Benzodiazepines, sold under brand names such as Valium, Klonopin, Vicodin, and Xanax were previously one of the most prescribed drugs in the world. Today, over 13.5 million people hold prescriptions for the drug, and many of them have had those prescriptions for years. At the same time, most DSM recommendations now stipulate that benzodiazepines not be prescribed for more than 5 weeks at a time. This recommendation stems from the high potential for addiction and abuse, causing even faithful prescription users to develop dependency and sometimes addiction.
Over the short-term, benzodiazepines can be extremely helpful in that they reduce anxiety and stress and can be instrumental in treating panic attacks and PTSD.
Over the long-term, the can contribute to insomnia, impaired concentration, panic attacks, depression, and full addiction. If you suspect your loved one is addicted to benzodiazepines, it’s important to act and get them help.
Symptoms of Benzodiazepine Addiction
Benzodiazepine addiction typically develops over time, usually as a result of frequent exposure. Users quickly develop tolerance, meaning that the drug no longer creates the same effects. At the same time, many users quickly become mentally reliant on using benzos to stop panic attacks or anxiety, leading to more frequent ingestion. This results in chemical dependence and eventually drug-seeking behavior. While the exact symptoms of benzodiazepine addiction will change depending on what the individual is taking, you can look for symptoms including:
Purchasing benzodiazepines outside of their prescription
Frequently switching doctors or frequenting several doctors
Asking for or stealing pills
Constant lethargy or drowsiness
Memory lapses or loss of concentration
Combining benzos with other drugs or alcohol
Taking pills outside of prescription use
If someone is using more than their prescription, in ways not approved of by their prescription (such as before driving a car) or refuses to go anywhere without their drugs, they may have a problem.
Benzodiazepine withdrawal is dangerous, difficult, and drawn out, making the drugs one of the most difficult to withdraw from. Like alcohol, benzodiazepines interact with the GABA receptors in the brain. During withdrawal, reduced Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid uptake in the brain results in seizures and psychological side-effects which can be dangerous. For example, about 20% of all cases experience grand mal seizures.
Individuals experiencing benzo withdrawal typically go through a timeline of detox over about two weeks. In some cases, symptoms can last for months.
Early Withdrawal – Users begin experiencing withdrawal symptoms within the first 6-12 hours for short-acting and the first 4-5 days for long-acting benzodiazepines. Most experience cravings, anxiety, and insomnia combined with mood swings and general malaise.
Withdrawal – Full withdrawal onsets within 1-5 days for short-acting benzos and see an increase in early symptoms as well as profuse sweating, panic, nausea, and headaches. Most cannot sleep and will be irritable or even violent. Some are at risk of seizures, psychosis, and hallucinations.
Plateau – Symptoms plateau within 5 days and begin to taper off over the next 2 weeks. Long-acting benzos typically plateau after about 3-4 weeks. In some rare cases, individuals experience Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome, where symptoms last for up to a month after the final dose.
Rebound – Most benzodiazepine users experience a rebound phase, where the disorder they were taking benzos to treat comes back. This can include anxiety, panic, insomnia, or PTSD depending on the initial prescription. It is important that the individual have access to psychological care during this period.
Benzodiazepine withdrawal is risk and often dangerous. It is important to seek out medical detox and support to prevent complications.
Benzodiazepine Addiction Treatment
Detox and withdrawal are just the first steps of addiction treatment. Many benzodiazepine users suffer from long and complex withdrawal periods, dual diagnosis in that they often have co-current mental disorders such as PTSD or anxiety, and complexities with drug-related anxiety and panic.
Most treatment centers use a combination of drug tapering, cognitive behavioral therapy, and counseling to treat benzodiazepine addiction. Here, individuals are slowly taken off the drug to reduce withdrawal symptoms.
If your loved one is struggling with benzodiazepine addiction, getting them help will improve their life. While you can’t always get an addict to go into treatment, you can talk to them in a non-jdugemental way and offer help.