Benzodiazepines, casually referred to as “benzos,” are a group of sedatives and sleep aids prescribed to relieve symptoms of anxiety, panic, and insomnia. They may also be used off-label as muscle relaxants or to ease symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.
Benzodiazepines can be effective for their prescribed purposes but are only safe for short-term use. Taking a benzodiazepine for more than a few weeks can lead to drug tolerance and cause dependence.
This can make the drugs work less effectively and require that a person takes higher doses to feel the desired effects.
Benzodiazepines are some of the most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States and are frequently abused for their effects. This can mean taking them more frequently than prescribed, in higher doses, or for any reason other than prescribed by a doctor.
If you believe that someone you know is struggling with benzodiazepine abuse or addiction, it is important to understand the risks, side effects, and dangers of these drugs.
Overcoming an addiction to benzodiazepines can be very difficult. To avoid serious health risks, seeking treatment within a drug rehab program is recommended.
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Commonly Abused Brands Of Benzodiazepines
There are several benzodiazepines prescribed for mental and physical health issues in the United States.
Despite producing similar effects, these drugs can differ in their potency, how fast they work, abuse potential, and dosage recommendations.
The most common benzodiazepines include:
- alprazolam (Xanax)
- diazepam (Valium)
- chlordiazepoxide (Librium)
- clonazepam (Klonopin)
- lorazepam (Ativan)
- temazepam (Restoril)
- triazolam (Halcion)
- midazolam (Versed)
- clorazepate (Tranxene)
All of these benzodiazepines are legal for prescribed use in the United States. Not legal for use in the United States is flurazepam, sold under the brand name Rohypnol.
Rohypnol is popularly known as the “roofie” or date-rape drug and is illegal for both medical and recreational use in the United States.
Why Do People Abuse Benzodiazepines?
The causes of benzodiazepine abuse can be complex and differ from person to person. Some people can become addicted to the effects of benzos, in part as a result of how they interact with chemicals in the brain.
Among the 30 million adults in the U.S. who take a benzodiazepine in a given year, about 17.2 percent are believed to misuse them. Many obtain these prescriptions from a family member or friend. People may also buy benzos illegally through a dealer.
Research on the motivations behind this widespread misuse of benzodiazepines include:
- to relax or relieve tension
- drug experimentation
- getting high
- to regulate or cope with emotions
- for sleep
- to increase or decrease the effects of other drugs
It is also important to highlight the differences between benzodiazepine misuse and addiction. Unlike one or even multiple instances of abusing a drug, addiction refers to a disease in which a person can become unable to reduce or stop their drug use.
This can be both physical and psychological and develop as a result of biological and personal factors.
Side Effects Of Benzodiazepine Abuse And Addiction
Benzodiazepines are a class of sedatives that work by slowing activity in the central nervous system, which is comprised of the brain and spinal cord. This can result in a relaxing sensation, relieve acute stress, and cause drowsiness.
Taking excessive doses of a benzodiazepine, or taking it in any way other than prescribed, can result in more powerful effects.
Physical side effects of benzodiazepines can include:
- slow breathing
- dry mouth
- low blood pressure
- difficulty speaking
- blurred vision
- poor coordination
- slow reflexes
Mental and psychological side effects of benzodiazepines include:
- poor judgment
- foggy thinking
- increased recklessness
- emotional numbness
- memory troubles
The side effects and symptoms a person experiences may vary depending on the dosage, type of benzo, and how long they have been taking the drug.
Signs Of Benzodiazepine Abuse And Addiction
Benzodiazepine abuse can significantly affect how well a person is able to function in their normal routine and cause changes in behavior.
This can lead to strains in relationships, cause problems at work or in the home, and harm both physical and mental health.
Signs of benzodiazepine abuse and addiction may include:
- negative impact on work attendance or job performance
- difficulty concentrating
- neglecting hobbies or activities you used to enjoy
- going to multiple doctors to get more prescriptions
- stealing pills from a family member or friend’s prescription
- crushing and snorting pills
- having trouble remembering recent events
- constant preoccupation with getting or taking more pills
- getting into accidents or suffering injuries as a result of drug use
- continuing to use benzos despite suffering consequences to mental or
- physical health
- symptoms of withdrawal
Dangers Of Benzodiazepine Abuse
When taken as directed, benzodiazepines are considered relatively safe for most people. When misused, benzodiazepines can pose serious health consequences, including increased risk for cognitive problems, drug dependence, overdose, and death.
Factors that can affect the risk of benzo-related health consequences include:
- method of use (e.g. taken by mouth, snorting pills)
- presence of other drugs or alcohol in the person’s system
- co-occurring mental or physical health problems
The cognitive side effects of benzodiazepines— including troubles with memory— are well-documented, but do not pose a significant problem for those taking a benzo for short-term use.
The potential dangers of benzodiazepines on cognitive ability can develop as a result of chronic, heavy use of drugs (drug misuse).
For some, this can lead to serious effects on concentration, short-term memory, and increased risk for dementia symptoms in the elderly.
Effects On Mood
Benzodiazepine abuse can drastically affect a person’s mood, resulting in greater hostility, irritability, or an effect commonly referred to as “emotional blunting”. This can cause a person to appear emotionally numb or flat.
The effects of benzos, as well as the drug abuse or addiction itself, can lead to depression, withdrawing from loved ones, and increased thoughts of suicide.
Combined with the increased impulsivity and recklessness observed in people who abuse benzos, this can become very dangerous, risking serious accidents, injuries, or death.
The majority of people who abuse benzodiazepines take them alongside other drugs. The most common of these include alcohol and opioids, both of which are addictive and can become dangerous when misused.
Mixing benzos with alcohol and opioids can lead to life-threatening symptoms in high doses. Due to their similar effects, mixing depressants can result in more powerful side effects that, in serious cases, can become life-threatening.
The most dangerous of these symptoms are respiratory depression, which refers to dangerously slow, shallow, or stopped breathing.
Taking higher or more frequent doses of benzodiazepines can increase the risk of serious effects on health, including overdose.
An overdose occurs when there is too much of one or more drugs in a person’s body, resulting in serious and potentially life-threatening drug poisoning.
The risk for overdose is highest among people who mix benzodiazepines with alcohol or other central nervous systems (CNS) depressants.
Depending on how much a person takes, their age, and other factors, overdose symptoms can become serious very quickly and may require medical attention.
If someone is experiencing any of the following signs of benzodiazepine overdose, call 9-1-1 right away:
- very slow or shallow breathing
- bluish lips and fingernails
- severe confusion
- difficulty staying awake
- blurry vision
- slurred speech
- falling over or unable to walk straight
- weak muscles/limbs
- loss of consciousness
Benzodiazepine Withdrawal Symptoms
Withdrawal is one of the greatest dangers of benzodiazepine abuse. This can occur in anyone who has been taking a benzodiazepine for a long time, including those who take it as prescribed.
Depending on the severity of a person’s dependence, this can require following a customized tapering schedule for a gradual, but safe weaning process.
It is not recommended that anyone who has been taking high doses of benzodiazepines attempt to stop taking them all at once. This can result in serious physical and mental side effects that, without medical support, can become life-threatening.
Benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms may include:
- hypersensitivity to light, touch, or sound
- increased blood pressure
- rapid heart rate or palpitations
- rebound anxiety
- panic attacks
- muscle spasms
If you have become dependent on one or more benzodiazepines, it is important to seek professional help to avoid serious withdrawal symptoms and lessen discomfort.
People who are struggling with benzodiazepine abuse or addiction may require a medical detox, which is a treatment service offered in most inpatient rehab settings.
Treatment For Benzodiazepine Abuse And Addiction
Overcoming benzodiazepine abuse requires a gradual treatment process that provides ongoing support throughout withdrawal and helps people explore the initial causes of their drug abuse.
The most effective way to overcome a benzodiazepine drug problem is to enter a drug abuse treatment program, where treatment can be structured and personalized to meet a person’s needs.
This can offer a strong support system for people to receive the medical and emotional help often needed to avoid returning to their drug use.
Treatments for benzodiazepine abuse include:
- Medical detoxification: Medical detoxification (detox) offers a safe and supervised setting for people to undergo acute symptoms of withdrawal. This can provide treatment for symptoms and ensure all potential health concerns are carefully monitored.
- Behavioral Therapy: Treatment programs for benzodiazepine abuse typically involve a combination of individual counseling sessions and group therapy to help patients address the root causes of their drug use and learn healthy coping skills.
The most common therapeutic approach for overcoming benzo abuse is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
At Vertava Health of Massachusetts, we offer effective treatment programs that follow a whole-body approach to overcoming the physical, mental, and emotional effects of drug and alcohol abuse.
Through treatment, patients have the opportunity to safely detox and begin their path towards a more balanced future in recovery.
Contact one of our treatment specialists today to learn more about benzodiazepine abuse and addiction treatment at Vertava Health of Massachusetts.