Benzodiazepine Abuse Signs, Symptoms, & Side Effects

Benzodiazepines are depressant medications doctors may prescribe to patients who have trouble with anxiety, convulsions, insomnia and a few other medical conditions. Benzodiazepines include common medications like Valium, Xanax, Ativan, Librium and Klonopin. Benzodiazepines are habit-forming and can cause addiction within a relatively short time frame. Most people who are prescribed benzodiazepines use them according to their doctor’s orders. However, even within the safety of medical supervision, addiction can develop. It is crucial to keep an eye on yourself or your loved one if any signs or symptoms of benzodiazepine abuse or addiction emerge.

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, namely 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 readings. The central nervous system is responsible for these essential functions. People who have anxiety and panic disorders may benefit from the depressant qualities of benzodiazepines since the drugs can help slow down these functions, essentially “tricking” 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 temporomandibular joint disorder, their dentist may prescribe a benzodiazepine. Tight jaw muscles surrounding the temporomandibular joint on each side of the face cause TMJ disorder. Benzodiazepines may 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 to undergo surgical procedures. The relaxing effects of the drugs can help a patient calm down and reduce their anxiety about the operation. Also, benzodiazepines are sometimes used in the treatment of alcohol withdrawal if a patient is experiencing difficulties when detoxing from alcohol. The sedative qualities of benzodiazepines allow a recovering alcohol abuser to enter a state of deep relaxation, during which they can experience the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal within relative comfort.
  • Anticonvulsant – People with convulsive disorders such as cerebral palsy may sometimes benefit from using benzodiazepines. For example, a person with epilepsy may have frequent seizures during which they could convulse uncontrollably and be injured. This person’s doctor may prescribe a benzodiazepine to reduce the level of convulsing associated with a seizure episode.

Despite the medical uses for benzodiazepines, the Drug Enforcement Administration classifies the drugs within Schedule IV. This means these drugs have addictive qualities and cannot legally be distributed without a doctor’s order. Although it is illegal to distribute, sell, or use benzodiazepines without a legitimate medical prescription, these drugs can be abused to get high, so they often appear on the black market.

The dangers of illicit benzodiazepine use are significant. However, addiction can occur rapidly whether a user first acquires benzodiazepines from a doctor or on the street.

Users often exhibit certain signs when they abuse benzodiazepine or are addicted to benzos. These drugs impact the mind and body alike; thus, indications of benzodiazepine abuse and/or addiction can manifest both physiologically and emotionally.

It is important that you learn how to recognize the signs of drug abuse. If you or a loved one is using benzodiazepines, it is even more important that you look out for the signs of benzodiazepine addiction. The most common ones include risky, unusual, or erratic behavioral changes such as the following:

  • Loss of job
  • Hiding pill bottles
  • Uncharacteristic desire to be alone
  • Lowered academic performance
  • “Doctor shopping” to obtain additional, unnecessary benzodiazepine drugs
  • Taking increasing amounts of benzodiazepines
  • Stealing or using other illicit means to obtain money

Similar to the way that signs can indicate benzodiazepine addiction, a user’s physical and emotional symptoms also serve as cues. Some of the most common benzodiazepine abuse symptoms that you can expect when using benzodiazepines include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sleep problems
  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness or vertigo
  • Cloudy mental state
  • Forgetfulness

If a person is using benzodiazepines illicitly, they may also experience the very symptoms these drugs are meant to relieve: anxiety, insomnia and panic.

You might wonder which benzodiazepine causes the most severe symptoms. The truth is that there is not one answer to this question. Each user has a unique physical makeup, meaning that different drugs impact everyone uniquely. Also, other medications that a user is taking can impact the efficacy of a benzodiazepine. However, in general, the higher the potency of a benzodiazepine, the more noticeable its symptoms.

The three benzodiazepines with the highest potencies are as follows:

•Xanax (alprazolam) – Although Xanax may be the most renowned benzodiazepine, that does not mean it causes the strongest symptoms in every person. Alongside Ativan, professionals consider Xanax to have the most potential for abuse among the other benzodiazepines. Xanax is approved for adults.

Ativan (lorazepam) – Some medical professionals consider Ativan (alongside Xanax) to be the benzodiazepine with the highest potential for abuse. Ativan is approved for children ages 12 and up and for adults.

Halcion (triazolam) – Unlike Xanax and Ativan, Halcion is primarily indicated for the treatment of insomnia. Halcion is approved only for adults.

More meaningful than the formulation is the dosage. Higher doses are more closely associated with the following symptoms:

  • Drug-seeking behaviors
  • Depressed mood
  • Hyperactivity

Benzodiazepines possess sedative qualities and are meant to reduce anxiety. They do this by suppressing the central nervous system’s functions, such as heart rate, breathing and blood pressure, all of which increase during moments of stress. This slowing down of the body and mind can lead to side effects that manifest physically and mentally.

The effects of benzodiazepines change based on the dosage, the formulation of the particular benzodiazepine, and the length of time that a person uses the drugs. Addiction is more likely to develop with higher doses, faster-acting formulations and longer treatment durations.

Even when benzodiazepines are used for a short period of time, the drugs can cause immediate side effects. Some of the most common benzodiazepine abuse side effects include:

  • Irritability
  • Fatigue and increased need for sleep
  • Physical weakness
  • Anxiety
  • Forgetfulness
  • Vision problems
  • Headaches
  • Mental confusion
  • Generalized pain
  • Libido loss
  • Sexual impotence in men
  • Slowed reaction time
  • Impaired motor coordination
  • Anterograde amnesia
  • Slurred speech
  • Restlessness
  • Paranoia

Addiction is not the only consequence of long-term benzodiazepine abuse. This behavior increases not only the risk of negative physical health consequences, but also negative social and career consequences. Long-term effects of benzodiazepine abuse include the following:

  • Tolerance – Benzodiazepine tolerance can develop quickly, but it is most often the result of long-term use. If a person develops a tolerance, they will require increasingly larger amounts of the drug to achieve the effect they desire — a euphoric “high.” Withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, insomnia, tremors and seizures may occur if the drug is ceased suddenly.
  • Relationship Damage – Personality changes often accompany drug abuse and addiction. For example, some people experience a lack of impulse control that they did not previously exhibit.
  • Career or Academic Damage – In addition to the all-consuming drug-seeking behaviors that accompany addiction and detract from other important areas of life, long-term benzodiazepine abuse has been shown to cause brain damage and reduced mental function. Job loss may result. Students may fail to reach their academic goals, such as earning a college degree.
  • Death – Long-term benzodiazepine abuse can cause death in several ways. First, overdose can occur. Though it is unusual for a person to overdose on benzodiazepines alone, it is common for an overdose to involve alcohol, opioids or another depressant drug in combination with the benzodiazepine. Secondly, benzodiazepines have been shown to increase feelings of depression in some people. Suicide attempts and deaths from suicide are risks that accompany these drugs.
  • Legal Entanglements – Law problems may result from benzodiazepine abuse, especially when it comes to certain formulations of these drugs. Flunitrazepam is the only benzodiazepine that is treated like a Schedule I drug in the court system. This means that the legal consequences for illicitly using, possessing or distributing this particular benzodiazepine are far more severe than those associated with all other benzodiazepines in Schedule IV.
  • Alzheimer’s Disease (in the Elderly) – Though people of all ages experience the side effects of benzodiazepine use and abuse, elderly persons are particularly vulnerable. This may be tied to higher usage rates among the elderly, since between 3 – 14 percent of elderly people have diagnosable anxiety. One study found a link between long-term benzodiazepine use and Alzheimer’s disease.
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