Imagine a pill that, when swallowed, melts away anxieties in just a matter of minutes. This pill can be found in several forms under the categorical umbrella of benzodiazepines: drugs that are used therapeutically to induce sedation and reduce anxiety. For those with severe panic disorders, clinical anxiety, insomnia, and seizures, benzodiazepines can be very helpful and even a medical necessity. For others, however, they can be a deadly hook into the world of prescription drug addiction.
Benzodiazepines affect nearly every aspect of brain function, but their main purpose involves a chemical in the brain called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA works naturally to communicate with various neurons, controlling their speed. After consuming benzodiazepines, an augmentation of this natural occurrence takes place with the drugs acting as tranquilizers of sorts. They require very little time to “kick in”—Xanax, the most popularly prescribed benzodiazepine, takes effect in less than fifteen minutes. Some users describe the effect as “numbing”: the drugs dull their neurological response, making anxiety and panic less crippling. At the correct dose, benzodiazepines can diminish these feelings entirely.
Many find the nearly instant effects of benzodiazepines to be a major part of their appeal. Doctors frequently prescribe them to patients who have histories of panic attacks because they can be taken on an “as-needed” basis with relatively few side effects. Another reason for the popularity of benzodiazepines is their versatility; in addition to treating anxiety and sleep disorders, they can be prescribed for muscle spasms and epilepsy. Recent discoveries have even shown the effectiveness of benzodiazepines in alcohol detoxification, as both substances influence the central nervous system in similar ways.
Abuse Facts and Symptoms
Several forms of benzodiazepines, including Xanax (alprazolam) and Ativan (lorazepam), are among the 100 most commonly prescribed drugs in America. Due to this, they are relatively easy for pill abusers to get their hands on. Hospital admissions due to benzodiazepine abuse tripled from 1998 to 2008, compared to an overall 11% rise in treatment admissions for substance abuse. Many individuals turn to the drug out of a desire to experience a sleepy “high,” to heighten the effects of alcohol, or to reduce symptoms of agitation brought on by another substance.
Taken at high or unprescribed doses, benzodiazepines can cause users to exhibit signs of drowsiness, confusion, poor memory and cognition, slurred speech, weakness, and lack of coordination. If an individual has come to “need” benzodiazepines to carry out day-to-day activities and finds her/himself craving the drug, it is likely that this person is addicted.
It is rare, however, that benzodiazepine abuse occurs on its own. An estimated 80 percent of benzodiazepine abusers use the drug alongside another, more prominent substance--opioids being the most common. This is of particular concern because acute toxicity is at its highest risk when benzodiazepines are used concurrently with another type of drug. If benzodiazepine abuse is suspected, it is wise to check for other forms of abuse.
Of course, benzodiazepine addiction is not always mediated. Its tendency to be issued on an as-needed basis can lead to unintended dependence. Patients who are prescribed benzodiazepines may find themselves becoming physically accustomed to low doses and may need to continually increase the amount that they take, leading to withdrawal symptoms if they are abruptly taken off the medication.
Whether benzodiazepine addiction occurs as a result of a doctor’s prescription or intentional abuse, it is imperative that a physician closely monitors the user while they gradually taper off the drug. Sudden abstinence from benzodiazepines can cause intense symptoms of anxiety, tremors, sweating, and panic attacks. Inpatient detoxification at a treatment center, where psychiatrists can monitor the patient and respond immediately to emergencies, is highly recommended.
In addition to physician-supervised detoxification, benzodiazepine addicts can use stress-relieving activities to dull the intensity of their withdrawal symptoms. This should only be done alongside professional treatment, however, as self-treatment alone can be ineffective.
If you or a loved one are struggling with benzodiazepine dependence, seek help immediately. Recovery from prescription drug addiction is very difficult, but physicians and rehab centers are there to help you bring you back to a life that is free from addiction.