Benzodiazepines are known by many different names and use such as Xanax, Ativan, Klonopin, Valium, and more. The common factor among all forms of Benzodiazepines, however, is that they are highly addictive.
Benzodiazepines and addiction commonly go hand in hand due to the nature of prolonged use, the drug’s calming effects, and the intense withdrawal symptoms that make it difficult to stop. Read on to explore benzodiazepines in mental health treatment, the risk factors and signs of addiction, and the best methods to recover from a benzodiazepine use disorder.1
Benzodiazepines, commonly referred to as “benzos,” are a class of drugs typically used to treat psychological conditions such as anxiety and panic disorders or seizures and alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Benzos are highly addictive both psychologically as well as physically, and they can cause withdrawal symptoms upon stopping use.1
Benzodiazepines produce a sedative, relaxing effect on the body’s central nervous system, slowing down activity and communication between the brain and body. These drugs are often used to induce sleep, reduce anxiety, act as an anticonvulsant, or serve as a muscle relaxant.
Benzodiazepines are typically used for mental health treatment due to their classification as depressant drugs. For individuals with heightened anxiety, restlessness, or panic disorders, these drugs can make someone feel more calm and relaxed.
In addition to a multitude of street names for benzodiazepine, there is a wide range of brand names and generic drugs that fall under the category of benzos. While some of the most commonly known drugs include Klonopin, Xanax, and Valium, there is a multitude of different pharmaceuticals in the benzodiazepine category. Each one comes with varying dosages, active times, and specific uses.1
Despite there being many different brands and generic versions of benzodiazepines, all are composed of a benzene ring fused to a seven-member diazepine ring. Many benzos also have a phenyl ring attached to the diazepine ring.1 Small changes to this basic structure are what differentiate each drug from one another and set them apart for various pharmaceutical uses.
Benzodiazepines are designed to bind to a specific type of neurotransmitter in the brain, known as GABA Receptors. GABA, or Gamma-aminobutyric acid, is a neurotransmitter responsible for sending messages through the brain and nervous system. GABA’s role is to inhibit the activity of neurons or nerve cells.2
When binding to GABA Receptors, benzos essentially act in the same way as GABA does by rendering neurons less likely to fire, particularly in networks of neurons responsible for anxiety and arousal. This produces the calming effects characteristic of benzodiazepine drugs.2
Different benzodiazepines are designed at varying potency levels and can be detected in the body’s system for varying periods. Long-acting benzodiazepines, such as Valium, have a detection time of up to ten days. They remain active and effective in the body for 1to 3 days at a time. More intermediate-acting benzos, like Ativan and Xanax, are detectable in the body for up to 5 days and are typically active in the body for 11 to 20 hours.3
Short-acting benzodiazepines, like Halcion, metabolize quicker inside the body. They begin acting more immediately but are only active for 3 to 8 hours.3
Benzodiazepines are highly addictive, so doses administered for extended periods contribute to a higher risk of dependency. Benzodiazepine dependence is common in regular prescriptions taken for four weeks or longer, and dependence occurs in almost one-third of patients.4
Risk factors for benzodiazepine addiction include a high dosage – especially for short-acting, higher-potency benzos – a long time frame of prescribed use, and other personality and health factors that vary from person to person.
Dependency on benzodiazepine also occurs because of the common withdrawal symptoms. For many individuals, it is easier to continue benzodiazepine use than to go through the symptoms of withdrawal, ultimately leading to dependency and higher tolerance.4.
Several physical and psychological symptoms are indicative of benzodiazepine abuse, including:
Behavioral changes can be a telltale sign of drug abuse or other substance use disorders. For individuals with a dependency on Benzodiazepine, certain behavioral signs can be an indicator that abuse is occurring. These behavioral signs of abuse include:
Due to their highly addictive nature, benzodiazepine drugs have a high risk for withdrawal symptoms. For anyone taking a prescribed benzodiazepine for an extended period, typically two weeks or longer, cutting out the drugs all at once can cause severe withdrawal symptoms. Common symptoms of benzodiazepine withdrawal may include:
When stopping benzodiazepine use, it is best to slowly taper off of the drug with the help and recommendations of a medical professional, such as the prescribing doctor. If a dependency is suspected or apparent in the patient, it is recommended to attend a detox facility to wean off of benzos and so the individual is surrounded by professionals who can monitor the situation.4
Benzodiazepine abuse is overwhelmingly common, and with that comes a high risk of benzodiazepine overdose. Due to its classification as a central nervous system depressant, overdosing on Benzodiazepine is especially common when taken in conjunction with other drugs in the depressant category, such as opioids or alcohol.
Symptoms of Benzodiazepine overdose include:
Due to the highly addictive nature and potentially severe withdrawal symptoms of benzodiazepine, many treatment options designed involve the help of specialized treatment facilities and medical detoxification programs. The safest and most commonly recommended treatment is to taper down drug use, rather than to quit cold turkey. Tapering use under the oversight of a trained health professional can help to avoid or alleviate many of the withdrawal side effects.
The benefits of seeking addiction treatment for benzodiazepine dependence include immediate medical and emotional support alongside the opportunity to learn how to avoid relapses in the future. Continued counseling and follow-up support are also recommended for one to continue finding success in stopping benzodiazepine use.