Benzo Addiction: Abuse Signs, Effects & Treatment

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The Complete Benzo Addiction Treatment Guide

Benzodiazepines, or benzos, are some of the most commonly prescribed drugs for anxiety, panic attacks, and seizures in the United States. Unfortunately, even when someone uses the medication as prescribed, they can become addicted. Likewise, long-term use can lead to physical dependence that requires professional benzo addiction treatment to alleviate.

Many who use benzos mix them with other substances like alcohol, increasing the likelihood of health complications or even a fatal overdose. Severe withdrawal can occur during detox, so frequent users looking to quit should do so at a qualified facility.

 

Benzo Addiction Treatment

 

About Benzos

Benzodiazepines (benzos) are psychoactive drugs that doctors widely prescribe as sedatives. These medications help people manage anxiety and panic disorders, seizures, muscle relaxation, insomnia, and severe alcohol withdrawal.

Benzos work by enhancing the GABA neurotransmitter, resulting in sleep-inducing effects like sedation. This neurotransmitter also governs muscle tone, encouraging the muscles to relax; this effect makes them useful as an anticonvulsant.

Together, the sedating and relaxing effects lead to euphoria, creating a reaction in the brain’s reward center and possibly leading to addiction. As a result, experts recommend benzos only as a short-term remedy due to the potential for dependency with long-term use.

Many benzos are in tablet or pill form, but sometimes hospitals give them to people intravenously before surgery or when oral dosing isn’t possible, such as during an acute seizure. Some benzos work rapidly but fade just as fast. Others take more time but last longer. Common benzos include:

Xanax (alprazolam): This fast-acting sedative is one of the most widely prescribed and overused benzos. Xanax depresses the central nervous system in under an hour, leaving people “out of it” for a few hours.
Valium (diazepam): This long-lasting benzo treats insomnia, muscle spasms, anxiety, panic attacks, and seizure disorders. This widely used medication reportedly leads to heroin use after those who use it lose access to their prescriptions.
Librium (chlordiazepoxide): This benzo treats those dealing with alcohol withdrawal. People who misuse it risk suffering overdose and death. Some people who abuse alcohol also abuse Librium; addiction to more than one substance results in unique challenges that increase the risk of complications, emphasizing the need for professional supervision when detoxing.
Klonopin (clonazepam): This benzo treats seizures and anxiety. Also known as K-Pin, Klonopin has addictive properties that make it best reserved for short-term use. It is not recommended to use it for longer than the doctor prescribes because there is a significant risk of developing a dependency.
Ativan (lorazepam): This sedating benzo helps users manage their anxiety. Like most benzos, it is meant for short-term treatments, suppressing the central nervous system to calm people. Mixing Ativan with depressants like alcohol can lead to coma, seizures, or death.

Dangers of Benzo Use

Benzos are serious prescription drugs with a high risk of addiction. In addition, people who misuse the medication are more likely to suffer dangerous side effects.

Like alcohol, benzos can lead to memory loss and blackouts along with other psychological effects, including anxiety and paranoia. Benzo use has also been shown to result in paradoxical reactions. This refers to drug effects that contradict the desired use. Benzos are intended to relieve panic attacks and decrease anxiety, relaxing the user, but some people may experience aggression, hostility, and increased irritability instead.

Even benzo withdrawal can be dangerous. For those who frequently use high doses of benzos, it can be a struggle to quit cold turkey without life-threatening consequences. For example, seizures can occur when someone abruptly stops benzo use. The attacks alone may not be deadly, but if they occur when you’re alone or on the road, they can be.

Abrupt cessation of benzos can also lead to delirium tremens, a condition associated with shaking, hallucinations, and confusion. In some cases, delirium tremens can be deadly. In 2020, 12,290 benzo overdose deaths were reported in the United States.

Chronic Health Complications

Taking benzos as prescribed by a doctor lets you taper off these drugs under medical supervision if you develop a dependency. However, if you take them recreationally or at higher doses, they can pose long-term risks.

Dependence

Developing physical dependence doesn’t necessarily translate to addiction, but there is usually an overlap between the two conditions. Reliance on benzodiazepine means that your body is used to the presence of the drug to maintain its equilibrium, especially when it comes to balancing neurotransmitters.

Compulsive behaviors are characteristic of addition, while dependence can occur with everyday medical use. The risk of dependence means you shouldn’t try to quit benzos suddenly without help; withdrawal symptoms can be uncomfortable or even life-threatening.

Withdrawal

Most withdrawal symptoms experienced from quitting benzos are rebound symptoms that mimic the conditions the drugs are supposed to treat. The main issues can be insomnia, anxiety, and panic attacks. Peak withdrawal symptoms can also include mood swings, aggression, depression, and physical discomfort. In addition, quitting high doses can lead to depersonalization and perceptual distortions.

Signs of Benzo Addiction

Withdrawal symptoms can occur depending on several factors, including:

• The current dose
• How long someone has taken the benzo
• Whether they have taken more than one benzo
• Whether they take other sedating drugs
• Other substance use issues
• Whether the client is quitting more than one substance

Possible signs of benzo addiction include:

• Abnormal bodily sensations such as goosebumps
• Aches and pains
• Anxiety
• Auditory, tactile, or visual hallucinations
• Delirium
• Depression
• Feeling unreal
• Grand mal seizures
• Hand tremors
• Headache
• Hypersensitivity to light and touch
• Hyperventilation
• Insomnia
• Irritability
• Muscle spasms
• Nausea or vomiting
• Panic attacks
• Problems with memory
• Racing pulse
• Restlessness
• Sweating
• Visual disturbances

How to Get Help

Many people may wonder how someone could become dependent on drugs or alcohol, assuming that family and friends should be enough to get them to stop using. Unfortunately, these folks do not understand the disease of addiction.

The truth is that quitting benzo misuse takes more than solid willpower or good intentions; it also takes therapeutic support and the proper medical treatment. Thanks to medical advances, we now know more than ever how drugs affect the brain, allowing us to better treat substance use disorder in benzo users. It is possible to get the treatment you deserve to be healthy and well.

Getting Help

Benzodiazepine addiction treatment may only be necessary for those with psychological and physical dependency; it is rarely the sole drug of abuse.

Physical dependence alone can be treated at an outpatient center for a number of months. The overseeing doctor will also switch the prescription from a rapid benzo to a longer-acting medication, slowly tapering it down during the program.

However, when there is evidence of psychological addiction or polysubstance use, a person will need more than to work with a general practitioner. A comprehensive medical detox is recommended before undergoing an addiction treatment program.

Approaching a Loved One

Approaching someone you love who suffers from an addiction is always a balancing challenge. First, you’re likely to face many denials, especially if your family member has an authorized prescription from their doctor. It’s common to believe that you can’t become addicted to something a doctor gives you. Unfortunately, the truth is that it is a common occurrence, and it happens more often than you might think.

Regardless of the events leading to your loved one’s addiction, it is often challenging for them to stop using the medication on their own. You might need others to help encourage them to agree to treatment.

An intervention by family and friends in which several loved ones join together to talk about the person’s addiction can be effective. The results can be positive as long as the approach comes from a supportive and loving place free from shame and anger.

It is never practical to express anger, yell, or make threatening ultimatums to someone addicted to benzos; this behavior can push the person further away, creating obstacles to treatment.

Benzo Addiction Treatment Options

There are several treatment paths for those suffering from benzo addiction. After a thorough evaluation with a treatment specialist to determine the severity of the habit, the client will receive recommendations for treatment in either an inpatient or outpatient setting. Resources include:

• Short-term detox: These programs clear the drug out of the body and help a client get started on their path toward consistent abstinence.
• Long-term residential rehab: These programs range from 28 to 90 days or more, and they provide education, therapy, and skills training in a sober environment free from potential triggers.
• Outpatient programs: Clients receive therapy and support during the day while living at home at night.
• Sober living houses: These transitory homes help clients move from inpatient treatment into an abstinent environment in the real world where they can learn skills before moving back home.
• Group therapy: Groups like Narcotics Anonymous and SMART Recovery facilitate meetings to provide structure and peer support to those in recovery.

Short-Term Detox

In severe cases, benzo withdrawal can result in life-threatening symptoms, including seizures, which means medical support is essential for the initial detox. Those addicted to multiple substances especially need this support; using more than one drug usually complicates withdrawal. A specialized detox program can provide 24/7 medical oversight to avoid problems at this stage. It can also ensure that the client is as comfortable as possible.

Treatment usually involves tapering the dose over time to minimize the threat of complications. Other medications, such as long-acting sedatives, may also be given to alleviate the process.

Long-Term Residential Rehab

Clients receive 24-hour supervision in a safe, non-hospital environment that provides structured care in residential treatment. Unlike outpatient treatment, clients live at the facility and do not work or go home during recovery. These programs usually include behavioral health services, such as individual and group counseling, and many also treat co-occurring mental health disorders.

Residential treatment works best for those who:

• Have severe substance use disorders
• Have recurring addiction issues
• Have co-occurring mental or medical conditions
• Do not need medically managed services

Outpatient Programs

These centers are ideal for those who know they need help quitting benzos but can’t stop attending school or working to receive it. Outpatient programs vary, but they’re generally designed to assist clients for a few hours a few times per week. These centers provide the flexibility that many people require, but those who need medical and psychological services may find outpatient programs insufficient.

Sober Living Houses

The main feature of sober living facilities is the peer support network established while living there. Those who have social support groups that actively discourage substance use are less likely to continue using and more likely to reduce their criminal activity. They stand a better chance of gaining employment after recovery.

Here are key features of sober living houses that support recovery:

• The purpose is to have a drug-free setting for those who want to avoid benzo and other drug use. Therefore, sobriety is the main requirement to live there.
• Many homes encourage residents to attend NA or group therapy.
• Residents must complete chores, stick to house rules, avoid substance use, and participate in house meetings.
• Many houses test periodically to ensure that everyone there is abstaining from drugs.
• Residents are encouraged to work towards life goals, including finding a job, finishing school, or rebuilding their finances.

People in recovery find these features appealing due to their emphasis on responsibility and structure while allowing freedom and fellowship in society.

Next Steps

Seeking treatment or helping a loved one get treatment for benzo abuse is daunting to face alone. If you’re not sure what your next steps should be, contact a recognized rehab facility to learn more about your options.

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Reviewed By:

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis completed medical school at The University of Mississippi Medical Center and residency in general psychiatry in 2003. He completed a fellowship in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 2005. Following this, he served as Chief Medical Officer for 10 years of Brentwood Behavioral Healthcare a private health system including a 105-bed hospital, residential treatment, and intensive outpatient services.

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