Benzodiazepines such as Valium and Xanax are addictive drugs which are often used therapeutically to produce sedation, induce sleep, relieve anxiety and muscle spasms, and to prevent seizures. Benzodiazepines act as hypnotics in high doses, anxiolytics in moderate doses, and sedatives in low doses. Benzodiazepines affect the central nervous system functions and are classified as depressants. They are more commonly referred to as “benzos” or “benzies” and are ingestible in pill form or injected.
Benzos are a powerful and widely prescribed group of tranquilizers that includes alprazolam (Xanax), diazepam (Valium) and lorazepam (Ativan). These medications have a number of legitimate uses. Unfortunately, they also have the ability to trigger addiction when used inappropriately or for long periods of time. In addition, benzodiazepine use can lead to potentially fatal overdoses, especially when combined with the use of a prescription opioid. Almost 2 million Americans abuse or misuse a benzodiazepine medication. An even larger number of Americans use these medications in combination with a prescription opioid. Together, these facts help explain a steep rise in benzodiazepine overdoses in recent years.
Types of Benzodiazepines
Many benzodiazepines offer the potential for abuse. They include Xanax (alprazolam), Valium (diazepam), Librium (chlordiazepoxide), Tranxene (clorazepate), Paxipam (Halazepam), Centrax (prazepam), Klonopin/Clonopin (Clonazepam), Serax (oxazepam), Restoril (temazepam), ProSom (estazolam), and Dalmane (flurazepam). Rohypnol (Flunitrazepam) is a benzodiazepine not manufactured or legally marketed in the United States; however, it is often smuggled in by traffickers. More commonly known as a “roofie,” Rohypnol is known as both a party drug and the date rape drug.
The Effects of Benzodiazepines
Benzodiazepine abuse can lead to amnesia, hostility, irritability, vivid or disturbing dreams, as well as tolerance and physical dependence. Because tolerance develops, a benzo abuser must continually increase his or her dose in order to achieve the desired effects. Unfortunately, those struggling with an addiction to benzodiazepines are often very adept at hiding their substance abuse habit from loved ones, as they will explain symptoms as stress and/or anxiety over external problems. They also may have difficulty believing they are the victims of addiction, since their habit comes with a prescription.
Benzodiazepines belong to a larger category of medications known as CNS (central nervous system) depressants. Like other medications in this category, they achieve their beneficial effects by slowing down the normal rate of activity inside your brain and producing either an increased sense of calm or drowsiness. Doctors prescribe some types of benzodiazepines as treatments for medically serious forms of anxiety, including panic attacks. They prescribe other types of these medications as treatments for medically serious insomnia and other sleep-related problems.
Potential to Trigger Addiction
In addition to slowing down your overall brain activity, benzodiazepines temporarily boost your brain’s levels of a chemical called dopamine. With repeated exposure, this dopamine boost — also triggered by substances such as cannabis and illegal and prescription opioids — sets the stage for the development of physical dependence and addiction. Doctors are typically well aware of the addictive potential of benzodiazepines. For this reason, they usually only prescribe these medications for short-term use. Unfortunately, the same mental health issues that lead to the use of benzodiazepines can also make dependence and addiction more likely to occur.
Rates of Misuse and Abuse
The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that almost 30 million Americans used a benzodiazepine tranquilizer in 2015. Over half of these individuals used Xanax or some other form of alprazolam. Approximately 15% of all people who take prescription tranquilizers misuse or abuse the medications. Since benzodiazepines are by far the most widely prescribed tranquilizers, most of the misuse and abuse occurs among benzodiazepine consumers.
Unfortunately, prescription tranquilizer misuse/abuse is fairly common among people who use other illegal or illicit substances capable of producing addiction. For instance, more than a third of all heroin users also improperly consume benzodiazepines or some or form of tranquilizer. In addition, at least a quarter of all cocaine, methamphetamine and MDMA (Ecstasy/Molly) users improperly consume one of these medications. The rate of prescription tranquilizer abuse/misuse among marijuana users is roughly 10%.
A Spike in Overdose Deaths
If a benzodiazepine slows down your central nervous system function past a certain point, you will develop a potentially fatal reaction known as an overdose. The National Institute on Drug Abuse tracks the number of people who die from benzodiazepine overdoses in the U.S. each year. With the exception of 2012, when the death rate dropped temporarily, the number of people who have died from this form of drug overdose has increased steadily since 2001. In fact, the number of people who died from a benzodiazepine overdose in 2014 (8,000-plus) was an astounding 400% higher than the number of people who died in 2001. Curiously, for the past several years, the rise in overdose deaths has not been accompanied by an increase in the number of benzodiazepine misusers/abusers.
The Role of Opioid Medications
Like benzodiazepines, both legal and illegal opioids slow down the function of your central nervous system. In practical terms, this means that if you take an opioid at the same time as a benzodiazepine, you can seriously increase your chances of slowing down your system enough to trigger an overdose. Unfortunately, since the turn of the century, the number of people with legitimate prescriptions for both benzodiazepines and opioid medications has risen by fully 41%. This increase has added a whopping 2.5 million Americans to the pool of individuals with potentially elevated risks for an overdose. This situation has gotten so bad that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently ordered a change in the labeling of benzodiazepines and prescription opioids to highlight the danger.
Recovering from benzodiazepine addiction is difficult physically and psychologically, and stopping cold turkey is not only unwise, it can also be unsafe and even deadly. You’ll begin your path to recovery with a medically supervised detox program, and learn the tools you’ll need to stay sober in the world outside rehab.