Benzo Addiction: What Makes Benzos So Addictive?Anna Ciulla
Benzodiazepine tranquilizers, commonly called “benzos,” belong to the CNS (Central Nervous System) category of depressants. Benzos work by binding to the brain’s GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) neurotransmitter receptors, which helps reduce neuron activity and, by extension, nervousness and muscle spasms. Because of their effectiveness in lessening both physical and emotional tension, benzos are frequently prescribed for anxiety disorders, insomnia, and seizures.
Unfortunately, many people abuse these drugs to the point of dependence. Benzodiazepine addiction is a major part of the American drug epidemic. These drugs are so highly addictive that annual overdose deaths involving benzos rose every year during the first decade of the 21st century and totaled around 8,000 by 2014. Some of the most addictive benzodiazepines are Valium, Xanax, Ativan, Rohypnol, and Klonopin.
This article will explain the typical path to benzo addiction, the effects and risks of these drugs, and the medical approach to detox and recovery.
How People Get Addicted to Benzos
What makes benzos so highly addictive is that the body and brain quickly build up a tolerance, requiring larger doses to achieve the same effect. Regular use of benzos teaches the body to depend on outside means for relaxing, so patients become increasingly tense and irritable in the absence of frequent doses, and increasingly dependent psychologically on this easy means of stress relief. Also, most benzo use involves prescribable medications, and it’s psychologically easier to rationalize the abuse of a doctor-approved drug.
The medical system itself has helped encourage benzo addiction by being too quick to offer an apparent easy solution to tough problems. Benzos are a traditional first-line treatment for anxiety disorders in particular, and as many as 150 million prescriptions have been issued in some years.
Prescription benzos come in three types, all of which are potentially addictive.
- Ultra short-acting drugs, which take effect the most rapidly and are used to treat insomnia or as part of pre-surgical anesthesia. They include midazolam (Versed) and triazolam (Halcion).
- Short-acting drugs, which have a rapid but relatively short-lived effect. Useful in treating anxiety disorders, they include alprazolam (Xanax) and lorazepam (Ativan).
- Long-acting drugs, which release their active ingredients slowly to produce longer-term relief. Commonly prescribed for anxiety, seizures, and insomnia, they include chlordiazepoxide (Librium) and perhaps the best-known benzo drug, diazepam (Valium).
While doctors typically prescribe benzos only for short-term use (no more than three or four months) due to the risks, psychological cravings for additional tension relief can take hold early on. Many people take extra pills according to their own judgment, dangerously increasing their tolerance levels and moving their bodies toward physical addiction. Once the cravings become dominant, addicts seek ways to obtain more medication than authorized by the original prescriptions, sometimes continuing regular use for years.
Overuse of prescriptions for quick relief has also contributed to widespread abuse of opioids, another medication category with relaxant effects, which are commonly used in pain-relief medications. Benzo and opioid drugs have in fact been frequently prescribed together, though the Food and Drug Administration warns this is dangerous and now requires that drug labeling for both benzos and opioid products describe the risks, which include difficulty breathing, extreme sleepiness and potentially fatal coma.
What Benzo Abuse & Addiction Does
Typical physical and psychological symptoms of benzo addiction include:
- Frequent drowsiness
- Dizzy spells
- Staggering movements or slurred speech, similar to classic “drunken” behavior
- Blurred vision
- Flu-like symptoms
- Poor judgment and poor memory (some benzos have been used as “date rape” drugs)
- Short temper or impatience
- Physical weakness
- Poor appetite
- Changes in breathing and heart rate
- Lack of initiative
- A decrease in job performance
- Social isolation
- A resurgence of anxiety or insomnia symptoms
- Depression and suicidal thoughts
Many of the above may also appear as side effects during directed use (in which case the prescribing physician should be consulted) or as signs of an overdose (which is a medical emergency requiring immediate professional treatment). People with true addiction, however, also exhibit behavioral symptoms that involve circumventing prescription limits. Such behavior may include:
- Obtaining prescriptions under false pretenses
- Going to multiple doctors and pharmacies for multiple copies of similar prescriptions
- Stealing prescription benzos from family and acquaintances
- Failing to report benzo purchases to an insurance company or primary care physician
- Buying benzos online or through unregulated channels
- Crushing and snorting benzo pills to inhale or inject for a stronger rush (which also greatly increases the risk of overdose)
Recovering from Addiction
The effects of benzo withdrawal can be dangerous, either directly or by provoking panic actions in the patient. Typically, a detoxing patient will experience strong levels of symptoms similar to those benzos are prescribed to treat:
- Extreme anxiety
- Hallucinations or a sense of disassociation from physical surroundings
- Numbness, itchiness or nerve spasms
- Heavy perspiration
- Gasping for breath
- Heart palpitations
Because these symptoms require both physical care (including decisions on whether to use other drugs to ease withdrawal effects) and psychological reassurance, a specialized treatment center with trained detox supervisors is essential. Most treatment programs use the tapering-off system of gradually lowering doses, rather than shocking the patient’s system by stopping cold.
With benzos, the primary withdrawal stage typically takes about a week. Then, there are several weeks or months of supervised care as the patient completes the tapering-off period and moves into the abstinence stage. Since most benzo addiction originates in seeking treatment for legitimate disorders, effective detox treatment also includes learning alternate ways to manage anxiety and tension.
Beach House follows a system of combining detox and follow-up treatment at one location, with ongoing attention to each patient’s individual needs. We carefully observe clinical and medical protocol to ensure that our patients successfully complete benzo detox and recovery goals.