Benzodiazepines are anxiolytic prescription medications that doctors prescribe to manage a number of conditions, most notably anxiety and sleep disorders. Considered to be safe, these drugs – even in the event of an overdose – rarely cause lethal side effects. There are fifteen benzodiazepines available in the United States and an additional twenty sold worldwide. Short-acting benzodiazepines such as Versed are used to calm an upset person or help a person fall asleep. Long-acting benzodiazepines, such as Xanax, Librium, Valium, and Ativan are used to manage anxiety and sleep disorders. In low doses, benzos are sedatives. In moderate dosages, they are hypnotics, and at high doses, they become abused.
While most individuals take their benzodiazepines according to the instructions given by the doctor and discontinue use within the recommended timeframe (usually under two weeks to prevent physical dependence), some individuals enjoy the calm feelings that are associated with benzo use. They may take more of the pills than prescribed, use them more frequently, or use them in a nonmedical manner.
With the uptick in stimulant abuse, most notably a resurgence of cocaine abuse and the increase in methamphetamine users, many individuals who are addicted to these stimulants have found another use for benzos. They will use benzodiazepines to control the unpleasant excitement and other negative effects of stimulant abuse. While this form of polysubstance abuse is increasingly common, it is also very dangerous. The combination of uppers and downers can lead to cardiovascular complications including heart attack and stroke. Other individuals will combine benzodiazepines with alcohol in order to induce a mellower and more intense high. This combination of drugs carries with it the dangerous of combining two or more downers, namely respiratory depression and death.
When an individual becomes addicted to benzodiazepines, he or she will have developed a physical tolerance to the drug, meaning that more of the benzo is needed to produce initial effects. Shortly after tolerance develops, physical addiction becomes a reality and abrupt cessation of these drugs can lead to dangerous withdrawal symptoms. Individuals will resume taking benzos to stave off these symptoms. When an individual is truly addicted to benzos, the addiction has become a psychological crutch to get through the day. Unsurprisingly, psychological addiction is the hardest to treat.
With the right medical management, rehab, and therapies, benzodiazepine addiction can be successfully overcome.
Benzodiazepine addiction is a growing problem in the United States. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, between the years of 1998 and 2008, the number of people admitted into the hospital for benzodiazepines almost tripled. In addition, according to DAWN (Drug Abuse Warning Network), specified that in 2002, well over 100,000 drug-related visits to the emergency room involved benzodiazepines. A whopping 78% of those visits involved more than one drug.
Benzodiazepine addiction often occurs with a number of co-occurring mental illnesses. The most common co-occurring disorders include:
- Depressive disorders
- Prescription drug abuse
- Stimulant abuse
- Substance abuse
- Anxiety disorders
- Bipolar disorder
- Conduct disorders
Addiction is a disease that has no single root cause. Rather, it is assumed that addiction is caused by the interplay of a number of different causes. These causes include:
Genetic: Addiction has been identified as having a genetic component. Individuals who have a first-degree family member, such as a parent or sibling, who struggles with addiction are more prone to develop an addiction themselves.
Brain Chemistry: It’s been postulated that the structure and function of the brain of an addict may work differently than those of non-addicted individuals. Individuals who have a dysfunction in their brain may attempt to self-medicate with benzos to alleviate their symptoms.
Environmental: Individuals who grow up in a chaotic household which may or may not have modeled substance abuse are at greater risk for developing addiction problems later in life to cope with life stressors. In addition, individuals who begin to abuse drugs at an earlier age are more prone to develop addiction later in life.
Psychological: Many times, individuals who are struggling through an undiagnosed or untreated mental illness will attempt to self-medicate their symptoms with drugs or alcohol to alleviate the symptoms.
The symptoms of benzodiazepine addiction and abuse will differ among individuals according to their genetic makeup, length of addiction, frequency of use, and amount of benzos consumed. Most common symptoms of benzodiazepine addiction include:
- Mood swings
- Panic attacks
- Lying or stealing to obtain money to purchase drugs
- Social isolation
- Withdrawing from once-pleasurable activities
- Inability to fulfill obligations at home or work
- “Losing” prescriptions for benzodiazepines
- Doctor shopping, or obtaining more prescriptions for benzodiazepines from many doctors
- Stealing or borrowing benzos from loved ones
- Hiding benzos in various places around the house, work, and car
- Lying about the amount used
- Prescription forgery
- Slurred speech
- Appearing “out of it”
- Impaired judgment
- Reduction of inhibitions
- Disturbing dreams
- Unsteady gait
- Blurred vision
- Poor coordination
- Muscle weakness
- Respiratory depression
Effects of Benzodiazepine Abuse
The effects of benzodiazepine addiction impact virtually every part of an addict’s life. Addiction knows no bounds. Some of the most common effects of long-term benzodiazepine addiction include:
- Social isolation
- Job loss
- Legal problems
- Financial difficulties
- Respiratory depression
- Addiction to other substances
Effects of Withdrawal
While withdrawal from most abused substances is not pleasant, withdrawing from benzodiazepines can be especially deadly. This is why it’s not recommended that any individual seek to abruptly stop using benzos without the supervision of trained medical staff. Effects of benzo withdrawal include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- “Brain fog”
- Panic attacks
- Muscle spasms and cramping
- Myocardial infarction