08 Feb Benzo Addiction and Treatment
Benzodiazepines, which are sometimes abbreviated to BZD or referred to as “benzos,” are a class of psychoactive drugs, which include Valium, Xanax and more. These prescription drugs are often abused and are highly addictive.
In this blog, we’ll go over addiction to benzos and discuss the treatment options.
What are benzos and how do they become addictive?
The name benzodiazepine comes from its chemical structure, which includes a “benzene” ring and a “diazepine” ring. Benzos all share this common chemical structure, and target the central nervous system, affecting the brain and body by enhancing the effects of GABA-A, a neurotransmitter in the brain that acts as your body’s natural calming substance. This typically manifests as a kind of hypnotic sedative. As mentioned above, Valium (diazepam) and Xanax (alprazolam) are the most commonly known benzos, but other drugs that fall under benzos include Ambien, Ativan, Halcion, Klonopin, Librium and Serax.
Benzos are most often prescribed for the treatment of issues like insomnia, anxiety, panic disorders, stress, seizures, muscle spasms, alcohol withdrawal and a number of other conditions. The drugs will inhibit brain function and decrease stimulation to induce a state of calmness that promotes sleep. Benzos are also sometimes prescribed off-label to help treat depression and pain, but they are not approved for this use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
When used appropriately, meaning under the recommendation and supervision of a doctor, the drugs can be highly effective in the treatment of these conditions. This is especially true when they are used over a short period of time. But benzos are classified as controlled substances because of their highly addictive properties. Since they suppress the central nervous system, they are considered depressants.
Unfortunately, when benzos are used in increasing amounts, or in any way against the advice of a medical professional, they will cause dependence and addiction. Abusing benzos can be very dangerous to a person’s physical and mental health. Addiction will involve both physical and psychological dependence to the drugs. Therefore, when the consumption of benzos is reduced or stopped completely, withdrawal symptoms will set in, which can be quite severe and even lethal.
So how do benzos becomes addictive? As mentioned above, benzos create mind-altering effects, and activate the pleasure centers of the brain, giving users a sense of happiness, euphoria and calmness. This acts as a sedative in the brain, slowing down certain functions and muting reactions to stress.
Over time, the drugs may actually influence the production of GABA (again, your body’s natural calming substance). Benzos can actually take effect so much so that your brain may stop making GABA without the presence of the drug. Your brain may then become dependent on the drug for its calming effects. When it leaves the bloodstream, withdrawal can start as the brain struggles to regain its natural sense of order and balance.
The body will develop a tolerance to benzos over time, which means a person’s standard dose of benzos will become less effective. The user will need a higher dose to achieve the same effect, which can lead to struggling with a physical and psychological addiction.
If you are seeking help for an addiction to benzos or any other prescription drugs, call us today to speak with an addiction specialist about treatment options.
What causes addiction to benzos?
Like with most substance abuse addiction, it is hard to be able to pinpoint an exact underlying cause of addiction to benzos. Also like with other drugs, there are numerous different variables that can play a role in the development of substance abuse.
However, sometimes the reasons for addiction are more obvious. The most common causes for addiction to benzos is when a user extends their use of the drug beyond their original course of treatment. It moves to full addiction when they start using larger doses than they were directed. Others may begin using without ever having a prescription at all.
There are a few known factors that make a person more at risk to benzos addiction. They include:
- Long-term use of benzodiazepines (meaning over four weeks)
- Taking benzos in high doses or gradually increasingly high doses
- Simultaneous abuse of other drugs and/or alcohol
- The presence of long-term anxiety disorders or other mental health conditions for which the benzos were originally prescribed. There are also instances where users did not know another underlying condition existed.
While these risk factors are mainly surface level, there are other factors that play into a person being more predisposed to addiction as well. Some of the more well-known causes include genetics, brain characteristics and multiple environmental factors.
Genetic – There is a well-supported theory that issues with addiction run in families through characteristics that are genetically passed down from generation to generation. Those who have close relatives with a substance abuse problem are twice as likely to develop substance abuse problems themselves. Genetics don’t guarantee addiction, but there is certainly a strong correlation.
Brain Chemistry – Benzos affect the central nervous system in the brain, creating feelings of pleasure and relaxation. When a person lacks the appropriate levels of chemicals in the brain that are involved in creating those feelings, the drugs will make up for it. That may cause these individuals to continue using the substances to keep experiencing those feelings of relaxation and pleasure, which turns to addiction.
Environmental – Unstable home environments or extreme levels of stress while growing up may cause a person to depend on drugs like benzos. These drugs can help a person cope with emotional pain. Some people may even grow up in environments where substance abuse and use is the preferred method of coping with these problems.
Psychological – An undiagnosed mental health disorder may also be a cause of benzos addiction. This is a common theory among doctors, because a person with an undiagnosed psychiatric condition will not understand the symptoms they are experiencing. They might not know any other way to deal with the symptoms other than to turn to benzos to get their symptoms under control. Self-medicating may lead these individuals to rely on these substances to function on a daily basis, which is a sign of addiction.
What are the signs and symptoms of addiction to benzos?
There are several signs and symptoms to look for in a person that is addicted to benzos.
If you are a person who is concerned that you might be forming an addiction to benzos, you might be dealing with some of the following signs:
- A failure or inability to reduce your dosage or stop using the drugs
- Feeling like you’d be unable to function without your benzos
- An increased tolerance of the effects of benzos, which requires you to take higher doses to achieve the same effects
- Encountering withdrawal symptoms when you try to reduce your dosage or stop taking the drug entirely. These symptoms include a desire to be non-social, anxiety, depression, hypersensitivity, physical tremors and insomnia.
If you are a friend or family member of someone whom you fear might be developing an addiction to benzos, there are several signs you can look for as well. Signs of benzos addiction include:
- Intermittent agoraphobia
- Mood swings
- If the person starts missing work
- Stealing or “borrowing” prescriptions
- Buying the drug illegally
- Doctor shopping
Doctor shopping refers to when a person starts seeking other doctors to get more prescriptions of the same drug. They keep each prescriber in the dark about the others, as well as the extent of their use. This means their dosage is no longer achieving their desired effect and they need a higher dosage to achieve the same feeling. This is a sure sign of a person who has developed a dependence on benzos.
If you’ve noticed any of these signs, it may be time to get the person help to deal with their addiction, but if you need further proof, there are also many symptoms that come along with abusing or being addicted to benzos. These symptoms can affect a user in a number of ways.
Physical symptoms of benzo addiction:
- Decreased urination
- Swelling in hands and feet
- Coordination difficulties
- Dry mouth
- Stuffy nose
- Fluctuations in weight
- Blurred or double vision
- Slurred speech
- Heart palpitations
- Loss of appetite
- Mood swings
- “Doctor shopping,” or visiting a number of doctors to obtain more prescriptions for Xanax
- Stealing or borrowing Xanax
- Forging prescriptions
- Risky behaviors
- Decreased anxiety
- Decreased inhibitions
- Hostility and violence
- Neglecting family or personal responsibilities
- Declining occupational or school performance
- Changes in appetite
- Taking higher doses than what was prescribed
- Chewing pills to make them work faster
- Crushing and snorting pills to increase effects
- Taking more tablets more frequently than prescribed
- Loss of concentration
- Trouble concentrating
- Non-cohesive thoughts
- Memory problems/lapses
Prolonged use and abuse of benzos can also often cause users to develop self-harming behavior and suicidal tendencies when they reach a certain point in their addiction. This is seen especially in young people. In rare cases, withdrawal from the drug can also result in psychosis and convulsions.
Irrational thinking may also persist, wherein a person who has been prescribed a benzo drug and is prone to addiction may begin to think “if one pill produced this feeling of calm, then two pills will produce an even greater feeling of calm.” This flawed thought process often leads to benzos addiction.
Prolonged users will also eventually develop a tolerance to benzos that coincides with the above thinking. This will require them to use an ever-increasing amount of the drug to produce that initial sense of calm. Overuse leads to running out of the prescribed amount faster than should be and the user is placed in a position of finding additional medication quickly.
When an addict is unable to acquire additional medication, either by legal means or otherwise, the addicted person is likely to begin to experience benzos withdrawal symptoms. This is most often when doctor shopping and theft will occur.
Quitting “Cold Turkey” Can be a Fatal Mistake
When a person is addicted to benzos and decides to quit, they should never try to quit all at once, on their own, at home. Benzos often have severe withdrawal symptoms that can be deadly if a person attempts to quit unsupervised.
For the best chances of a healthy recovery, the recommended course of action is to enter a drug detox center. Because of sometimes severe withdrawal symptoms, the recovery process should be done under close medical supervision. This recovery process will be closely supervised and managed in steps, by slowly tapering the addict’s dosage and frequency of use. An inpatient treatment facility gives addicts a medical team and psychiatrists who are trained to respond to all of the different symptoms that may emerge and can modify a person’s recovery program accordingly.
Benzos Withdrawal Symptoms and Treatment
Anyone can encounter withdrawal symptoms, but they are most often seen in individuals who have used benzos over a longer period of time, say three to six months. It is also seen in individuals who have used for less time, but who concurrently were abusing alcohol and/or other sedatives. In some cases of benzos addiction, withdrawal symptoms can begin to appear as soon as a few hours after the last usage and peaking within 24 to 72 hours.
Symptoms of benzos withdrawal can manifest in many ways, but typical signs include:
- Abdominal cramps
- Muscle cramps
- Severe anxiety
- Increased blood pressure
- Distorted body image
- Restless leg syndrome
The severity of these withdrawal symptoms will vary in severity based on the number of benzos taken, the duration of the drug abuse and the method of abuse, such as snorting, ingesting by mouth or injecting the drug.
A person can successfully recover from a benzos addiction, but following the proper course of action to get help will make sure things don’t get worse.
“Benzodiazepine Addiction Treatment.” American Addiction Centers. 14 Mar. 2019. https://americanaddictioncenters.org/benzodiazepine
“Benzodiazepine Treatment and Rehab.” Addiction Center. 14 Mar. 2019. https://www.addictioncenter.com/benzodiazepines/treatment/
“Benzodiazepine Abuse Treatment.” WebMD. 14 Mar. 2019. https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/addiction/benzodiazepine-abuse-treatment