About Benzodiazepine Abuse

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What is Benzodiazepine Abuse?

Benzodiazepines or “benzos” are a class of depressant medications. They are considered a controlled substance in the United States as the potential for benzodiazepine abuse and dependence is high. Benzodiazepine abuse typically begins in one of two ways. Often a person is prescribed a benzodiazepine medication, like Xanax or Klonopin and begins taking more than prescribed. Benzodiazepine abuse also frequently occurs when someone buys this medication illegally online or off the street and takes it recreationally.

These medications are most often prescribed for anxiety disorders, including panic attacks but they are sometimes prescribed for other conditions, such as insomnia. The potential for abuse is relatively high because benzos create a sense of well-being and calm that people find alluring and if the medication is taken regularly for even as little as 2-3 weeks a person will experience physical withdrawal if they stop using it abruptly. It is also possible to build a tolerance to the medication over time. Someone who is prescribed a benzodiazepine and takes it daily may find that it no longer has the same effect after a few years and become tempted to take more than they are prescribed.

Benzodiazepine Withdrawal Can Be Fatal

Benzodiazepines are one of only three categories of drugs which have potentially fatal withdrawal symptoms. The other two are alcohol and barbiturates. It is absolutely essential than you NEVER attempt to detox yourself off of benzodiazepines or stop taking them abruptly without medical supervision. There is a very real potential for seizures in withdrawal and they can be deadly. A benzodiazepine detox or taper must always be done under a doctor’s supervision.

Some Potential Risk Factors in Benzodiazepine Withdrawal are:

  • Poor overall physical health
  • Advanced age (over 65 years old)
  • Regular alcohol consumption or alcoholism
  • Previous history of seizures (for any reason)
  • Long-term use of benzodiazepines (5+ years) 
  • Taking certain other medications along with benzodiazepines.
  • Taking more than prescribed or more than a typical prescription dose.

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How do Benzodiazepines Work?

Benzodiazepines work by increasing the production of the neurotransmitter gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA slows down the brain’s processes. This creates a sense of calm and relaxation. GABA eases anxiety and stress. It helps us get restful sleep. Also, it protects our brains. Increases in GABA seem to alleviate seizures and high blood pressure. The brain needs GABA to function properly. The problem is that benzos increase the production to a degree that can be dangerous if they are abused or if the user abruptly stops taking them.

Anyone engaged in benzodiazepine abuse or even regular use should be aware that quitting cold turkey is extremely dangerous. Benzos are one of the few classes of drugs which have potentially fatal withdrawal symptoms. The others are alcohol and barbiturates. Quitting a benzo abruptly without medical supervision after you have taken it for an extended period of time can result in deadly seizures. This must never be taken lightly. If you or anyone you know ever stops taking a benzo suddenly after regular use, seek immediate medical attention at a hospital or drug detox. No exceptions.

BENZODIAZEPINES PRESCRIBED IN THE U.S.:

  • Alprazolam (Xanax, Niravam)
  • Clonazepam (Klonopin)
  • Lorazepam (Ativan, Loreev XR)
  • Diazepam (Valium)
  • Chlordiazepoxide (Librium)
  • Midazolam (Versed)
  • Triazolam (Halcion)
  • Oxazepam (Serax)

Most benzodiazepines can be categorized based upon their duration of action. They usually fall into one of three categories:

Ultra-Short Acting – Effective for a period of 3-8 hours. Some examples include triazolam (Halcion) and midazolam (Versed).

Short-Acting – Effective for a period of 11-20 hours. Some examples include alprazolam (Xanax) and lorazepam (Ativan).

Long-Acting – Effective for more than 20 hours. Some examples include diazepam (Valium) and clonazepam (Klonopin).

How Does Benzodiazepine Abuse Happen?

Benzodiazepine abuse can happen in a number of ways. One of the most common occurs when someone has been prescribed a benzo like Xanax or Klonopin for anxiety. While doctors are a lot wiser concerning the risk of benzodiazepine abuse now than in the past, it is still a real problem. Through no fault of the patient, they can become dependent on benzos after taking them regularly for as little as 1 month. Once they are dependent, it is difficult or even dangerous to stop. Best case scenario, they will experience agitation, anxiety and insomnia. 

Worst case, fatal seizures in withdrawal. This is why it is imperative that no one ever abruptly stops taking a drug in this class without medical supervision in a controlled setting where detox meds are available and a nurse or doctor are present. This means an inpatient medical detox or hospital. The higher the dose and/or longer a person has taken it, the greater the risk. People with a history of seizures or seniors need to be especially careful. 

Benzo Addiction from Recreational Use

Benzodiazepine abuse also occurs when people take these drugs recreationally of course. There is a reason they are considered controlled substances by the DEA. There is a high potential for abuse with these drugs and the withdrawal symptoms are extraordinarily dangerous without proper supervision. Regardless of why someone engages in benzodiazepine abuse though, the important thing is that they get the help they need to overcome it. 

The best course of action is a safe, medical detox under a doctor’s supervision followed by addiction treatment to provide the behavioral health support needed to help mitigate relapse. The Sylvia Brafman Mental Health Center is closely affiliated with reputable medical detox providers. If you or someone you love needs a benzo detox, we can help facilitate that. People with anxiety disorders should also know that there are effective non-narcotic medications for anxiety now. Combined with non-pharmacological interventions and wellness practices, it is entirely possible to manage most anxiety effectively without the use of a controlled substance.

We can Help

If you believe you or someone you love needs help with benzodiazepine abuse or addiction to any other drug or you just have questions about treatment, give The Sylvia Brafman Mental Health Center a call at (954) 758-4174

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