. Certain medications can also make the withdrawal process worse.
When coming off of a benzodiazepine, it’s important to avoid herbs or drugs that work with GABA receptors in the brain. Some of these drugs can include mood stabilizers and antidepressants. Vitamins, such as B, D, and magnesium, can also make withdrawal symptoms worse. Since a benzo withdrawal is one of the few withdrawals that can kill you, it is necessary to seek interventional or medical supervision in the detox period.
If you or a loved one is struggling with benzo abuse, take our short online quiz to determine if you have an addiction. At Launch Centers, we’re committed to helping our clients overcome their substance abuse issues while helping them build important life skills outside of treatment.