Benzodiazepines are depressant drugs that act upon the central nervous system. Benzodiazepines alter the central nervous system by slowing it down; one of the effects on the body can include sleepiness.1 Because of this process, benzodiazepines can be highly addictive.
Benzodiazepines are one of the most commonly prescribed medications in the U.S. In 2007, more than 112 million people were prescribed benzodiazepines in the U.S.2 Due to their addictive properties, benzodiazepines are Schedule IV drugs in the United States, a class of drug that requires a prescription from a doctor. Addiction to benzodiazepines can be dangerous and the effects of benzodiazepine addiction can be permanent and sometimes life-threatening.
What are Benzodiazepines Used For?
Despite their addictive qualities, many medical experts consider benzodiazepines effective at treating certain conditions when taken under strict medical supervision. Benzodiazepines may be prescribed to treat: 2
- Epileptic seizures.
- Pain from central nervous system damage.
- Anxiety-related disorders.
- Muscle spasms and promote muscle relaxation.
Benzodiazepines slow down the central nervous system, promote sedation, help sleep, and relaxation.3 Due to these sedative effects, benzodiazepines were initially prescribed to treat generalized anxiety disorder. However, as they evolved and became more potent, benzodiazepines were shown to be effective for more severe anxiety disorders such as panic attacks and obsessive-compulsive disorder. They can also be used as an adjunct treatment to antipsychotics to treat agitation and acute mania.2
More than 12 different benzodiazepines exist and are prescribed to treat the conditions mentioned above. The most common benzodiazepines include Xanax, Ativan, Klonopin, Valium, and Halcion.1 On the streets, benzodiazepines are often referred to as downers, benzos, zanies, and bars. Benzodiazepines are ingested orally, although it has been reported that people have crushed the pills and snorted the powder.
What are the side effects of Benzodiazepines?
As with many prescription drugs, benzodiazepines have short-term and long-term effects. Generally, the longer you use a substance, the more severe and permanent the effects can become. Most medical professionals recommend short-term, acute use of benzodiazepines. They can pose significant problems if they are abused, used for longer than intended, or are combined with certain substances such as opioids and alcohol.
Benzodiazepines can be used in conjunction with other drugs. Certain substances, like alcohol, can exacerbate the effects of the benzodiazepines. Some interactions can be severe, such as benzodiazepine use in conjunction with opioids, and can cause significantly slowed breathing and respiration.2
Short-term side effects of Benzodiazepines
Benzodiazepines are addictive primarily because of their short-term effects. Sedation, lethargy, fatigue, and drowsiness are common short-term side effects of benzodiazepines, which make this class of drug susceptible to abuse.2 These side effects are especially attractive and effective for people with sleep issues and anxiety.
When and how long the effects of benzodiazepines lasts depends on the type of benzo used. As previously mentioned, there are many different types of benzodiazepines with varying potency. Some benzodiazepines can take effect within minutes of ingestion while others may take an hour or more. The short-term side effects of benzodiazepines can last for an hour or two or up to several hours.4
Long term side effects of Benzodiazepines
Unfortunately, long-term use of benzodiazepines can have serious and irreversible consequences on your mental and physical health. Research shows that the older you are, the more at risk you are of experiencing many of the long-term side effects of benzodiazepines. Mental effects include cognitive impairment, amnesia, disinhibition (which can lead to falls and automobile accidents), and impaired concentration and attention. 2
Physical dependence can develop regardless of age and can begin after only a week of daily use.3 Physical long-term side effects of benzodiazepines can range from mild to severe and can lead to significant problems. For example, reduced coordination and unstable walking are physical effects of benzodiazepine use that lead to falls and accidents.4
Benzodiazepine Abuse Symptoms
Addiction can present as physical and behavioral symptoms. Behavioral symptoms of benzodiazepine addiction are noticeable by others. Such behaviors are usually foreign to the person and only exist because the person is completely preoccupied with obtaining the substance. These behaviors can leave loved ones feeling hurt, frustrated, angry, and disappointed. It is important to remember that these symptoms are reflective of the person’s addiction and not the person’s character.
Physical symptoms of benzodiazepine addiction can refer to both the physical appearance of a person and the state of their physical health. Prolonged use of benzodiazepines can cause physical health problems and behavioral issues.
Physical Symptoms of Benzodiazepine Addiction
Physical dependence to benzodiazepines can occur within a week to a month of first use. Some common physical symptoms of benzodiazepine addiction can include:3, 5
- Blurred vision.
- Racing heart.
- Muscle aches and muscle tension.
- Physical weakness.
- Increased tolerance requiring an increased dose to achieve the same effects.
- Physical tremors.
Behavioral Symptoms of Benzodiazepine Addiction
Behavioral symptoms of benzodiazepine addiction may be more obvious to friends and family members. They can include:6
- Excessive lying about use.
- Manic behavior and panic.
- Legal issues.
- Forgoing responsibilities to use benzodiazepines.
- New financial problems.
- Social withdrawal.
- Quitting recreational activities and other previous hobbies.
- Relationship problems.
- Obtaining drugs illegally.
- Using larger quantities than prescribed.
- Ingesting the drug in ways that are not prescribed (snorting, intravenous use).
Furthermore, mood and mental health changes can occur. Depression, agitation, irritation, suicidal thoughts and tendencies, and self-harming behaviors are symptoms of benzodiazepine addiction. 5
Many people ask, “can I quit benzodiazepines on my own?” Benzodiazepine withdrawal can be serious, uncomfortable, and life-threatening. Common benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms include: 4
- Sleep problems including nightmares and disturbed sleep.
- Muscle aches.
- Racing heart.
- Mood swings.
- Panic attacks.
Withdrawal from benzodiazepines can cause seizures and possibly grand mal seizures, which can lead to coma and death. Because of this risk, detoxification from benzodiazepines should be completed under the supervision of a medical professional. Generally, detoxification is recommended to minimize discomfort and reduce the risk of experiencing seizures and death.7
Are You Struggling with Benzodiazepine Addiction?
Do you recognize one or more of these symptoms? Are you looking for help but you are unsure where to start? If you answered yes to either of these questions, you should consider benzodiazepine addiction treatment for yourself or a loved one. There is no need to suffer in silence. Help is available and just a phone call away.
How American Addiction Centers Can Help
As a leader among providers of addiction treatment in the United States, American Addiction Centers (AAC) is at the forefront of helping people reclaim their lives from addiction to benzodiazepines and other drugs. American Addiction Centers provides care that treats people as a whole, by offering evidence-based care focused on addressing the underlying causes that contribute to addiction, as well as physical and mental health disorders, and readjusting socially without the use of substances.7
Our Treatment Program
Our treatment model focuses on identifying any existing mental illnesses or mental health issues that may stimulate the need to cope with issues by using benzodiazepines
Our treatment facilities then focus on providing an initial support system for those attending treatment and teach them healthier ways to cope with their alcohol dependence.
We offer a full continuum of care that encompasses the primary types of treatment all the way from detox for those initially struggling to aftercare options like sober-living, counseling sessions, and support groups for the recovering alcoholic.
To find out more, or to get started, American Addiction Centers operates a confidential addiction hotline available 24/7 to help people find their path to recovery.
Still Unsure About Seeking Treatment?
Learning about addiction and treatment options may feel overwhelming. If you are still unsure about how treatment works, how to ask for help, or how to get treatment, consider the following guides:
- U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration. (2017). Drugs of abuse.
- Griffin, C.E., Kaye, A.M., Bueno, F.R., & Kaye, A.D. (2013). Benzodiazepine pharmacology and central nervous system-mediated effects. The Ochsner Journal. 13(2):214-223.
- Harvard Health Publishing. (2019). Benzodiazepines (and alternatives).
- Drug and Alcohol Services South Australia. (2015). Benzodiazepines: Reasons to stop and stopping use.
- Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. (n.d.). Benzodiazepine addiction.
- Medical News Today. (2018). What are the symptoms of addiction?
- Hu, X. (2011). Benzodiazepine withdrawal seizures and management. The Journal of the Oklahoma State Medical Association 104(2): 62-65.