Benzodiazepines, also called benzos, are a form of prescription medications commonly used to manage cases of anxiety, severe stress, panic disorders, or difficulty sleeping. Benzodiazepines are part of the class of drugs known as central nervous system depressants, which also includes other drugs such as sedative hypnotics (often used for sleep disorders) and barbiturates (often used for muscle-related conditions.)
Because benzodiazepines directly interact with the brain, they can become habit-forming and eventually addictive. Luckily, recovery from benzodiazepine addiction is possible with expert treatment and support. If you or a loved one are struggling with benzodiazepine addiction, don’t hesitate to reach out for help.
What are Benzodiazepines?
Benzodiazepines are drugs designed to slow down the brain and body, creating a sedative, sleep-inducing effect that reduces anxiety and panic and promotes sleep. Doctors often prescribe benzodiazepines for limited use by patients who are struggling with severe anxiety, traumatic stress, or other emotionally intense conditions. Because of their addictive potential, doctors typically require approval to continue to refill prescriptions over a period of time.
Common benzodiazepines include clonazepam (Klonopin), alprazolam (Xanax), and diazepam (Valium), which are most often consumed as pills.
Most benzodiazepines are not intended for use over long periods of time, but rather used for temporary relief from periods of anxiety and stress, or to help patients sleep better during stressful life experiences or when dealing with bouts of insomnia.
How Benzodiazepines Affect the Brain?
Benzodiazepines work by directly interacting with the brain’s chemistry. Unlike stimulants or other drugs which prompt the body to speed up, benzodiazepines and other central nervous system depressants prompt the brain to boost chemicals that slow down both brain and body functioning.
Similar to alcohol, benzodiazepines cause the brain to increase the effectiveness of gamma-aminobutyric acid, also called GABA, a neurotransmitter chemical that produces a sedative effect in the nervous system.
As a result, patients on benzodiazepines may experience a sense of drowsiness, forgetfulness, mellowness, or a dulling sensation in their brain and body. This is intended to reduce the effects of anxiety and stress on the body and to promote sleep.
Because benzodiazepines stimulate similar effects in the brain as alcohol, it’s particularly important for patients not to mix these drugs with alcohol. This can cause severe imbalances in brain chemistry and potential overdose. Mixing benzodiazepines with opioids can also prompt similar risks due to those drugs’ sedative effects.
Are Benzodiazepines Addictive?
If you or a loved one are currently using benzodiazepine drugs, it’s critical to understand their high potential for addiction. Because benzodiazepines directly interact with brain chemistry, it’s relatively easy for the brain to become habituated to their chronic use and, from there, develop levels of increasing tolerance and dependence.
While a recent study found that benzodiazepine addiction, also known as benzodiazepine use disorder, is relatively infrequent compared to other use disorders, addiction always remains a risk and potential health hazard.
Signs & Symptoms of Benzodiazepine Addiction
Understanding the warning signs of benzodiazepine addiction can help you spot troubling patterns of behavior with family and friends who use these drugs. Warning signs and symptoms of benzodiazepine addiction and abuse frequently include:
- Difficulty speaking, slurring words, or hard-to-understand speech
- Inability to concentrate, focus, or understand conversations or simple commands
- Headache and dizziness
- Difficulty moving or using fine motor skills
- Difficulty breathing or slow breathing rate
- Slowed heart rate and lowered blood pressure
Other behaviors that can indicate a benzodiazepine addiction are more subtle and difficult to spot, but they can include:
- Being unable to stop using the drug despite your desire to quit
- Inability to regulate the amount of the drug you’re consuming or how often you use it
- Neglecting personal or professional responsibilities due to your drug use
- Disinterest in hobbies, friends, or relationships due to your drug use
- Hoarding of prescription medication or “borrowing” prescription medication from friends
- Consuming the drug recreationally for no medical purpose
- “Doctor shopping” or searching for a medical provider who will refill your prescription
- Consuming the drug outside of its normal form (such as crushing pills) or taking more than prescribed
- Engaging in risky behavior while under the influence of the drug (such as impaired driving or combining drugs)
Particularly concerning for benzodiazepine users is the frequency with which the drug is combined with other drugs, including opioids and alcohol, often with fatal results. In fact, data from 2015 indicates that 23 percent of fatal opioid overdoses also involved benzodiazepines. This combination is dangerous because both opioids and benzodiazepines slow down the body, including breathing and heart rate, and can contribute to overdose, coma, unconsciousness, and heart issues.
Since benzodiazepines are often prescribed for patients who are struggling with mental health issues, it’s also important to note the risk for “self medication” by combining these drugs with opioid and alcohol use.
If you or a loved one are using benzodiazepines while struggling with mental health or addiction challenges, it is vitally important to seek help from a medical or addiction recovery professional.
Benzo Withdrawal Symptoms
As with other addictive drugs, it is possible for benzodiazepine users to become addicted after periods of chronic use. This occurs when the brain becomes dependent on increased levels of GABA and other neurotransmitter chemicals as the new “normal” within the body. As a result, users will need to take higher doses of the drug to achieve the same effect, a condition known as tolerance. Eventually, this can lead to addiction, as the user seeks out continual dosages to maintain equilibrium.
When users who have reached this level try to reduce, cut back, or go “cold turkey” with their benzodiazepine usage, they will frequently experience withdrawal symptoms as the body “resets” back to its baseline level.
Benzodiazepine withdrawal can begin just hours after your last use. Common symptoms include:
- Feelings of weakness, unsteadiness, or confusion
- Feeling worry, nervous, or unsettled
- Inability to sleep (insomnia)
- Cravings for the drug
- Increased risks of seizure
- Racing heart
- Elevated blood pressure
- Increased sweating
Withdrawal can be life-threatening and shouldn’t be managed on your own. If you or a loved one are contemplating cutting back on chronic benzodiazepine use, please consult a medical or addiction recovery professional before stopping using the drug.
Treatment for Benzodiazepine Addiction & Abuse
While benzodiazepine addiction is serious and can be life-threatening, treatment is possible. When evaluating a treatment program, it’s important to ask a series of critical questions to determine their qualifications.
These questions should include:
- What experience does the treatment program have in helping people recover from benzodiazepine addiction?
- Do they provide or refer clients to medically-supervised detoxification programs? Benzodiazepine withdrawal should always be supervised by medical professionals.
- Does the program offer several levels of care, including inpatient, outpatient, and aftercare?
- Does the program use a 12-step-based format or an alternative?
- Does the program offer individual and group therapy alongside evidence-based treatment? Programs that offer some level of therapy and group support are often most effective.
- Does the program provide medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for certain addictions? What are the criteria for clients in MAT programs?
- Does the program provide special programs focused on particular interests, such as outdoor activities or faith-based treatment? Do these align with your interests?
At Solution Based Treatment & Detox, we’re proud to provide both inpatient and outpatient benzodiazepine addiction treatment programs. We are here to help you recover safely. If you or a loved one are struggling with benzodiazepine addiction, contact us today at 877-309-4311 for more information.
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