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Benzodiazepines: What you need to know

Benzodiazepines, more commonly called benzos, are class of drugs commonly prescribed for anxiety disorders. You’ll recognize them as household names like Xanax, Klonopin, Ativan and Valium. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one-third of U.S. adults will experience an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. Chances are you know someone who takes benzos (legally) as they’re among the most prescribed psychotropic medications in America. They're also used to control seizures and insomnia, among other conditions.

Benzos work by affecting gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter in the brain that when increased, promotes sedation and physical relaxation and reduces feelings of anxiety. The calming effect of benzos makes them a highly addictive drug. Teens in particular are becoming increasingly susceptible to abuse as the pressures of daily life mount up while their coping mechanisms are still “in training” making a quick fix of calmness alluring.

While these drugs are generally considered safe when used under doctor’s orders and monitored, addictive behaviors can escalate quickly and subtly -- and an even bigger danger occurs when they’re taken unprescribed or in greater doses than prescribed. Worse yet, they’re often abused in conjunction with opioids and/or alcohol - potentially deadly combinations. These drugs sedate the user and suppress breathing, which is the most common reason overdose leads to fatality.

Who is at risk?

In the past 20 years the number of people filling prescriptions for benzos has increased nearly 70 percent. Anyone using benzodiazepines, under prescription or not, is at risk for developing a dependency or addiction. These drugs should always be closely monitored by a doctor but as we know that often isn’t how it goes. Many who abuse benzos are getting them from a friend or relative and using them without supervision.

Every generation has had to deal with the angst, stress, insecurity and the general pressures of pre-adulthood but teens today face even higher and more unrealistic expectations, perhaps thanks to social media, advertising, and Hollywood examples of how they “should” be living. It often begins with “innocent” self-medicating. There’s a big test, a relationship ends, the everyday pressure to look a certain way becomes overwhelming… for any number of reasons panic and anxiety crop up but within an hour of popping a Xanax it can all go away.

Even when used strictly as prescribed, the addiction to the feeling of calm and safety these drugs provide can sneak up. Users can get so used the high that they begin to feel uncomfortable anytime they’re not under its effect.

Like most drugs, tolerances to benzos can develop quickly -- within weeks or even days of frequent use. Higher tolerance means not only will a person need more of the chemical to produce that feel good sensation, but the physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms will be more pronounced if they can’t find the next dose. It’s a vicious cycle as they seek the next high, a bigger hit… and the consequence is the exponentially greater risk of overdose and potential death.

What to look for

Overuse and abuse can sometimes go unnoticed at first, especially if the user does have a legitimate diagnosis and is using benzos under prescription. It is a Schedule IV controlled substance meant for short term use that the medical community considers to have low potential for abuse, however the statistics indicate otherwise. As with any dependency or addiction, the earlier a problem is identified and addressed, the better the outcome.

Signs to look for if you suspect a benzo addiction include:

  • Uncharacteristic physical weakness
  • Vision changes
  • Excessive drowsiness
  • Unusual signs of poor judgment or thoughtless behavior
  • Asking others for their benzodiazepine pills or others’ medications going unaccounted for
  • Sudden mood changes
  • Switching doctors or visiting multiple providers
  • Stating they want to cut back on usage but being unable to do so

If anyone in your household has been prescribed Xanax or any of its cousins, keep a close watch on the medicine cabinet. Benzos can also be obtained relatively easily through the underground market so don’t assume that just because the you’re unaware of your loved one having access to a prescription that they can’t possibly be using. If you’re a parent and you notice mysterious packages arriving and/or a lab scale in your child’s possession, consider this a five-alarm warning sign.

What constitutes addiction?

The difficult part of identifying a problem with benzodiazepine use is that is a prescribed substance. For many people it is effective in managing what could be a debilitating disorder. It’s a slippery but often subtle slope.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition or the DSM-5 is the main mental health reference book for clinicians states that a diagnosable condition exists when a patient exhibits at least two of a possible 11 symptoms of misuse. Some of those behaviors include:

  • A person is taking more of the drug than intended or using for longer periods than recommended.
  • The user is investing considerable time getting their hands on drug, using it, and experience greater hangovers from its effects.
  • Withdrawal and cravings take charge when the person is not using the drug.
  • Increased tolerance over time -- in other words, it takes more of the drug to reach the familiar desired effects..
  • Poor performance at school or work, and difficulty in home relationships due to the drug’s effects.

If you are at all suspicious or worried that someone you love could be overusing or abusing benzos, do not wait to get help. Their life is literally on the line.

The dangers of withdrawal and the path to recovery

Because benzos build tolerance and a person will require increasingly more of the drug to find their high, it’s critical that the treatment process be under professional care. Withdrawal symptoms can be very intense and dangerous, even life threatening themselves. Do not simply remove the drug from their reach.

Withdrawal from benzos can result in the following symptoms:

  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Excessive sweating
  • Hand tremors
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures

And ironically, the very conditions that may have led to use in the first place can be exacerbated as withdrawals kick in, including anxiety, depression and insomnia.

Because the dangers of overdose and withdrawal can be so severe, it’s imperative that treatment be closely monitored under professional care. The physical detox is one element that needs to be watched closely but as this is an addiction that typically manifest as a result of psychological and emotional difficulties, the recovery process requires mental health support as well. An addict needs to learn an entirely new set of behaviors of methods for coping with life’s stresses.

A full recovery is possible and benzo addiction is manageable. We are here to help. Call us today at 888-506-9818 if you have even in inkling that someone you know is in trouble. Our admissions experts will help you determine the best plan of action for you and your loved one.