What Are Benzodiazepines?
Commonly called benzos, these drugs are central nervous system (CNS) depressants—these include sedatives, tranquilizers, and hypnotics. They are useful in the treatment of anxiety and panic disorder, as well as other conditions such as seizures, depression, insomnia, alcohol withdrawal, muscle tension, and for pre-surgery sedation.
Benzodiazepines are believed to work by enhancing a neurotransmitter called GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid), whose function is to suppress nerve activity. It is hypothesized that conditions like anxiety are the result of an overactive nervous system. Benzodiazepines are so effective at enhancing this suppression of the nervous system, they are one of the most popular anxiolytics (anxiety reducers).
Types of Benzodiazepines
Common benzodiazepines include:
- Diazepam (Valium®)
- Alprazolam (Xanax®)
- Lorazepam (Ativan®)
- Clonazepam (Klonopin®)
- Clorazepate (Tranxene®)
- Chlordiazepoxide (Librium®)
Effects of Benzodiazepine Use
While no two people will react to a drug the same, most report some level of sedation. Some benzos work quicker or can last longer than others, depending on the particular drug.
For example, drugs like Xanax® are short-acting and can last up to 11–20 hours, while drugs like Valium® begin working in 30 to 60 minutes and can last 1–3 days.
Despite this variation, most benzodiazepines feature the same side effects.
Short Term Side Effects of Benzodiazepines
The main short-term side effects of benzodiazepines may include:
- Motor coordination issues
- Slurred speech
Long Term Side Effects of Benzodiazepines
The long term side effects of benzodiazepines may include:
- Sleep disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Benzodiazepine Abuse and Addiction
Benzodiazepines can be habit-forming and lead to physical dependence and even substance use disorder if taken for longer than recommended by a doctor or without a prescription.
Even if taken as prescribed, there is still the risk of dependence. It is vital to monitor your use of benzodiazepines, as symptoms of addiction can be difficult to spot right away—especially if you develop a tolerance to these medications.
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for polysubstance abuse to occur in which abusers mix benzodiazepines with other drugs such as opioids and stimulants. While these combinations can be dangerous, the use of alcohol with benzos can be especially dangerous and, in some cases, fatal.
Signs of Benzodiazepine Addiction
Benzodiazepine addiction can be challenging to identify, as its effects can sometimes be life-saving for those suffering from anxiety and depression, especially when symptoms can be crippling. The following behaviors are warning signs to look out for if you suspect benzodiazepine abuse is occurring with a loved one or even yourself:
- Change in behavior and performance at work or school
- High drug tolerance (needing high doses to achieve the same effect)
- Strong cravings for the drug
- Withdrawal symptoms when the drug is reduced or stopped
- Spending excessive time obtaining, using, or recovering from the drug
- Prioritizing benzodiazepine over activities you previously enjoyed
- Benzodiazepine overdose
As a legal prescription drug that is frequently used for the treatment of anxiety disorders, anyone from any walk of life can develop benzodiazepine addiction, prescription or not. This is why it’s critical to identify these signs as soon as possible.
As is the case with most drug use, quitting a benzodiazepine can come with some brutal consequences. If you stop abruptly or “quit cold turkey,” you may experience an intense version of withdrawal symptoms.
These symptoms may include:
- Lack of concentration
- Anxiety/panic attacks
- Muscle spasms
- Difficulty breathing
Long-term use can determine for how long and to what severity these symptoms occur, so it’s crucial you are honest with your healthcare provider so they can ensure you’re safely weaned off the drug.
Signs of benzodiazepine overdose include:
- Excessive sweating
- Dilated pupils
- Irregular heart rate
- Shallow breathing
- Suicidal ideation
Benzodiazepine Addiction Treatment
The road to recovery from benzodiazepine substance abuse is challenging, but it can be done. As a commonly abused drug, there is no shortage of providers and treatment options available if you or a loved one is ready to find recovery. Every addict is different, so it’s important to find a program that works with your specific circumstances.
If you’re planning on quitting benzodiazepines, it’s highly recommended you taper off the drug under the supervision of a healthcare provider to ensure your safety during the process, as some withdrawal symptoms can be very dangerous.
Benzodiazepine Treatment Programs
Treatment for benzodiazepine addiction treatment will vary from patient to patient, depending on the severity of the addiction. Different treatment programs may be used to help beat benzodiazepine dependency effectively and for good. Options range from inpatient rehab programs to partial hospitalization to intensive outpatient programs. Speak with your healthcare provider to determine which one best suits your situation.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in 2019, around 92 million prescription benzodiazepines were released into the United States and 16% of opioid-related overdoses also involved benzodiazepines the same year.
Among people who misuse benzodiazepines, the majority (46.3%) take them to relax or relieve tension, followed by help with sleep (22.4%). A small amount (5.7%) reported taking them for experimentation, while 11.8% took them because they felt addicted or hooked on them.
—National Institute on Drug Abuse
The National Institute on Drug Abuse also reports that data shows most misusers obtained benzodiazepines from friends or relatives, with only about 20% receiving them from their doctor.
Support for Friends and Family Members
Coping with a benzodiazepine addict can be heartbreaking and frustrating. The stress of balancing the worry for your loved one and living your regular life can eat you up. This is why it’s so important to find the safety and treatment your loved one needs, so you can offer love and support through the recovery.
Benzodiazepine Addiction FAQs
Why are benzodiazepines so addictive?
Drugs of this class are known for their fast-acting sedative effects and feelings of euphoria. Combined with its easy accessibility, benzodiazepines are particularly at-risk for abuse and drug addiction.
Is mixing benzodiazepines with alcohol dangerous?
It is incredibly dangerous to mix benzodiazepines and alcohol. While mixing a benzo with any other drug is highly discouraged, pairing the drug with alcohol can be fatal. Both benzos and alcohol are CNS depressants, so they can slow your heart rate, cognition, and physical reactions—combining them only compounds this effect. These factors can easily lead to accidental overdose, heart attack, seizures, and death.
Are all benzodiazepines generally the same?
While they all accomplish the same goal, different drugs within the class of benzodiazepine can differ by how short-acting they are and how long they last. This variation makes certain drugs ideal for certain conditions—for example, Xanax, Ativan, and Klonopin are commonly used for anxiety disorders because of their quicker onsets, while Librium and Valium can be helpful for things like alcohol withdrawal and seizure disorders because of their long-lasting effect.
Annette (Gbemudu) Ogbru, P. D. (2021, April 1). Benzodiazepines drug class: List, uses, side effects, types & addition. RxList. Retrieved December 9, 2021, from https://www.rxlist.com/benzodiazepines/drug-class.htm.
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National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2021, June 7). Prescription CNS depressants DrugFacts. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved December 9, 2021, from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/prescription-cns-depressants.
Schmitz, A. (2016, May 6). Benzodiazepine use, misuse, and abuse: A Review. The mental health clinician. Retrieved December 9, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6007645/.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, May 5). Research suggests benzodiazepine use is high while use disorder rates are low. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved December 9, 2021, from https://www.drugabuse.gov/news-events/science-highlight/research-suggests-benzodiazepine-use-high-while-use-disorder-rates-are-low.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2021, February 3). Benzodiazepines and opioids. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved December 9, 2021, from https://www.drugabuse.gov/drug-topics/opioids/benzodiazepines-opioids.