Xanax is the brand name of a drug called alprazolam, which is prescribed for the treatment of a range of panic and anxiety disorders. This drug acts a chemical enhancer in the brain to slow down excessive brain activity and reduce feelings of stress and panic. Xanax is extremely effective, but can be dangerous if used outside of the prescribed dosage.

If you or someone you know is taking this medication under a doctor’s supervision, understanding how Xanax works is important in anticipating how it will affect the brain and body — and in steering clear of a Xanax addiction.

How Does Xanax Work?
Xanax is a prescription drug meant to treat anxiety and panic disorders. Its generic form, alprazolam, is the most prescribed psychiatric drug in the United States because of its potency and its ability to work so quickly. Xanax — along with Valium and Ativan — is part of a class of drugs called benzodiazepines, a group of medicines that produce a state of calm in users.

For those struggling with anxiety, the brain produces an unbalanced amount of chemical signals, increasing brain activity, feelings of fear and anxiety, and restricting the ability to calm the mind. Xanax works by creating a calming effect through impacting the effects of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a naturally occurring chemical in the brain.

When someone takes Xanax, the drug works on their brain’s GABA neurotransmitters. GABA can be best described as the body’s natural tranquilizer. This particular chemical is found in 80 percent of the brain’s nerve connections, and if you become anxious or nervous, your brain releases it to calm down the negative activity.

Xanax is highly effective, providing immediate relief within minutes of consumption. Medically, it is intended to help balance the brain’s chemicals in those experiencing an anxiety or panic attack. If anxiety were the gas pedal in a speeding car, Xanax would be the brakes, as it chemically interacts with the brain to slow down symptoms of panic. If not enough GABA is naturally present in a person’s brain, the result is anxiety or panic; the brain isn’t able to provide itself with the natural brakes to slow down that activity.

Because Xanax works on the central nervous system as well, many of the effects are similar to drinking alcohol. The level of impairment, sleepiness and slow reaction time one may feel from Xanax are similar to drinking too much. Some of the side effects of short-term Xanax use include physical and mental relaxation and reduced feelings of fear, agitation and anxiety. Adverse side effects of taking Xanax can include extreme drowsiness, coordination problems, feeling dizzy or lightheaded, or experiencing emotional problems.

When someone is prescribed Xanax, it’s usually at a dose ranging from 0.75 to 1.5 milligrams that can be taken once a day, although dosage can vary.

Xanax is frequently misused because of its immediate effects and potency. In high doses, Xanax creates a sense of mental and physical ease, often making it a drug of escape. The effects trigger feelings of euphoria in the brain, eliminating pain and worry. The high is short-lived, lasting only a few hours.

While providing instantaneous relief, Xanax can be highly addictive. The more Xanax a person takes, the more severe their withdrawal will be when they’re not taking the drug. Xanax is known to be habit-forming after consistent use or if taken in high doses.That’s why it’s so important to adhere to a licensed physician’s directed dosage.

When you take Xanax, the effects tend to take hold quickly, but they don’t last long. Xanax has a relatively short half-life, meaning it doesn’t take long for its effects to reach a peak after it is ingested. That’s one of the reasons Xanax has such a high abuse potential; drugs with a short half-life tend to be more commonly misused.

The effects of Xanax usually last about four hours, and that’s why it’s prescribed on an as-needed basis, rather than being something that’s used as a long-term therapy for anxiety. The short half-life and duration of effects are why Xanax is often prescribed as something that can be taken to manage infrequent panic attacks.

The effectiveness of Xanax will change over a short period of time. After a few weeks, people can develop a tolerance for the drug, often needing higher doses to achieve the same feelings of relief.

As a person continues to take Xanax over time, the brain will start to produce less GABA on its own as a result. The liver will also start to be more efficient in its processing of Xanax. Together, these two functions diminish the effectiveness of Xanax. When this happens, a doctor may increase the dosage of a prescription, or as is more frequently observed, a person may start taking larger doses without consulting their doctor. Taking a higher dosage of Xanax when it is not prescribed is highly dangerous and can quickly spiral into Xanax addiction.

Tolerance occurs when a person no longer responds the same way to a drug, requiring a higher dose or more frequent use to achieve the same effects of a high. The brain can quickly adjust to Xanax effects, creating a physical and physiological dependence on the drug. When someone’s brain has adjusted to the presence of Xanax, and then they suddenly stop taking it, adverse side effects can arise as the brain struggles to compensate for losing the presence of a substance it has grown used to.

Along with a physical dependence, a psychological dependence can form from consistent Xanax use. Xanax’s effects can be so relieving and pleasant that even those without anxiety may feel the psychological need to continue taking it. They may feel like they’re unable to function without using Xanax, so there’s ultimately the potential for both physical and psychological addiction to Xanax.

The brain is comprised of neurotransmitters — chemicals in the brain that help carry information from brain cells to other parts of the body. They are responsible for controlling bodily functions, telling your heart to beat, concentration and other behaviors. These chemical transmitters are split between two functions: stimulation and stabilization.

Anxiety and panic disorder patients are believed to have an imbalance in these brain chemicals, producing more brain stimulation than the body can handle. Xanax, like other benzodiazepines, enhances neurotransmitters in the brain responsible for stabilizing brain activity. Rather than influencing anxiety and feelings of fear, Xanax induces feelings of repose and extreme relaxation within minutes of use.

Although highly effective, Xanax is highly addictive. Over time, it causes the brain to adjust to its effects; any deviation or change in dosage could produce serious withdrawal symptoms including:

  • Shaking or twitching
  • Intense anxiety
  • Depression
  • High blood pressure
  • Seizures
  • Death
Treatment for Xanax addiction will include a gradual decrease in usage. Drastically eliminating the drug from the body can result in life-threatening withdrawal symptoms and sometimes death. Recovering from a Xanax addiction may require medically supervised detox and inpatient care, followed by continued support in sobriety.

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a 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 provider.