Public awareness of drug overdoses has increased in recent years because of the national crisis involving deadly opioid/opiate drug overdoses and deaths. However, another class of drugs consumers should aware of, called benzodiazepines, are just as deadly. Benzodiazepines are commonly known as sedatives or tranquilizers and are prescribed to calm people down as they manage anxiety and other conditions.
According to the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an estimated 497,000 people aged 12 or older misused sedatives in 2016; also in that year, an estimated 2 million people aged 12 or older misused tranquilizers.
Read on to learn more about benzodiazepine abuse and addiction and how to seek treatment for it.
What are Benzodiazepines?
Benzodiazepines (popularly known as “benzos”) are prescription medications prescribed for:
- Anxiety disorders
- Panic disorders
- Muscle relaxation
- Severe alcohol withdrawal
They are commonly known as sedatives or tranquilizers, and they also can be administered as an anesthetic to patients who are undergoing a surgery. These psychoactive drugs work by attaching themselves to the brain’s gamma–aminobutyric-acid (GABA) receptors, which are responsible for inducing calm or relaxed feelings. Many users enjoy these effects and therefore seek out the medications to experience them. In doing so, so they abuse the medications to achieve these sensations, risking the development of addiction to the sedatives.
Many people struggle with ending their dependence on benzodiazepines. It is possible to develop an addiction to the drugs without realizing it. People who are prescribed these medications are at risk of developing a physical or psychological dependence on it as well as those who use the drugs illicitly.
Benzodiazepines can be effective when used as directed, which is typically for short-term treatment. They are not prescribed for the long-term because of their highly addictive nature. Using them longer than prescribed or in amounts more than prescribed can lead to addiction.
Commonly Prescribed Benzodiazepines
WebMD reports that more than 2,000-plus benzos have been produced. However, only 15 have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Ativan (generic name lorazepam), Valium (generic name diazepam), and Xanax (alprazolam) are among the most popular ones that are misused and abused.
Xanax (alprazolam) is said to be one of the most widely prescribed and widely abused benzodiazepines on the market. People who take the drug to manage anxiety disorders may feel drowsy and “out of it” as Xanax slows down the nervous system. Its fast-acting properties make it susceptible to abuse.
Valium (generically known as diazepam) is prescribed for people with anxiety, insomnia, panic attacks, muscle spasms, and seizure disorders. The long-acting sedative is one of the more widely recognized and used of benzodiazepine medications. Valium abuse can lead to heroin abuse if chronic users in active addiction can’t get more of the prescription medication.
The slow-acting benzo, Librium (chlordiazepoxide), is commonly used in alcohol withdrawal treatment. Even still, it should be taken as directed. It can be dangerous and lead to a deadly overdose when used incorrectly. Chronic alcohol users have been known to abuse Librium, thus creating a second addiction. Withdrawing from both substances simultaneously presents its own challenges, so that process should be done under the supervision of medical personnel.
Klonopin (clonazepam) is a medication that is prescribed to treat anxiety and seizures. Klonopin is intended for short-term use, but it can be highly addictive, so users are at risk of developing a dependence if they take it longer than prescribed or in higher doses than recommended by their doctor.
Ativan (lorazepam) is a known anti-anxiety drug. The sedative–prescribed for short-term treatment–calms users by suppressing the central nervous system. Never mix Ativan with depressants, such as alcohol. Seizures, comas, or death can result if this happens.
Street names for benzodiazepines include candy, downers, sleeping pills, tranks, and blue V’s.
What are the Signs of Benzodiazepine Addiction?
Although many addictions begin in secret, there are ways to tell if someone is struggling with a dependence on addictive substances. If you notice these signs in a loved one, it is possible they could be struggling with benzodiazepine drug addiction.
Signs of Addiction to Benzodiazepines
- Thinking about Valium all or most of the time
- Increasing doses of Valium to get the same effects
- Seeking out increased, steady amounts of Valium by “doctor shopping”
- Noticeable changes in appearance or hygiene
- Change in eating habits
- Loss of coordination, slow movements, and speech
- Frequent sleepiness
- Lowered inhibitions
- Loss of interest in daily activities, hobbies, interests
- Isolation from family, friends, colleagues
- High tolerance, dependence on benzodiazepines
- Cravings for benzodiazepines
- Taking benzodiazepines without a prescription
- Using benzos to get high
- Using benzodiazepines stronger doses or higher doses than prescribed
- Using them in ways that they were not designed to be used
- Mixing them with other substances, such as alcohol and opioids, for stronger effects
- Crushing up the medications or dissolving them so they can be injected into the body
Physical and Psychological Signs of Benzodiazepine Addiction
- Blurred vision
- Dysphoria or feeling separated from reality
- Appetite loss
- Muscle twitching
- Memory impairment
- Motor impairment
- Muscle pains
- Apparent movement of still objects
- Sensitivity to touch, sound, and light
- Numbness or pins and needles sensation
- Smell sensitivity
WebMD also reports that chronic benzodiazepine abuse can lead to symptoms that imitate the symptoms that caused users to take them in the first place. Among those are:
Benzodiazepine addiction often is difficult for people to end on their own without the help of a reputable rehabilitation center. If there are noticeable changes in the way one feels, thinks, or behaves as a result of stopping or reducing benzodiazepine use, withdrawal likely has set in. That is a sign that you or your loved one should seek help.
Benzo withdrawal is characterized by a number of symptoms that are uncomfortable or painful.
Anyone who is struggling with benzodiazepine addiction is encouraged to enter a professional treatment at a licensed detox or treatment center for help. People who have a history of substance use disorder(s) are at higher risk of developing an addiction to benzodiazepines. They should tell their doctor before they start to take these medications.
What to Expect in Benzodiazepine Addiction Treatment
Chronic benzodiazepine users likely will experience physical, emotional, and psychological changes when they stop using the drugs entirely or reduce their usage. Stopping benzodiazepine use is recommended, but doing so abruptly after long-term use is not advised. Suddenly stopping use, even use that is frequent, can result in dangerous withdrawal symptoms.
If you or someone you know is battling an addiction to benzodiazepines, consider seeking help from addiction specialists at a professional drug treatment facility.
Addiction treatment likely will start with a medical detoxification that will safely remove the benzodiazepine(s) and other addictive or harmful substances from the body. This keeps users safe from uncomfortable and/or life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. At the same time, medical professionals and addiction specialists will assess vitals and manage any onset of health complications. Medications to help manage withdrawal symptoms may be administered during this time.
Furthermore, Medical Treatment for Benzodiazepine Abuse Can Include:
- Gradually reducing the dosage of the benzodiazepine used
- Switching to another benzodiazepine to taper off the one that is the source of addiction
Comprehensive therapy is the next step after a medical detox is complete. Detox is just the first step, but it is not the last stop on the long journey to recovery. Therapies are necessary to identify the root causes of the addiction.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is often used to discern the patient’s thought processes that led them to addiction. This therapy teaches recovering drug and alcohol users to identify inaccurate, negative, or distorted thinking patterns and teaches them the coping skills to correct them.
A range of other therapies is available as well, including ones involving 12-step groups such as Narcotics Anonymous or counseling for individuals, groups, and families. Relapse prevention programs also give clients the strategies they need to avoid a return to using addictive substances. All therapies and support programs are customizable to each client’s situation and specific and unique needs.
Clients have several options available for treatment depending on the severity of their addiction. Inpatient treatment or residential treatment, outpatient treatment programs, and dual diagnosis treatment are just some of the programs recovering benzo users can enter.
Residential treatment, which requires at least a 30-day stay or longer, provides a safe, 24-hour-monitored environment where clients can focus on getting well and addressing the compulsive behaviors that led them to addiction. Clients who live on-site at a treatment facility must adhere to structure and a strict schedule.
Outpatient treatment is lower in intensity and offers more flexibility so clients can live off-site and take care of personal responsibilities according to their own schedule.
They still are required to attend therapy sessions and activities for a set number of hours during the day or in the evening. People who enroll in an outpatient recovery program usually are motivated to stick with the program to achieve their recovery goals and are responsible for keeping their surroundings free of triggers that can lead them back to addiction
Dual diagnosis programs are ideal for people who have a substance use disorder along with a mental health disorder, such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and others. This kind of treatment is recommended as it treats both disorders at the same time. Doing so gives them the best chance at recovery
All programs have one main goal, which is to help people recovering from substance abuse as they begin to rejoin society and take on social responsibilities full-time post-treatment. Aftercare services, such as alumni groups and 12-step groups, are available to help recovering users focus on their new life of sobriety.
How Dangerous is Benzo Abuse and Addiction?
Not getting effective treatment for benzo abuse or benzo addiction can lead to a vicious cycle of using, stopping use, and risking relapse, which, for some, does end in overdose and then death. It can take years to manage the post-acute withdrawal symptoms (PAWS) that remain after benzo addiction has been managed. They include:
- Problems concentrating
- Energy changes
- Mood swings
- Sleep disturbances
People who are dealing with benzo-related PAWS can also seek help and support from a center that offers aftercare services.
Benzodiazepine Abuse Statistics
- In 2015, more than 9,000 people experienced death by overdose as a result of benzodiazepine abuse.
- Benzodiazepine abuse treatment admissions have tripled from 1998 to 2008, reports the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
According to data reported from the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey, in the 17 years between 1996 and 2013, the number of adults with benzodiazepine prescriptions grew by two-thirds, from 8.1 million to 13.5 million people.