Understand benzodiazepines and the symptoms of abuse. Be better prepared to help someone close to you struggling with benzo addiction.
What are Benzodiazepines?
Commonly called “benzos”, benzodiazepines are a class of drugs that are used for their sedative and hypnotic effects. The most common therapeutic use for benzodiazepines is in the treatment of anxiety and other mood disorders. Benzos are among the wide class of drugs used as sedatives, or to treat panic disorders, insomnia, alcoholism, seizures, and more.
Benzodiazepines were first synthesized in the late 1950’s, and soon thereafter were approved for use as a sedative and hypnotic. The effectiveness of these new drugs was enough that benzos very quickly came to replace the class of drugs known as barbiturates that had been heavily relied upon previously. The first two benzos introduced were Librium and Valium, and their use increased throughout the 70’s and were soon commonplace prescriptions in every hospital and doctor’s office.
Over time, the risks of dependency on benzos became evident, and during the 1980’s, doctors began to be more careful with how they were prescribed. Despite this danger, the effectiveness of benzos as an anti-anxiety medicine has made them a standby treatment across the U.S. since their introduction.
When taken recreationally, or in larger doses, benzos provide a high by influencing the brain’s chemical activity. Benzodiazepines can have drastically different effects when taken in different doses. The typical effects of very low dosages of benzodiazepines are anti-anxiety, sedative, sleep-inducing, anticonvulsant, and muscle relaxant. The possibility of benzo addiction presents itself when high doses or mixing with other substances create feelings of euphoria. Benzodiazepines are known to be physically addictive over periods of repeated use.
The most well-known benzodiazepines are Xanax (alprazolam), Valium (diazepam), Klonopin (clonazepam), and Ativan (lorazepam). Slang/street terms for these drugs include:
- Club drugs
- Blue bombs
- Blue footballs (or just “footballs,” referring to a Xanax pill appearance)
Dangers of Benzo Abuse
One of the serious concerns when prescribing benzodiazepines for long-term use is the potential of it leading to a dependency. It is not completely understood how, but benzos produce a surge in the pleasure chemical dopamine. In people with anxiety, this contributes to the calming and sedative effect. For others, or in high doses, this can result in a pleasurable “high”.
Over time, the brain and nervous system become dependent on the dopamine surge from benzos, and the normal brain activity changes in response to the new dependency. Because of this, benzo abusers go through withdrawal if they abruptly stop taking the drug, as well as a number of other side effects, including the following:
Short-Term Side Effects
- Mental confusion
- Body aches
- Blurred Vision
Long-Term Side Effects
- Suicidal Thoughts
- Shallow Breathing
Signs of Benzo Abuse
Even if someone is prescribed benzodiazepines by a doctor, it is still good to keep an ear and eye out for anything that could indicate addiction or abuse. The most obvious effects of taking high doses of benzos are the highly sedative or hypnotic results. As with any addiction, the user is likely to lie and attempt to hide his/her use or downplay the scale of use. There are a number of behavioral changes that may be cause for concern if they suddenly arise in someone close to you.
Possible changes from chronic benzo abuse:
- Violence or hostility
- Missing important appointments, work, or school
- Chewing, crushing or snorting pills
- Visiting multiple doctors or “doctor shopping”
- Increasing use, becoming dependent
- Unsuccessful attempts to cut back or quit using
- Impaired judgment
Understanding Benzo Withdrawal
Attempting to stop or decrease the use of benzos alone is extremely dangerous. A cold turkey approach should never be taken. Users who want to stop their addiction to benzos must follow specific steps to avoid complications. It is important to seek professional treatment in order to safely stop using benzos, and live in long-lasting recovery.
It is vital to understand the dangers associated with stopping benzo use ‘cold turkey’. Not only are the symptoms painful, they can be life-threatening.
Life-Threatening Side Effects of Quitting Benzos Cold Turkey:
- Extreme mood swings
These symptoms can start within just a few hours of the last dose and come on strong. Being in a safe place, with professionally trained staff, is vital to not only addiction recovery in general, but also to ensure survival throughout the period of withdrawal.
Not all symptoms of benzo withdrawal are life-threatening, but all cause extreme discomfort and can be very difficult to deal with alone.
7 Most Common Symptoms of Benzo Withdrawal:
- Anxiety, often extreme
- Panic attacks
- Depression, ranging from mild to severe
- Headaches and migraines
- Muscular twitches
- Body tremors
- Sweating and changes in body temperatures
In addition to these common symptoms, there are more symptoms that may be experienced, such as suicidal thoughts, body aches, and pains, dizziness, insomnia, nausea, heart palpitations, public outbursts and irritability, body tremors and hallucinations.
Dealing with these physically and mentally painful side effects due to withdrawal is tough to manage alone without professional help.
How Long Does Benzo Withdrawal Take and the Benzo Withdrawal Timeline
Benzo withdrawal can include all of the symptoms listed above. These symptoms occur when someone who is dependent on the drugs either reduces or completely ends their use of them. Many factors contribute to the duration of benzo withdrawal, and it can vary from person to person. Individuals tolerate drugs, including benzos, differently. Some need high doses to feel an effect and build up a tolerance quickly, while others take longer to build a tolerance and need only small amounts of the drug to be affected. The longer a person has built up a tolerance, the longer their withdrawal is likely to last.
Both decreasing dosages and stopping the use of benzos can produce difficult to handle side effects. Acute withdrawal from benzos can last from several days to 90 days. Long-term benzo withdrawal is much less intense but can last for several years. If you are planning to withdraw from benzodiazepines, it is best to speak with a medical professional before you begin.
Factors Influencing Recovery from Benzo Addiction:
- Length of time drug was used
- Dosage of benzos taken
- Potency of benzos
- Frequency of use
There are various ways to stop using benzos. Tapering down one’s usage is a common approach. This means you slowly decrease the amount of the drug you are taking. Another approach is to replace the benzo you use with a shorter-acting drug to help manage withdrawal symptoms.
How much you decrease your dosage, over what period of time and what replacement therapy to use, is best handled by a medical professional in a drug treatment center – someone qualified to help the client not only stop using benzos, but deal with the underlying issues associated with addiction.
Tips for Overcoming Benzo Withdrawal and Addiction
54 million Americans abuse a prescription drug over the course of their lifetime, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Benzo abuse is one at the top of the list. It’s possible that you or someone you love will deal with this painful addiction over the course of their life. The tips below will provide helpful ways to ease the symptoms of benzo withdrawal and increase the chances of a lasting recovery.
How to Speak to Someone with a Benzo Addiction
As always, when confronting someone about their substance abuse, it is important to be as sympathetic as possible and avoid angering the person. Many people who slowly develop a benzo addiction may be in denial about requiring assistance to quit. The best way to get them help is to bring in an addiction treatment professional to assist with an intervention.
An intervention should not really be attempted without someone experienced present to help mediate the process. Confronting a person about their drug abuse can be an emotionally volatile situation, but planning and preparation make it possible to move towards a positive outcome. When having such a conversation, make sure to be prepared with specific treatment program options to suggest if the loved one is open to entering treatment.
If you or a loved one is struggling to end a benzo addiction, the best way to resume a healthy life free from substance abuse is to enroll in a treatment program that includes medically supervised detoxification as the first step.
Take time to speak to clinicians from different programs and learn about how they have and currently help their clients addicted to benzodiazepines. Ask questions about the different types of therapies available and the program structures that could be an easy fit into someone’s schedule and timeline.
If you have questions about beginning a journey towards recovery, contact Futures of Palm Beach today. Speak with one of our staff members about what makes our programs so successful and the benefits of our caring and supportive environment for our inpatient clients.