Benzodiazepines can be prescribed for a number of medical conditions, including anxiety, insomnia, and seizures. Because benzodiazepines, or “benzos,” have sedation properties and create a feeling of relaxation, they have a high potential for abuse and addiction.
Benzodiazepines also carry a risk of overdose, especially when used in combination with other substances. For those who may be experiencing benzodiazepine abuse and addiction, there are quality treatment options available.
What Are Benzodiazepines?
Benzodiazepines are classified as depressants, meaning they act to slow down or depress the systems of the body. Benzodiazepines slow down breathing and heart rate, and also lower blood pressure. When taken as directed, benzos can be effective as an anti-anxiety or anticonvulsant medication, but the drugs are also widely abused.
When someone takes benzodiazepines, their brain experiences a chemical change that creates a feeling of calm or euphoria. If an individual takes benzodiazepines as prescribed, these brain changes are usually minimal and use of the drug is not considered dangerous.
But if benzodiazepines are abused, the chemical reward system in the brain can become dependent on that substance, resulting in a craving for a larger or more frequent dose. Many people who abuse benzodiazepines end up physically dependent or addicted.
Commonly Abused Benzodiazepines
There are several different drugs that are classified as benzodiazepines. While any of these can be prescribed by a doctor, there are certain benzos that are prescribed and abused more often than others.
Some commonly abused benzodiazepines include:
Many of these drugs have specific street names, which can include:
- chill pills
- school buses
- totem poles
What Is A Benzodiazepine Addiction?
When someone abuses benzodiazepines, meaning they take the drug in a way other than directed, they risk the chance of developing an addiction and experiencing an overdose. Some of the ways individuals may abuse benzodiazepines can include crushing and snorting a pill, taking more pills than directed, or taking the dose more often than prescribed.
If an individual is taking benzodiazepines to get high, they may experience feelings of euphoria, well-being, and excitement. With increased use, a tolerance may develop, meaning that the positive feelings may not feel as strong or last as long as they used to.
Signs and symptoms of benzo abuse include the following:
- appetite loss
- blurred vision
- dry mouth
- gastrointestinal issues
- trouble remembering or forming thoughts
When individuals use benzodiazepines over an extended period of time, the physical symptoms of abuse can also manifest psychologically. If you or someone you love is struggling with an addiction to benzodiazepine, you may begin to notice psychological symptoms that include:
- erratic behavior
- irrational thoughts
- severe mood swings
- suicidal ideations
Who Usually Abuses Benzodiazepines?
There are two categories of people that might struggle with benzodiazepine abuse. The first category includes individuals that have a legal prescription. This population may have one doctor, or they may engage in “doctor shopping,” visiting several physicians at once in order to obtain more than one prescription. Individuals with prescriptions may also take more pills than prescribed, use them when they are not medically necessary, or stockpile the drug for a future binge.
The other category of people suffering from benzodiazepine addiction are those using benzos for recreational purposes. This may mean individuals buying benzos off the street, or taking prescriptions from family or friends without asking.
Benzodiazepine abuse is especially prevalent in populations that abuse cocaine, alcohol, or opioids, because of the calming properties in the drug. Some people use benzodiazepines to complement or soften the effects of other substances they are taking, or to assist with the “comedown” from another drug. Taking benzos in combination with other substances, especially mixing with opioids, greatly increases the risk of overdose.
Causes Of Benzodiazepine Addiction And Abuse
Benzodiazepines interact with the brain’s reward system, causing a surge of dopamine, a chemical associated with pleasure and satisfaction. When taken as directed, benzodiazepines can be an effective treatment for anxiety, seizures, insomnia, or alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
Unfortunately, many people that use benzodiazepines end up abusing the medication and taking it other than how it’s directed. Abusing benzos can cause someone to become physically dependent or addicted to the drug.
It’s important to note the difference between being physically dependent and being addicted, although both can occur at the same time. A physical dependency means that the brain and body have come to rely on that substance in order to function, whereas an addiction is the compulsive, mental preoccupation with using the drug.
Many people that abuse benzodiazepines didn’t mean to form a habit, but the chemical changes inside their brain resulted in an addiction.
Benzodiazepine Withdrawal And Overdose
When someone has developed a dependence or addiction to benzodiazepines, their body relies on having that substance in order to function normally. Prolonged use of benzodiazepines may lead to a tolerance, wherein an individual doesn’t feel the effects of the drug as strongly anymore. This may lead to higher amounts taken or more frequent doses, which increases the chance of overdose.
If someone stops taking benzodiazepines suddenly, their system can become shocked. Detoxing from benzodiazepines should always take place under medical care, in order to safely monitor the patient’s detoxification process. When the body is physically dependent and begins to enter withdrawal, individuals may begin to experience agonizing withdrawal symptoms.
Some of the symptoms associated with benzodiazepine withdrawal include:
- concentration issues
- heart palpitations
- memory issues
- sore muscles
- tremors (hands)
- trouble sleeping
- weight loss
A serious danger associated with benzodiazepine abuse and addiction is the risk of overdose. Because benzodiazepines act as depressants, they slow breathing and heart function within the body. When these effects are combined with other drugs, especially opioids or alcohol, the body’s functions can become slowed to the point of unconsciousness or coma.
Benzodiazepine overdose is an emergency. If someone close to you is experiencing any of these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately.
Benzodiazepine overdose symptoms may include:
- discolored lips or fingernails
- difficulty breathing
- extreme confusion
- lack of coordination
- muscle weakness
- vision loss
Treatment For Benzodiazepine Addiction
If you or a loved one is suffering from benzodiazepine addiction, there are treatment options available. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, treatment lasting at least three months is associated with positive outcomes. Staying in a residential facility, often called inpatient care, can be a safe and supportive way for someone to pass through the detoxification stage and begin a new life in sobriety.
During a stay at an inpatient facility, individuals will experience a variety of therapeutic interventions in order to help acclimate them to life after addiction. One of the therapeutic tools utilized at many inpatient facilities is medication-assisted treatment (MAT). Individuals going through benzodiazepine detoxification can take certain medications that are available to aid in the detox process. Medication-assisted treatment soothes withdrawal symptoms and lessens drug cravings, allowing individuals to pass through the withdrawal stage in a safe manner.
Inpatient treatment facilities will also provide a variety of behavioral therapies, including:
- individual and group therapy
- family therapy
- equine programs
- relapse prevention and aftercare
If someone is unable to attend an inpatient facility, there are outpatient and partial hospitalization options available throughout the U.S.
Benzodiazepine Addiction Rates
Along with many other drugs contributing to our country’s addiction crisis, benzodiazepine abuse has increased in recent years. One of the contributing factors to this increase is the number of prescriptions being written. Although some people obtain benzos through illegal means, an estimated 13.5 million prescriptions are being written in the U.S. every year.
Some rates of benzodiazepine abuse and addiction include:
- Since 1996, benzodiazepine prescriptions have increased more than 67 percent.
- 18-25-year-olds abuse Xanax more than any other age group.
- Over 50 percent of emergency room visits for benzos also involved other drugs.
- In 2015, benzodiazepines accounted for more than 8,000 American deaths.
Contact us to learn more about benzodiazepine addiction and treatment options today.
Drug Enforcement Agency — Drug Fact Sheet, Benzodiazepines
National Institute on Drug Abuse — Abused Drugs Charts, Overdose Death Rates, Principles of Effective Treatment, Well-known mechanism underlies benzodiazepines’ addictive properties
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration — Combining benzodiazepines with other substances raises risks