Benzodiazepines are well-known anti-anxiety agents that are used to treat anxiety, insomnia, alcohol withdrawal, and seizures. These medications, obtained through a prescription from a licensed physician, act upon the benzodiazepine receptors located throughout the central nervous system of the body to lower anxiety levels, increase relaxation of the muscles, and produce sedation. Benzodiazepines generally produce their effects very quickly, which makes them ideal for people who are suffering from anxiety disorders as they can be taken when the anxiety peaks. While these medications are very helpful, when not used directly as prescribed they can lead to serious problems and addiction.
Signs and Symptoms of Benzodiazepine Addiction
Benzodiazepines are anti-anxiety agents widely prescribed to treat anxiety, insomnia, alcohol withdrawal, and seizure management. These controlled medications include clonazepam, Xanax, Ativan, and Valium and act upon the benzodiazepine receptors located throughout the central nervous system of the body. When used, benzos lower anxiety levels, increase relaxation of the muscles, and produce sedation. Benzodiazepines generally deliver their effects very quickly, which makes them ideal for people suffering from anxiety disorders as they can be taken when anxiety peaks or a panic attack begins. Most people who are prescribed benzodiazepines by their doctor do not go on to abuse these medications, however certain people do end up becoming addicted to the rapid onset and feelings of relaxation caused by benzos, especially when combined with other drugs.
Benzodiazepine abuse is a form of prescription drug abuse; the usage of benzos in a recreational fashion rather than to treat the disorders they were intended to help is illegal and, unfortunately, common. Many who abuse benzodiazepines also engage in abuse of different drugs. Some use benzos to augment an existing high from drugs like heroin, methamphetamines, or alcohol. Benzodiazepines are a relatively safe drug used on their own to treat certain disorders, however, when mixed with drugs and alcohol, benzo abuse can quickly lead to overdose and death.
In the United States, at any given time, 11% to 15% of the adult population has taken benzodiazepine one or more times during the year prior and about 1 to 2% have taken benzos daily for longer than 12 months. As benzodiazepine abuse seldom occurs alone, approximately 80% of those who abuse benzos use another substance (most commonly opioids) as well.
Causes and Risk Factors for Benzodiazepine Abuse
Addiction to benzos is not likely the result of a single risk factor, but rather a combination of numerous risk factors working together. The most common causes and risk factors for benzodiazepine abuse include:
Genetic: It has been long-established that addiction is related to genetics; individuals who have a first-degree relative who has struggled with addiction are more likely to develop an addiction to certain substances, including benzodiazepines.
Physical: People who are struggling with certain types of mental and health-related disorders such as anxiety disorders, are more likely to develop an addiction to certain substances as a way of controlling the unpleasant symptoms of their disorder. Over time, the person comes to rely on these substance as a means to get through the day.
Environmental: It is extremely likely that many environmental factors lead to the development of abuse and addiction. The most common environmental influences for benzo abuse and addiction include low socioeconomic status, beginning to abuse drugs or alcohol at a younger age, and having friends or family who abuse benzos.
- Being female – this may be related to the fact that women are 37% more likely to be prescribed benzodiazepines than men
- Elderly age – many physicians improperly prescribe benzos to elderly people who are struggling with late life depression symptoms
Signs and Symptoms of Benzodiazepine Abuse
The symptoms and signs of benzo abuse and addiction vary among people based upon genetic makeup, length of abuse, frequency of use, dosage administered, as well as addiction to other types of substances. The most common symptoms of benzodiazepine abuse include:
- Drug-seeking behaviors
- Doctor shopping, or visiting a number of doctors to obtain more prescriptions
- No longer engaging in previously enjoyed activities
- Forging prescriptions
- Increasing desire to be left alone
- Inability to meet expectations and responsibilities at work, school, or home
- Increased respiratory infections
- Physical dependence
- Motor incoordination
- Muscle weakness
- Changes in eating and sleeping patterns
- Memory impairment
- Anterograde amnesia
- Increased confusion
- Slowed thinking
- Slowed, diminished reaction time
- Worsening mental health state
- Increased anxiety
- Paradoxical excitement
- Irritability or hostility
- Mood swings
Effects of Benzodiazepine Abuse
Long-term usage of benzodiazepines can lead to a multitude of unpleasant consequences and effects which can be affected by abuse of other substances, length of time abused, frequency of use, and individual genetic makeup. The most common effects of untreated benzodiazepine abuse include:
- Loss of job
- Financial difficulties
- Legal problems
- Relationship difficulties
- Social withdrawal and isolation
- Addiction to benzodiazepines
- Abuse of other substances
- Deterioration of mental and physical health
- Physical and psychological dependence
- Suicidal thoughts and behaviors
If you feel that you are in crisis, or are having thoughts about hurting yourself or others, please call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.
Effects of Benzodiazepine Withdrawal and Overdose
Physical dependence upon benzos can lead to serious withdrawal symptoms; either if the drug is abruptly stopped or if there is a long period of time between doses. Withdrawal from benzodiazepines can be dangerous and should always be performed under the guidance of trained medical professionals who can help a person safely detox and receive care for their psychological addiction. Withdrawal symptoms usually are noted within four hours after the last dose and may last days or weeks.
Symptoms of Benzodiazepine Withdrawal Syndrome
- Flu-like aches and pains
- Status epileptics
- Suicidal ideations
Symptoms of Benzodiazepine Overdose:
When taken with other drugs or at higher doses than prescribed, benzodiazepines can be very dangerous. In some cases it can lead to a benzodiazepine overdose, which is a medical emergency. Some symptoms of an overdose may include:
- Drowsiness and sedation
- Poor judgment and decision making abilities
- Slurred speech
- Decreased coordination
- Blurred vision
- Death from respiratory depression and arrest
It is rare that benzodiazepine abuse occurs without the presence of another mental health disorder. The most common co-occurring, comorbid mental health disorders include:
- Depressive disorders
- Anxiety disorders
- Bipolar disorder
- Other substance abuse and addiction