Benzodiazepines are central nervous system depressants that work by slowing down brain activity and suppressing areas of the brain that are responsible for stress and anxiety.
Popular benzodiazepine drugs include:
- Xanax (alprazolam)
- Valium (diazepam)
- Ativan (lorazepam)
These drugs are usually intended to be taken short-term, as they can lead to tolerance and dependence when taken regularly for longer periods of time. Even when taken as directed, benzodiazepine medications may cause withdrawal symptoms and physical dependence when stopped suddenly.
About benzodiazepine usage
How does it make you feel?
Benzodiazepine drugs stimulate the production of gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, which is a chemical that depresses or slows downs the nervous system ‘an inhibitory neurotransmitter’, promoting relaxation in the brain and body.
This effect also slows down breathing and heart rate, temperature and blood pressure. Over time, a tolerance can occur requiring higher doses for the same effects. After regularly use for even a few weeks, the brain may function as a new “normal”. This is considered physical dependence and often addiction, where compulsive drug-seeking behaviour occurs through a mixture of physical and psychological dependence.
Physical health risks may include:
- Sleep problems
- Risk of falls
- Muscle weakness
- Jaundice (yellow skin and eyes)
Taking benzodiazepines on prescription longer term can sometimes be part of a medical treatment plan but should be under strict supervision of a prescribing clinician. However, taking them illegally often results in misuse or addiction, but using street benzodiazepines can also involve other risks. Whilst prescribed benzodiazepines are carefully and safely manufactured and controlled so you know exactly what you are getting, benzos bought on the black market can be mixed with other things to make them “go further” and to make it cheaper to produce. Illicit / street drugs might have other effects such as a higher risk of:
- Overdose and death
- Taking more than intended and feeling drowsy and out of it
- Effects from other additions to the benzodiazepines such as added opioids such as heroin or fentanyl, cannabis or synthetic cannabinoids, or even “fillers” which bulk up the drugs but don’t have an effect like benzodiazepines. Sometimes these added chemicals can cause serious allergic reactions
Mental Health Risks
Regular benzodiazepine use can cause significant mental health problems, including:
- Anxiety (due to tolerance and a ‘new normal’)
- Personality change
- Poor memory
- “Paradoxical disinhibition” means that they can cause loosening of normal inhibitions, causing excitable moods, impulsiveness, hostility, or violent behaviour
- Suicidal thoughts
These are some signs you may be addicted to benzodiazepines.
Short term symptoms of benzodiazepines addiction include:
- Lack of coordination
- Slurred speech
- Difficulty breathing
Long term symptoms include of benzodiazepines include:
- Slowed breathing
- Aggressive / hostile mannerisms
- Loss of bladder control
- Muscle tremors
Signs and symptoms of a benzo addiction can be devastating to the individual, their friends, and their family. Looking out for warning signs of misuse or addiction can help determine if someone needs treatment.
If benzodiazepines are prescribed, it is usually to treat symptoms of anxiety. Sometimes these medications may be misused to self-medicate or provide temporary relief.
Since benzodiazepines are often prescribed for their calming effects, therapies that focus on reducing stress and anxiety, and that provide healthy coping mechanisms and new life skills, can be effective. Behavioural therapies can work to discover potential emotional or environmental triggers that may increase anxiety and the likelihood of a relapse, and they can retrain negative behaviour patterns and thoughts into more positive ones, improving self-esteem and increasing self-worth.
You should never attempt to stop taking benzodiazepines suddenly on your own as this can lead to a rebound effect as your brain attempts to restore a natural balance, and in the worst-case scenario, suddenly stopping can cause seizures.
Untreated withdrawal symptoms may also vary in severity and duration. They may include side effects, such as:
- Anxiety, sometimes severe
- Muscle weakness or tension
- Increased heart rate
- Muscle aches
- Blurred vision
- Trouble concentrating
- Memory issues
- Numbness or tingling
More serious side effects may also occur including hallucinations, confusion or delirium, severe seizures, or psychosis.
If an individual is experiencing any dependence symptoms listed above, detox is required for effectively removing the drug from the body.
Benzodiazepine detox can be more challenging if there is long term misuse of very high doses, and we approach each case on an individual basis, taking into account the length of time they’ve been taken, the amount and route in which they were taken e.g. oral/intravenous, your level of dependency, and other personal factors
We try hard to control the withdrawal symptoms from benzodiazepines during a detox and we are proud of the feedback that our patients give us on the Bonds detox process. We specialise in detox using non-addictive medication to make it as comfortable as possible.
Once the drugs are out of your system, we may use medications to help craving such as Naltrexone to support abstinence. However, probably the most important thing to plan for after detox is to treat the underlying anxiety which will resurface. Without a strong and clear plan to treat this, the risk of relapse to benzodiazepines is high. At The BONDS Clinic, we specialise in holistic treatment plans to tackle challenges like this when there is combined mental health and substance misuse/addiction, which is called Dual Diagnosis.
Our programme model is tailored to the individual’s needs. Our detox varies depending on whether the substance is a lone problem or is accompanied by misuse of other substances, the amount the patient is using, and if there any underlying mental health issues. The internal audits of the BONDS treatment protocols of many years have shown that approximately 70% of patients with alcohol or substance misuse also have an underlying mental health disorder. This combination of addiction and a mental health disorder is called Dual Diagnosis.