Benzodiazepines, or benzos, include Valium, Xanax, Ativan, Ambien, and Klonopin. Although frequently prescribed to treat medical conditions like anxiety and seizures, benzodiazepines can be dangerously addictive. American Addiction Centers wants you to be aware of these dangers.
How Benzodiazepines Affect the Brain
According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), the number of adults prescribed benzodiazepines increased by 67% from 1996 to 2013. Most of these drugs act on the brain by increasing activity of GABA, a chemical that slows brain activity and causes a drowsy or calming effect. Over time, a person might need larger doses to achieve the same therapeutic effect, a process known as tolerance. They may develop cravings and dependency. If use is suddenly stopped, severe withdrawal symptoms, including death, can occur.
In addition, benzos cause dopamine surges that the brain associates with joy and reward. Since our brains are wired to repeat pleasurable activities, these surges cause changes in neural connectivity that cue individuals to repeat the activity. Brain cells insistently call for the drug, and the call is hard to ignore. This is when addiction develops.
What You Need to Know About Benzodiazepines
In a recent article, addiction experts including Dr. Lawrence Weinstein, the chief medical officer at American Addiction Centers, discussed benzodiazepine addiction. They shared key information about warning signs, withdrawal symptoms, and treatment. Here’s what doctors want you to know about benzo addiction:
Benzodiazepines should not be your first choice
Weinstein cautions that benzodiazepines should not be your first treatment option. For most patients, he said, “Benzos should be a second or third line of defense, one with a clear end in sight.”
If your doctor does prescribe benzodiazepines, have a thorough discussion about side effects and the signs of increased tolerance or addiction. Weinstein explained, “Education will be the safety net that helps you through a short-term treatment plan.”
Due to the likelihood of tolerance and addiction, benzos should not be considered for long-term treatment.
The risk of addiction is increasing
The number of people using benzodiazepines continues to increase. Weinstein said, “A 2018 study found that 1 in 8 adults had used benzos in the past year, and 17% of those were misusing the drug.” Increased usage means that an increasing number of people may be suffering from benzo addiction.
Although intentional abuse isn’t extremely common, Weinstein cautioned that it can take “a few months or less” for someone who is using benzos to become dangerously addicted.
Benzos can cause cognitive impairment
Even in low doses and without addiction, regular use of benzodiazepines can cause memory and cognitive impairment. Cognitive impairment can improve when people gradually taper their use of benzos, but the drugs are strongly associated with the risk of dementia.
Other unpleasant side effects include dizziness, impaired coordination and movement, drowsiness, headaches, and depression. When mixed with other depressants, including alcohol and opioids, fatal overdose can occur.
Anxiety is a withdrawal symptom
Benzos are commonly used to treat anxiety, but anxiety is also a major symptom of withdrawal from the drug. For this reason, patients who stop taking benzodiazepines often think they need to continue using benzos to manage an anxiety disorder.
Instead, talk with your doctor about what’s causing your anxiety, then consider alternative treatments. Anxiety can be effectively treated without benzodiazepines.
If prescribed benzodiazepines, put them away safely
Since benzos are widely prescribed and available in many homes, they are often used recreationally and abused by young people. If you’re prescribed benzodiazepines, be sure to store them somewhere where they can’t be easily accessed by others.
Those who use benzos recreationally often pair them with opiates, and this combination is the leading cause of overdose deaths.
Look for alternatives
Weinstein recommends treating your medical condition with lower-risk drugs or non-pharmacological interventions. “Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), do not have the same addictive properties and have a far lower likelihood of abuse,” he said. Although SSRIs are primarily used to treat depression, they’re also useful for individuals struggling with chronic anxiety.
Non-pharmacological interventions, including therapy and relaxation techniques, are the safest option. Often, they’re extremely effective in managing anxiety.
Signs and Symptoms of Benzodiazepine Abuse
The physical and psychological symptoms of severe benzodiazepine abuse include:
- Blurred vision
- Slurred speech
- Poor judgment/decision-making
- Mood changes
- Lack of coordination
- Difficulty breathing
Typically, a sedative use disorder is observable. The individual will spend an increasing amount of time seeking out and abusing benzos and will likely begin to exhibit uncharacteristic traits. Such behavioral signs of abuse include:
- Withdrawal from friends, family, and responsibilities
- Borrowing money, stealing, maxing out credit cards, etc.
- Engaging in risk-taking behaviors, such as driving after using the drug
- Less attention to grooming and hygiene, disheveled appearance
- Shifts in personality or mood
- Uncharacteristic secrecy and lying
- Impaired performance at work, school, and/or home
- Asking others for their benzodiazepine pills
- Doctor shopping (seeking out multiple doctors to obtain additional benzo prescriptions)
- Combining benzos with alcohol and other substances
- Wanting to cut back on the volume of use but being unable to do so
Generally, there is very little paraphernalia associated with benzodiazepine use. The drugs are typically swallowed. You may notice prescriptions from different doctors, possibly filled by different pharmacies during the same time period.
However, benzos can also be obtained from friends who sell or share pills, or from drug dealers. Street drugs are always dangerous, because there’s no way to know what you’re really buying.
Eventually, chronic abuse of benzodiazepines may cause:
- Memory problems
- Death (Rare when benzos are used alone, may occur when mixed with alcohol or opioids)
Withdrawal from benzodiazepines is particularly dangerous and potentially fatal. An estimated one-third of people who take benzos for six months or longer will experience withdrawal symptoms when they try to stop, including seizures.
Supervised medical detox at a specialized treatment facility is highly recommended. Medical staff can use a slow medication taper that allows the brain to adjust, and they can provide follow-up care for long-term sobriety.
How American Addiction Centers Can Help
Medical detox consists of a slow, controlled tapering schedule that lessens the dangerous side effects of withdrawal. After the individual is physically stabilized, they need adequate emotional and psychological support. This may include individual therapy and group counseling sessions to learn new ways to cope with stress and manage potential triggers.
Next, American Addiction Centers works with the patient and their family to design an individualized aftercare plan. The aftercare plan anticipates challenges the individual may encounter. Components of maintaining sobriety may include eating balanced meals, engaging in exercise, joining a peer support or 12-Step group, trying a holistic therapy approach, and considering a creative outlet like painting or writing.
Because American Addiction Centers treats the whole person, their success rate is double the national average. For you or a loved one struggling with addiction to benzos, AAC will consider your health, lifestyle, environment, and any co-occurring mental health disorders in creating your individualized treatment plan. They use an optimistic approach that focuses on bringing out individual strengths, motivation, and desire to make lasting positive changes.
Benzodiazepines are highly addictive, and dependence can develop in as little as two months. Whether the substance abuse problem started with recreational use or with a legitimate prescription, professional help is recommended to stop using benzos safely.
If you or a loved one needs support in breaking your addiction to benzodiazepines, call American Addiction Centers at (888) 986-9261. The sooner you get the help you need, the sooner you can start living a healthier, happier life.
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