Benzodiazepine misuse can lead to benzo addiction. This overview covers what benzos are, the signs and symptoms of addiction, and what treatment can involve.
With anxiety disorders continuing to be diagnosed across the United States, the need for a medication to calm people down is growing. Some people who suffer from anxiety are prescribed benzodiazepines to calm their nerves so they can think clearly and not suffer from regular anxiety. However, benzodiazepines can become addictive if not taken properly, and in some cases, misuse can be more dangerous than the anxiety disorder itself.
What Is Benzodiazepine Addiction?
Benzodiazepine addiction occurs when people misuse prescription medications like Xanax or Valium. This could include buying the drug illegally, taking it in larger amounts, and taking it for an extended amount of time. An addiction likely won’t occur if a patient follows a doctor’s instructions, but some people become accustomed to the drug’s calm and high.
United States legislators began to notice this and developed laws to help control benzo use. Most significantly, the 1970 Controlled Substances Act categorized benzodiazepines as Schedule IV drugs, which means the drugs have a high potential for abuse, addiction, and have limited medical uses.
However, benzos aren’t only an American issue. They’ve become an issue across the globe. In 2015, Xanax was called the world’s most popular pill, with tens of millions of prescriptions being dispensed globally.
Causes of Addiction & Risks
Benzos are habit-forming sedatives, meaning that gaining an addiction to them can be possible if not taken properly. People who take the drug excessively may begin to feel high and experience unsafe relaxation. Their tolerance to the drug’s effects can build as they attempt to emulate that initial high.
The drug’s easy availability is also a major contributing factor. Between 2014-2016, 66 million patients left doctor’s offices with benzodiazepine prescriptions or 27 in every 100 visits, according to Psychology Today.
In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention measured overdoses involving benzos were eight times larger than 1999 estimates. The risk of death increases if a person uses these drugs alongside other mind-altering substances — especially opioids. The accessibility to benzos is an even greater concern to individuals who already struggle with substance use disorder.
Signs of Misuse, Symptoms & Side Effects
Identifying the signs of someone struggling with benzodiazepine addiction can be confusing. However, there are a variety of signs that can reveal that someone is misusing benzos. It’s crucial to take notice of the signs before the symptoms become deadly.
Some physical symptoms that can occur during a benzodiazepines addiction, intoxication and withdrawal include:
- Extreme fatigue
- Slurred speech
- Impaired coordination
- Slowed heart rate
- Shallow breathing
- Slower reflexes
- Pale, cold skin
- Blurred vision
When taken for a longer amount of time, psychological symptoms can begin to appear. These can include:
- Suicidal thoughts
- Mood swings
- Cognitive dysfunction
- Vivid or disturbing dreams
Those who struggle with a benzo addiction may suffer in different aspects of their life. They may cut themselves off from their friends and family to avoid judgment for taking benzos. They also may struggle financially as they either miss work to consume the drug or spend all of their money obtaining more of the substance.
Treating Benzodiazepines Addiction
The best way to treat a benzo addiction is by seeking help through an accredited facility. Doing this allows medical professionals and clinical therapists to determine the severity of the addiction and find any underlying co-occurring disorders that have to be treated. The Recovery Village has various facilities throughout the country that can help with this process.
A reputable facility will first evaluate a person to learn about their addiction and find out key information, such as the amount of time the drug has been used and the doses that have been consumed. Once a treatment team determines the severity of the addiction, the detox process begins.
Detox can include uncomfortable symptoms depending on which benzo is being withdrawn, but a medical professional can prescribe medication to ease the discomfort. After the withdrawal symptoms subside, the client learns the tools needed to manage their addictions during inpatient, outpatient, partial hospitalization, intensive inpatient, or intensive outpatient programs.
Once completed, aftercare begins and the skills learned in treatment can be used outside of the facility. Aftercare can include regularly scheduled therapy sessions or reside in sober-living.
What Are Benzodiazepines?
Benzodiazepines, also known as benzos, are psychoactive medications that physicians prescribe to people struggling with anxiety and insomnia. There are more than a dozen different kinds of benzos that each have their own purpose. Some benzos can treat multiple conditions, but the most popular use of this drug is to treat heightened anxiety.
Benzos aren’t only for psychological symptoms. They can also be used to help those who are struggling physically. Certain benzos work to treat convulsions for people who have cerebral palsy or help relax a patient preparing to go into surgery.
When taken, the drug slows down a person’s brain activity, increasing the effects of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), and slowing bodily nerve impulses. This results in drowsiness, uncoordinated movements, slowed reaction times, and more. Though the mechanisms of action are almost the same across all benzos, there are a few key differences between the variations of the drug. For example, each medication has a unique dosage, half-life, abuse potential, and absorption time.
There are two primary types of benzodiazepines: long-acting and short-acting.
Each class of benzodiazepines is prescribed for different needs and is classified by the Drug Enforcement Administration based on their potential for addiction. The long-acting kinds, such as Valium and Librium, tend to stay in the body for many hours. Short-acting benzodiazepines like Ativan and Xanax do not stay in the body for very long — sometimes just a few hours.
Like other drugs that are illegally used, benzos go by various nicknames. Some of the most commonly used benzodiazepine street names include nerve pills, tranks, downers, V’s (Valium), and Z bars (Xanax).
Commonly Abused Benzodiazepines
- Ativan is extremely addictive, and because of how habit-forming it can be, as well as how potent and fast-acting it is, package labeling recommends use at lowest does possible.
- Klonopin is very addictive if taken in high doses or for a consistent amount of time.
- Librium Like most other benzodiazepines, Librium is a potentially habit-forming, addictive drug.
- Valium While the medical benefits of Valium are helpful for many, taking this medication over extended periods of time can lead to addiction and dependence.
- Xanax is one of the most prescribed drugs in the U.S. It treats anxiety and panic disorders but has a recognized potential for abuse.
Other FAQs About Benzodiazepines
Benzodiazepines are among the most commonly prescribed medications in the world. These drugs were created to help alleviate the troublesome symptoms of several stressful problems, particularly anxiety disorders and insomnia. In America, benzodiazepines are prescribed because of the following properties:
- Anti-anxiety: Anxiety and extreme stress can often cause physical symptoms such as a fast heartbeat, shallow breathing, rapid breathing, and heightened blood pressure. The central nervous system is responsible for these essential functions. People who have anxiety or panic disorders may benefit from the depressant qualities of benzodiazepines since the drugs can help slow down these functions. This essentially “tricks” the body into feeling less stressed out.
- Muscle relaxant: Since benzodiazepines depress the central nervous system, they can help people relax their muscles. For example, if a person suffers from a painful jaw condition called a temporomandibular joint disorder, their dentist may prescribe a benzodiazepine. The condition is caused by tight jaw muscles, and benzodiazepines can help the patient unclench and relax their jaw, releasing the tension placed on the temporomandibular joints.
- Sedative-hypnotic: Doctors may use benzodiazepines as anesthesia supplements in patients who are preparing for surgery. The relaxing effects of the drugs can help a patient calm down and reduce their anxiety about the operation. Benzodiazepines may also be used in the treatment of alcohol withdrawal if a patient is experiencing difficulties during detox. The sedative qualities of benzodiazepines allow someone recovering from alcohol addiction to enter a state of deep relaxation, during which they can experience the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal in relative comfort.
- Anticonvulsant: People with convulsive disorders like cerebral palsy may sometimes benefit from using benzodiazepines. For example, a person with epilepsy may have frequent seizures that could cause them to convulse uncontrollably and be injured. This person’s doctor may prescribe a benzodiazepine to reduce the level of convulsing associated with a seizure episode.
“Benzo belly” is a term used to describe the stomach discomfort that happens when people withdraw from a benzodiazepine medication. “Benzo belly” usually begins in the protracted withdrawal phase. It may continue for several weeks after the last dose of a benzodiazepine. Symptoms usually get better with time but may last a year or more for some people.
- Xanax (alprazolam) – Xanax takes 1-2 hours to reach its peak effectiveness, with a half-life of 12 hours.
- Lexotan (bromazepam) – Lexotan takes 1-4 hours to reach its peak effectiveness, with a half-life of 20 hours.
- Librium (chlordiazepoxide) – Librium takes 1-4 hours to reach its peak effectiveness, with a half-life of 100 hours.
- Klonopin (clonazepam) – Klonopin takes 1-4 hours to reach its peak effectiveness, with a half-life of 34 hours.
- Valium (diazepam) – Valium takes 1-2 hours to reach its peak effectiveness, with a half-life of 100 hours.
- Ativan (lorazepam) – Ativan takes 1-4 hours to reach its peak effectiveness, with a half-life of 15 hours.
- Rohypnol (flunitrazepam) – Rohypnol takes 1-2 hours to reach its peak effectiveness, with a half-life between 18 and 26 hours.
The length of time it takes for benzodiazepines to leave your system varies from person to person and dose to dose, with factors like age, weight, the specific drug ingested and more affecting these timeframes. However, a urine test for benzos can generally detect the presence of benzos for up to 7 days after the last dose, while a hair follicle test can detect it for up to 90 days.
Peak levels and drug half-life of benzodiazepines depend on the specific drug that has been ingested, dosage amount, the time between doses and method of administration. In general, benzos can be divided into these three categories:
- Ultra-short-acting benzos – The half-life of ultra-short-acting benzodiazepines is 5 hours or less.
- Short-acting and intermediate benzos – This class of benzodiazepines have a half-life that ranges from 5-24 hours.
- Long-acting benzos – Long-acting benzodiazepines have half-life values of 24 hours or longer. Benzos in this group have long-acting pharmacologically active metabolites that create significant stores inside the body with multiple doses.
If you or a loved one struggle with an addiction to benzodiazepines, call our representatives for more information on our facilities and programs. Start your journey to an addiction-free life today.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.