What Are Benzodiazepines?
Benzodiazepines or “benzos” are a large class of psychoactive drugs that are widely prescribed to treat anxiety disorders, insomnia and a range of other conditions. They’re potent central nervous system depressants and are highly addictive. They produce feelings of sedation and relaxation in users and are highly dangerous if abused. It’s due to these feelings of relaxation that have benzodiazepine addiction on the rise.
The U.S. is one of the other 20 countries who prescribe benzodiazepines, with the U.S. prescribing 15 different types of the drug. Short-acting ones are for helping patients fall asleep or for sedation before surgery. These include ProSom, Restoril, Versed and Halcion. Longer-lasting benzodiazepines are normally used to treat anxiety and include such popular forms as Xanax, Klonopin, Valium, Ativan, and Librium.
Types of Benzodiazepines
- Alprazolam – Commonly known by the brand name Xanax, alprazolam is the most widely prescribed benzodiazepine in the United States. The FDA approves this drug for treatment of anxiety and panic disorders.
- Brotizolam – This is a very potent drug with anticonvulsant and hypnotic properties. It has a swift onset of action and is most commonly used to treat severe insomnia. The United States, Britain, or Canada have yet to approve the drug.
- Clonazepam – Commonly known by the brand name Klonopin, clonazepam is a highly potent anticonvulsant, hypnotic, sedative. It’s long acting and has a half-life between twenty and fifty hours. It has been FDA approved for the treatment of panic disorders and epilepsy.
- Bromazepam – A benzodiazepine that is for the alleviation of anxiety before surgery, and for short-term treatment of anxiety issues.
- Chlordiazepoxide – A substance that is used to help manage alcohol withdrawal syndrome.
- Diazepam – Commonly known by the brand name Valium, diazepam is used to treat seizures, insomnia, panic attacks, and alcohol withdrawal. It is a fast-acting sedative.
- Clorazepate – A sedative, hypnotic drug whose purpose is for the treatment of anxiety disorders and severe insomnia.
- Flunitrazepam – Commonly known by the brand name Rohypnol, flunitrazepam is for short-term treatment of severe, chronic insomnia. It’s unfortunately also known for its misuse as a date rape drug because it can cause amnesia.
- Lorazepam – Commonly known by the name Ativan, lorazepam is a very potent drug that has muscle relaxation and sedative properties. It’s for short-term treatment of severe anxiety.
How Do They Work in the Brain?
Benzodiazepines work similar to alcohol in the brain. They enhance the transmission of the neurotransmitter GABA (Gamma Amino Butyric Acid), a neurotransmitter that controls the activity of nerves in the spinal cord and brain. The function of GABA is to calm and slow things down. Benzodiazepines increase the levels of GABA in the brain, thereby reducing activity in the brain and spinal cord and increasing feelings of calmness and relaxation.
Like with other narcotics, their immediate soothing effects eventually wear off over time, and some people begin to take more than they are prescribed to achieve the same effect as they did before. In these cases, patients will develop a tolerance, which puts them at a heightened risk of overdose and other medical problems.
Due to the intense effects of these drugs, they are typically only meant for short-term usage and are highly addictive if taken as prescribed. Unfortunately, many people who are prescribed will start to take more than prescribed and eventually will become physically dependent on the drug. The result is typically benzodiazepine addiction that can go untreated.
Symptoms of Benzodiazepine Addiction
Benzodiazepines are powerful depressants and have a profound effect on one’s behavior and physical appearance. Symptoms of abuse greatly depend on the addict’s length of use, their frequency of use and the quantities they are using of the drug. Symptoms of benzodiazepine addiction and abuse include:
- Doctor shopping—visiting multiple doctors to obtain more prescriptions
- Isolating from family and friends
- Unusual sleeping habits
- Decreased performance in meeting expectations from work and at home
- Double vision
- Slurred speech
- Dramatic weight loss
- Lack of coordination
- Change in personality
- Symptoms of Amnesia
- Hindered reaction time
Symptoms of Benzodiazepine Withdrawal
Those suffering from benzodiazepine addiction will exhibit painful psychological and physical side effects from withdrawal if usage is stopped abruptly stopped. Like with alcohol, the side effects from benzodiazepine withdrawal can be life-threatening if not treated properly. If you or a loved one show signs of withdrawal, they should seek medical attention immediately. Some signs of benzodiazepine withdrawal include those listed.
- Severe anxiety
- Nausea and vomiting
- Shakiness or tremors
- Major depression
Medical Effects of Long-Term Abuse
The long-term effects of benzodiazepine addiction can be devastating in virtually every area of a person’s life. Many who abuse these drugs can eventually undergo rebound anxiety, where using the drug will cause the opposite effect and lead to higher levels of anxiety. Other possible problems resulting from chronic benzodiazepine abuse include:
- Permanent brain damage
- Memory problems
- Sexual problems
- Cognitive dysfunction
“Me and mom both had a bunch of prescriptions from different doctors. At first I tried to take only what I needed because I thought I was having panic attacks. But then it was like the drugs were worse than my anxiety. I’d go shopping and come home and forget what I bought. I lost my cell phone three times in a month. I accidentally backed my Jeep into the side of a building. At Morningside, I learned how deal with the situations that used to freak me out with relaxation techniques and deep breathing. Before coming here, I never would’ve believed it could work for me.” – Morningside Alumni
“I started taking half a Xanax at night to sleep after partying. Then I’d take one at work to cruise through the day. I’d forget stuff and mess up, but nobody really noticed. Pretty soon, I couldn’t sleep without taking Xanax and Valium. At one point, I had prescriptions for Ativan, Klonopin, Xanax, plus hydrocodone. One night, I vomited in my sleep. I almost drowned in my own puke.” – Morningside Alumni