The United States is mired in a drug crisis deadlier than that of the crack epidemic. In the last decade, prescription drug misuse has contributed to the deaths of thousands of Americans and triggered the passage of state laws intended to control overprescribing practices. 

Opioids are commonly associated with today’s prescription drug epidemic. However, a class of medications that are designed to treat anxiety has increased in popularity and misuse in recent years. Yet, the consequences of these pills have not received much media attention.

Benzodiazepines are central nervous system depressants that are typically prescribed to treat anxiety, insomnia or panic attacks. These medications are also used to control alcohol withdrawal symptoms and to sedate people before surgery.

Like opioids, benzodiazepines can be dangerous. Benzodiazepines can cause memory loss, paranoia and depression. Using these anti-anxiety medications in larger doses or for longer than directed can result in drug addiction, which increases the risk of overdose or death.

A 2018 survey by The Recovery Village examined patterns of prescription drug use in the United States. According to the results, benzodiazepines were the most commonly used medications among respondents who had used prescription drugs in the past.

The survey’s results reflect a burgeoning nationwide trend: Anti-anxiety drugs are blossoming in popularity despite the dangers they present.

Most People Who Used Prescription Drugs Took Benzodiazepines

Among the 400 people who participated in The Recovery Village’s survey, 228 said that in the past they used a prescription medication to treat physical pain or psychological distress. About 54 percent of individuals who used a prescription drug took a benzodiazepine.

Sixty-two percent of individuals who took a benzodiazepine used Xanax. The brand name of alprazolam, Xanax is the most popular benzodiazepine in the United States. When taken in high doses, the drug can induce hallucinations, delirium or seizures.

Valium was the second most popular benzodiazepine among respondents. For years, this anti-anxiety medication was the most prevalent prescription drug in America. In 1978, about 2.3 billion Valium pills were dispensed nationwide. While Valium’s popularity has since declined, many people still experience its dangerous effects, which can include slurred speech, addiction and overdose.

About 82 percent of respondents who used a benzodiazepine tried the drug to treat a medical condition. While many people believe that drugs prescribed by physicians are safe, benzodiazepines can still harm someone’s physical and psychological health — even when taken as directed.

Anti-anxiety drugs are highly addictive. Benzodiazepines can cause sedation, suppress breathing and lead to an overdose. If an overdose is left untreated, death can occur. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10,684 people experienced a fatal overdose involving benzodiazepines in 2016.

Among respondents of The Recovery Village’s survey, women were more likely than men to report a history of benzodiazepine use. A report by The Washington Post found that a growing number of white women are dying prematurely of overdoses involving opioids or anti-anxiety medications.

Most survey participants believed that benzodiazepine use is hurting society. Yet, most respondents also said that they would feel comfortable using benzodiazepines in the future to treat a medical condition.

Benzodiazepine Misuse: A New Drug Epidemic?

Since 2000, benzodiazepines have rapidly risen in popularity. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the number of adults who filled a prescription for benzodiazepines increased from 8.1 million in 1996 to 13.5 million in 2013. During that time frame, the number of benzodiazepine prescriptions more than tripled.

Some people get hooked on benzodiazepines fairly easily. Because these medications often reduce anxiety within minutes of use, many individuals misuse their prescriptions since their doctors are quick to refill them. Over time, a tolerance to benzodiazepines may develop and individuals can experience cravings for the drug. Continuously adhering to these cravings can bring about a prescription drug addiction.

A 2018 essay published in The New England Journal of Medicine analyzed benzodiazepine use in the country. Over the past 20 years, the number of deaths involving benzodiazepines has risen sevenfold. Highly potent forms of benzodiazepines that rival the toxicity of fentanyl also have appeared in the illicit drug market, which has caused many overdoses nationwide.

“Despite the many parallels to the opioid epidemic, there has been little discussion in the media or among clinicians, policymakers and educators about the problem of overprescribing and overuse of benzodiazepines and Z-drugs, or about the harm attributable to these drugs and their illicit analogues,” the report’s authors concluded.

The widespread use of benzodiazepines was reflected in The Recovery Village’s survey. Most people said that they knew someone who used benzodiazepines. Among these respondents, nearly 3 out of every 4 said that they knew a person who took Xanax.

Nearly 7 out of 10 respondents ages 25 to 44 knew someone who used benzodiazepines — the highest percentage among age groups measured in the survey. Only about 37 percent of people ages 54 or older knew a person who took these drugs, which could indicate that younger and middle-aged adults deal with anxiety at higher rates than do senior citizens.

If left untreated, anxiety disorders can bring about more serious problems. Many people grappling with anxiety turn to drugs or alcohol to numb their psychological distress. However, substance use can exacerbate mental illness and lead to addiction.

If you’re experiencing anxiety and a substance use disorder, treatment may be needed. At The Recovery Village, trained addiction experts create a treatment plan that is tailored to your specific needs. Through treatment, you can attend counseling to learn ways to better manage your anxiety and engage in healthy activities intended to reduce stress. To learn more about addiction treatment, contact The Recovery Village.

Medical Disclaimer

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.