Benzodiazepine Addiction Resources Fact Sheet

Benzodiazepine addiction is on the rise in America. While the opioid epidemic has dominated headlines in recent years, drugs like Xanax and Valium have been destroying lives with little publicity. If you or someone you love is struggling with an addiction to benzodiazepines, it is imperative to learn everything you can about these potentially deadly medications.

Below, we answer some of the most frequently asked questions about benzodiazepines.

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What Are Benzodiazepines?

Benzodiazepines, or benzos, are a family of psychoactive drugs whose chemical structure is the fusion of a diazepine ring and benzene ring. Benzos work by enhancing the effects of the neurotransmitter GABA.

By augmenting the brain’s GABA receptors, benzos produce hypnotic, anxiolytic (anti-anxiety), sedative, anticonvulsant and muscle-relaxant effects.

Which Illnesses Are Treated with Benzos?

Benzos are highly effective for treating a wide range of both neurological and psychological conditions. Because benzos affect the brain neurons responsible for triggering anxiety and stress reactions, they are commonly prescribed for the following disorders:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
  • Seizures
  • Alcohol withdrawal
  • Insomnia
  • Panic attacks
Benzos are also used to sedate patients receiving mechanical ventilation, although extreme caution must be exercised in these situations, as benzos can cause respiratory depression in some individuals – to a potentially fatal point.

What Are the Different Kinds of Benzos?

Benzos can be divided into three main categories: short-acting (effects lasting between 3 and 8 hours), intermediate-acting (effects lasting between 11 and 20 hours), and long-acting (effects lasting between 1 and 3 days).

Take a look at the following three categories. The generic name of the benzo drug is listed first, with the most common brand names listed in parenthesis.

Short-acting benzos include:
  • Triazolam (Halcion)
  • Clorazepate (Tranxene, Novo-Clopate)
  • Midazolam (Versed, Hypnovel, Dormicum)
Intermediate-acting benzos include:
  • Alprazolam (Xanax, Niravam)
  • Temazepam (Restoril)
  • Lorazepam (Ativan, Temesta)
  • Estazolam (ProSom, Eurodin, Nuctalon)
  • Oxazepam (Serax, Alepam)
Long-acting benzos include:
  • Diazepam (Valium, Diastat)
  • Flurazepam (Dalmane, Dalmadorm)
  • Chlordiazepoxide (Librium)
  • Quazepam (Doral, Dormalin)
  • Clonazepam (Rivotril, Klonopin)

How Long Does It Take to Become Addicted to Benzos?

Tolerance to the sleep-inducing effect of benzos develops rapidly. However, tolerance to the drug’s muscle-relaxant and anticonvulsant effects take a bit longer, between two and four weeks in most individuals.

Tolerance to the effects of benzos is caused by the reduction of GABA receptors in the brain, a process known as downregulation. The time it takes to develop a tolerance to benzos varies from person to person, depending on the rate at which one’s neurotransmitter systems adapt to the drug.

What Are the Symptoms of Benzo Addiction?

As you’ve probably gleaned thus far, benzos are highly addictive, especially when misused or abused. Prolonged use of benzos can lead to a host of troubling psychological, physical and behavioral symptoms.

Some common signs of benzo addiction include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Impaired concentration and memory
  • Slurred speech
  • Impaired motor coordination
  • Physical weakness
  • Uncharacteristic mood swings
  • Seeking multiple prescriptions from different doctors, or “doctor shopping”
  • Risk-taking behaviors (e.g. driving under the influence of benzos)
  • Inability to control benzo use

What Are the Risks of Withdrawal From Benzos?

Breaking an addiction to benzos cold turkey comes with a number of risks – some mild, and others potentially life threatening. Those who have developed severe benzodiazepine addiction, as well as those who have preexisting health conditions, are at the greatest risk for experiencing serious complications during the withdrawal period.

People seeking benzo addiction help should enter a medically assisted detox program during the early stages of recovery to ensure their safety during the withdrawal period.  

Potential benzo withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety/panic attacks
  • Hand tremors
  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Heart palpitations
  • Nausea
  • Muscle pain and stiffness
  • Headaches
  • Seizures
  • Psychosis
  • Hallucinations
Risks of Quitting Benzo Addiction Without Medically Assisted Detox

Other Benzodiazepine Addiction FAQs

There are countless things to know about benzodiazepines, and we’ve only scratched the surface so far. Browse through the following frequently asked questions to learn even more about the dangers and prevalence of these drugs:

Why Are Benzos So Addictive?

Both benzos and alcohol act on the body’s GABAergic system, but physical addiction to benzos develops much faster than it does with alcohol. This is largely due to the fact benzos produce severe physical withdrawal symptoms, even after a relatively short period of use.

Researchers aren’t sure why some individuals become addicted to benzos while others can take the medications safely for extended periods, but recent studies have revealed there are a number of contributing factors, such as a genetic predisposition to addiction.

Is It Dangerous to Mix Benzos with Other Drugs and Alcohol?

The FDA strongly advises against people mixing benzodiazepine medications with other drugs, and for good reason. Combining benzos with alcohol or other depressant drugs can lead to severe drowsiness, weakness, fatigue and coordination issues. This greatly increases the risk of being involved in accidents, such as falls and motor vehicle collisions.

Depressant substances that are commonly combined with benzos include:

  • Opioids (heroin, OxyContin, methadone, Vicodin, etc.)
  • Hypnotic drugs (Ambien)
  • Barbiturates (amobarbital, Nembutal, Seconal)
  • Alcohol

At high doses, combining benzos with other drugs can lead to:

  • Respiratory depression
  • Organ failure
  • Coma
  • Death

What Are the Long-term Effects of Benzos on the Brain?

There is a substantial body of research showing that long-term benzo users are more likely to develop cognitive issues such as memory impairment and depression. However, researchers are still unsure as to how powerful this effect is, with some going so far as to claim that there are no long-term risks at all.

A recent study published in The British Medical Journal found that long-term benzo use increases the risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease. While there was no increased risk associated with short-term use, those who took benzodiazepine medications for six months or longer were 84 percent more likely to develop the incurable disease.

How Many Americans Use Benzos?

The number of American adults who filled a prescription for at least one benzodiazepine medication rose from 8.1 million to 13.5 million between 1996 and 2013. One study found that in 2008, more than 5 percent of Americans over the age of 18 had been prescribed a benzodiazepine medication. And unlike the number of opioid prescriptions, which reached its peak in 2012 and has subsequently fallen by 20 percent, the number of benzo prescriptions in the U.S. continues to rise, as of 2018.

Are There Any Alternative Treatments for Anxiety and Depressive Disorders?

Because doctors are increasingly aware of the risks associated with taking benzos to treat anxiety disorders, many are switching to non-benzo medications as a first choice to treat anxiety and depressive disorders.

These medications include:

  • SSRIs and SNRIs
  • Pregabalin
  • Buspirone
  • Beta blockers

In addition to medication, various forms of psychotherapy and alternative medicine (yoga, acupuncture, supplements, herbal remedies, etc.) have also shown to help patients manage the symptoms of their anxiety disorders.

Benzodiazepine Addiction Help at Reflections Recovery Center

At Reflections Recovery Center in Prescott, AZ, we take a different approach to prescription drug addiction rehabilitation. By combining clinical treatment and holistic therapies, we provide our clients with all the tools they’ll need to achieve a life free from addiction.
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