Benzodiazepines are central nervous system depressants commonly prescribed to treat anxiety, panic attacks and insomnia. They’re also used to treat symptoms of alcohol withdrawal and to sedate patients before surgery.
When used as prescribed by a doctor, the drugs are safe and effective. However, using benzodiazepines for other purposes can cause addiction and other serious health problems.
Benzodiazepines that can cause addiction include:
Addiction is another term for a severe substance use disorder. It’s a disease of the brain that causes repeated drug use despite negative consequences.
A person with a mild benzodiazepine use disorder may be able to stop using benzos on their own, but quitting the drugs abruptly can cause life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. Quitting with assistance from a health professional is safer.
A person with a severe benzodiazepine use disorder requires professional treatment and support to quit using the drugs. With the right balance of treatment, support and effort, recovery from benzodiazepine addiction is possible.
Benzodiazepine dependence is different from addiction. Dependence affects every person who consistently uses benzodiazepines. Addiction develops only in some people.
When a person takes benzodiazepines for multiple days or weeks, the brain adapts to the presence of the drugs. It begins to depend on the drugs to function. Benzo dependence is the state of relying on a benzo to feel normal.
As dependence develops, the brain starts to require larger doses to feel the same effects. Requiring larger doses of a substance is an adaptation called tolerance. When someone who is dependent on a benzodiazepine stops taking the drug, they experience withdrawal symptoms.
Benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms include:
The severity of withdrawal symptoms can be reduced by slowly tapering off the drugs. After a person reduces their dose for a few days, their tolerance drops and they become less dependent on the substance.
People who are addicted to benzodiazepines are unable to slowly wean off the drugs on their own. The disease disrupts their judgement, self-control and motivation. But addiction professionals can help people with severe benzodiazepine use disorders safely taper.
Like other addictive drugs, benzodiazepines cause a dopamine release. Dopamine is a chemical that contributes to how we feel happiness.
Over time, these drugs change the way the brain releases dopamine. This affects the way the person feels happiness from all activities. People who are addicted to benzodiazepines are sometimes unable to feel happiness unless they take high doses of the drugs.
Addiction also affects the motivation system in the brain. The brain associates the substances with happiness and causes cravings that motivate the person to take the drugs.
Withdrawal is another component of addiction. People who try to quit the drugs on their own are rarely capable of making it through withdrawal. The symptoms are typically so uncomfortable that people return to the drugs for relief.
Benzos can also be addictive because they temporarily relieve certain mental health issues. Some people self-medicate with benzos to relieve anxiety or sleep problems. The drugs can temporarily treat these ailments, but long-term use can make a person believe they have to have the substances to feel less anxious or to sleep.
When used as prescribed, benzodiazepines usually address associated medical conditions with little risk. The most common side effects of benzodiazepines include drowsiness and feeling hungover. They may also cause confusion, poor concentration, dizziness, slurred speech and low blood pressure.
People under the influence of benzos have an increased risk of being involved in accidents. Someone who doesn’t know how they’ll react to the prescription drugs should avoid driving a car or operating machinery.
Elderly individuals sometimes experience breathing difficulties while on benzos, and they may be at a higher risk for falling. Benzos can also cause birth defects when taken by pregnant women.
Benzodiazepine overdoses are almost never fatal unless the drug is combined with another substance of abuse. It’s risky to combine benzodiazepines with alcohol, opioids or other depressants. When combined, the substances can make a person pass out and stop breathing because depressants slow respiration.
The drugs are also used in some sexual assaults. Slipping a benzodiazepine into a person’s drink can render them unconscious.
Patients taking benzodiazepines should talk to their doctors about a discontinuation plan before taking the drug and prior to quitting the drug. Quitting benzos abruptly can cause fatal side effects. Medical professionals can help patients slowly taper off the prescription drugs to avoid severe side effects.
Individuals who are dependent or addicted to benzodiazepines should seek medically supervised detox. Patients in rehab for benzo addiction slowly taper off the drugs while receiving 24/7 monitoring.
Detox from benzos can last weeks or multiple months depending on the severity of the addiction and the type of benzodiazepine the person has been on. Some benzodiazepines stay in your system longer than others.
Rehabilitation centers are the best resources for people trying to overcome benzo addiction. Rehabs provide safe environments for recovery, teach clients to live without drugs and provide treatment for co-occurring mental health disorders or other types of addiction.
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