Research shows that benzodiazepines and other anti-anxiety medications are among the most overused and misused. Up to 44 percent of chronic users may develop a dependency. Today, we’ll explore these medications and give you tips for identifying when you’ve crossed the threshold into dependence.
Benzodiazepines: A Summary
Benzodiazepines, often called “benzos,” are a class of drugs typically used for the treatment of anxiety and panic disorders, although they may also be prescribed for those experiencing seizures or insomnia. They work by affecting neurotransmitters in the brain, including boosting neural-activity-suppressing GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). It is generally believed that excessive neural activity may be the cause of anxiety, which is why enhanced effects of GABA are useful in the treatment of this mental health concern.
Taking these medications may feel similar to drinking for many people. The sedative effects are temporary and relatively short-lived, meaning that anxieties may persist even after the dosage wears off. This can create a vicious cycle in which people take their benzodiazepines constantly in order to avoid feeling anxious. While patients may have begun taking these pills while experiencing panic attacks, it is not uncommon for them to begin turning to their medication for even the smallest concerns – even preventatively: before meetings, for example.
Side effects of benzodiazepines are varied and may include:
- Dizziness and unsteadiness
- Confusion and disorientation
- Persistent drowsiness
- Irritability and aggression
- Memory issues
Various benzodiazepines are prescribed for specific conditions. For example:
- Anxiety disorders – diazepam (Valium), lorazepam (Ativan), alprazolam (Xanax), chlordiazepoxide (Librium), chlorazepate (Tranxene)
- Seizure disorders – clonazepam (Klonopin), clobazam (Onfi), diazepam (Valium), clorazepate (Tranxene), lorazepam (Ativan)
- Insomnia – estazolam (Prosom), triazolam (Halcion), temazepam (Restoril), flurazepam (Dalmane), quazepam (Doral)
- Anesthesia – lorazepam (Ativan), diazepam (Valium), midazolam (versed)
Signs That You’re Misusing Anti-Anxiety Medication
While addiction and dependence are not the same thing, both conditions can be difficult to recognize and stop before serious issues develop. For this reason, it’s vital to know the signs before you begin taking medications. The two key indicators of dependence are withdrawal and tolerance.
Withdrawal – All benzodiazepines can cause some level of physical dependence, even when they are taken according physician instructions. Withdrawal occurs when the body has acclimated to a certain amount of a substance, adjusting neurotransmitter production accordingly. In this example, GABA production has been modified in expectation of consistent dosages of Valium or Ativan. When that dose doesn’t come through, the body is at a deficit and you will experience withdrawal: a series of uncomfortable side effects from sudden cessation of use.
The first signs of benzo withdrawal are tremors and heart palpitations, quickly followed by an inability to concentrate, difficulty sleeping, increased anxiety, muscle stiffness, and visual hallucinations. Other symptoms may include seizures, rapid heart rate, increased blood pressure, and potentially death, depending on the severity of one’s dependency. For this reason, professional supervision should be utilized in your recovery from benzodiazepine use.
Tolerance – The trademark of developing a chemical dependence (and the beginnings of an addiction) to any drug is the establishment of tolerance. In these instances, you will require gradually more of the drug in order to achieve the same effect over time. This happens because the body has grown used to the benzodiazepines, and, through a process of neuroadaptations, has altered its chemistry to compensate.
Other Signs – In addition to these two main indicators, there are a variety of other signs that you may have an issue with your anti-anxiety medications. If you feel unable to cope without the drug or have tried to cut back on it without success, these are considered to be symptoms of a potential dependence or addiction. Likewise, if you find yourself taking pills more often than prescribed or otherwise against your physician’s instructions, or if you exhibit drug-seeking behaviors such as doctor-shopping (visiting multiple clinicians to obtain more medication), we encourage you to reach out for help.
Loved ones may notice behavioral symptoms such as irritability, tension, drowsiness, sluggish movement, memory problems, or personality changes.
Help for Benzodiazepine Addiction
If you or a loved one are concerned about the use of benzodiazepines, call Lakeside-Milam Recovery Centers today at (800) 231-4303. With over 100,000 alumni and services along the complete continuum of care, Lakeside-Milam is the premier addiction treatment provider in the Pacific Northwest.