Benzodiazepines are highly addictive prescription drugs. They are prone to abuse, and dependency can form quickly with continued use. As a result, benzodiazepines are generally only prescribed for short-term use.
While benzodiazepines can be effective when used for a legitimate medical reason on a short-term basis, they are very dangerous when abused.
For those who deal with a diagnosis of anxiety, benzodiazepines (BZDs) can be very helpful if used as recommended. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) says that these medications should only be used in the short term as a stabilizing mechanism for anxiety and related disorders.
Anxiety is one of the most discussed mental health issues in the United States today. In May 2018, TIME magazine reported that up to 18 percent of Americans have an anxiety disorder. This adds up to about 40 million people.
Concerns about addiction have been brought up over the years because most people develop a tolerance to benzodiazepines. This tolerance can build quickly, making it easy to become dependent on them. Dependence can then progress to addiction with continued abuse.
Benzodiazepines are scheduled drugs, which means you cannot take them unless you have received a prescription.
Commonly Prescribed Benzodiazepines
Below is a list of the most commonly prescribed benzodiazepines and what they are used for.
- Clonazepam (Klonopin): Used mostly to treat panic or anxiety disorders, Klonopin can also be used to treat epilepsy, Tourette syndrome, and restless legs syndrome. It is effective in preventing convulsions and decreasing anxiety.
- Diazepam (Valium): This drug is most often prescribed for anxiety disorders or relief from anxiety in the short term. It is sometimes used for seasonal affective disorder (SAD). When used for this purpose, it is recommended that users start with a low dose and receive an evaluation one week later.
- Alprazolam (Xanax): This is one of the best known anti-anxiety medications today. Xanax can make you feel calmer right after taking it, but its effects can differ depending on your dosage.
- Lorazepam (Ativan): This medication is prescribed to people who have been feeling symptoms of anxiety for at least four months or those who have been diagnosed with panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, or generalized anxiety disorder.
Other benzodiazepines include:
- Midazolam (Versed), which is often given to children before a surgical procedure.
- Temazepam (Restoril), which treats insomnia.
- Oxazepam, which is effective in treating irritable bowel syndrome, insomnia, and symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.
Harvard Medical School reports that about a dozen benzodiazepines exist today that can be prescribed for a variety of panic and anxiety-related disorders. They are sometimes used for other purposes, such as to address muscle spasms, seizures, or anxiety, such as that caused by traveling on airplanes. They are also used to calm patients before surgery.
Though each benzo has a different chemical composition, they all work by influencing a chemical in the brain called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). This neurotransmitter produces feelings of calmness in your brain by limiting certain nervous system activity. Some benzodiazepines stay in the body longer than others.
Benzos enhance the effects of GABA, limiting brain activity that is often the culprit of panic or anxiety due to excess neurotransmitter firing in the brain. This is how benzodiazepines calm you down and help you sleep better.
History of Benzodiazepines in Treatment
In a 2013 paper, the Consultant Pharmacist explained that benzodiazepines were first discovered in 1955 while Chemist Leo Sternbach was working for Hoffmann-LaRoche. The company eventually sold and marketed chlordiazepoxide (Librium), the first benzodiazepine in history.
Diazepam (Valium) was discovered next in 1963. At the time, pharmacists and health care professionals felt that benzodiazepines were safer than barbiturates. Barbiturates were known to slow breathing in patients and be highly addictive. As a result, health care providers began prescribing benzos much more.
Benzodiazepines were the most popularly prescribed medications for mental health issues in the 1970s. By the 1980s, physicians and health care professionals began noticing that patients were becoming dependent on benzos. Some patients were abusing their prescriptions.
This is how benzodiazepines came to become scheduled drugs. Physicians continue to raise concerns about them as they record their observations.
While benzodiazepines were designed to be a safer alternative to barbiturates, they are also highly prone to abuse.
Side Effects of Benzodiazepines
There are a variety of benzodiazepines available. They all can lead to the following side effects:
- Sleepiness or drowsiness during the day
- Rebound insomnia (common in short-acting medications)
- Changes in appetite
- Changes to libido
- Dry mouth
- Lack of coordination
- Short-term memory issues
In the long term or at higher doses, benzodiazepines are known to cause some of the problems they were prescribed to address.
The following are potential rebound symptoms:
- Fear of open spaces (agoraphobia)
- Inability to feel contentment (anhedonia)
- Incoherent thoughts
You should not drink alcohol when using benzos, as it can worsen some of these side effects. SAMHSA says that benzodiazepines can cause dependency with six weeks of continued use.
Why do People Abuse Benzos?
Benzo abuse is defined as any use of benzos in a way a doctor did not direct. This includes taking the medication in higher doses than instructed or for longer than prescribed, as well as taking benzos when a doctor hasn’t prescribed them to you.
Benzos are some of the most commonly prescribed medications in the U.S., and as a result, they are also some of the most abused. Their sedative effects make them attractive to people who are dealing with everyday stress and work responsibilities. Other people may have been prescribed benzos for depression or anxiety disorders and have gotten pleasure from the effects, so they’ve taken higher and higher doses to achieve the same effects. When people abuse benzos, they frequently deny that they have a problem, thinking they are self-medicating and that they can control their usage.
Taking benzos by themselves isn’t usually dangerous; however, when combined with alcohol and other drugs, they can be deadly.
The following are common reasons for misuse of these medications:
- To assist with sleep
- To relax
- To relieve tension
People who reported misuse stated that their source of the drug was a friend or family member with a legitimate prescription.
Risk Factors for Benzodiazepine Abuse
The environment plays a large role in the development of benzodiazepine abuse. Genetics and biology may also factor in.
Some risk factors for benzodiazepine include:
- Having a friend of family member who abuses benzos
- Starting to use benzos from a young age
- Having a mental illness like depression or anxiety disorder
Signs of Benzodiazepine Addiction
Signs of benzodiazepine addiction include:
- Tolerance to the medications.
- Inability to stop use even with their best efforts.
- Blurred vision
- Combining benzos with alcohol of other drugs
- Withdrawal symptoms when not taking benzodiazepines.
Detecting these signs early is key to stopping an addiction before it gets worse.
Withdrawal Symptoms of Benzodiazepine Addiction
With benzo addiction can come many painful withdrawal symptoms, which can include:
- Panic attacks
- Withdrawal from reality
When people addicted to benzos want to quit, they may try doing it on their own. However, they are putting themselves at great risk since their withdrawal symptoms might be too difficult for them to handle. This is why we offer benzodiazepine detox at Footprints where you can detox in a safe environment.
Who Misuses Benzodiazepines?
In 2018, young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 were most likely to misuse benzodiazepines. In addition, 12.6 percent of adults, or 1 in 8 people, took benzos in 2018. Misuse of these medications adds up to 17 percent of total use.
- Women are more likely than men to have a prescription for a benzodiazepine.
- Men are more likely than women to report misusing benzos.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports these findings:
- Between 1996 and 2013, the number of adults who received a prescription for benzodiazepines went from 8.1 million to 13.5 million, increasing 67 percent.
- In 2015, nearly a quarter of deaths due to opioid overdoses also implicated a benzodiazepine in toxicity screenings.
Is Treatment Available for Benzodiazepine Misuse?
FootPrints has treatment available for benzodiazepine addiction. If you have been misusing benzodiazepines, your treatment will most likely include the following:
- Intake: A doctor or addiction specialist will document your medical history and ask questions about your use of benzos. They will assess and potentially diagnose co-occurring mental health disorders that need to be addressed.
- Detox and withdrawal management: Detox is an important first step when addressing benzodiazepine addiction. Dependence on benzodiazepines forms quickly, and it is dangerous to stop taking these drugs suddenly. Doing so can result in life-threatening withdrawal symptoms, such as seizures. You will most likely slowly decrease the amount of benzos you are taking while under medical supervision. This can take many months if you have been taking benzodiazepines for a long time.
- Therapy: This is where you address the core issues that led to your benzo abuse. Therapy comes in many forms, such as individual therapy, group therapy, and family therapy. Alternative therapies, such as art therapy or equine-assisted therapy, may also be used.
- Aftercare: Once you have completed a formal addiction treatment program, your team will work with you to develop a comprehensive aftercare plan. This plan forms the basis of your life as you continue in recovery. Most often, it includes ongoing therapy sessions and support group meetings. Footprints has recovery homes, partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient, and basic outpatient programs available.
- Recovery homes: Recovery homes are sober living houses that provide a safe, drug-free environment for people recovering from severe addictions. Residents can apply relapse prevention skills they learn in therapy to their everyday lives.
- Partial hospitalization: Partial hospitalization programs are beneficial for people who don’t quite fit residential treatment or intensive outpatient treatment. It offers structured programming five days a week for six hours a day, so participants can live at home while going to treatment. It offers the life skills taught in outpatient while also giving patients the clinical benefits of residential treatment.
- Intensive outpatient: Intensive outpatient (IOP) is a step above basic outpatient treatment. Patients in IOP can focus on other responsibilities like school or work while also attending individual or group therapy. IOP is offered three to five days a week for three hours a day, and it offers both day and evening schedules.
- Basic outpatient: Basic outpatient is different from IOP in that it is less frequent and there are fewer sessions. Basic outpatient offers patients the most freedom and offers programs one to two days a week for three hours a day.
The Bottom Line
Addiction is a major concern with the abuse of benzodiazepines. These drugs should only be used according to prescription instructions by the person who has prescribed them. Anyone not prescribed them cannot take them legally. Any abuse can rapidly lead to dependence. Contact Footprints today to see what we can do for you. We can help you take control of your life once again.