According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, prescription drug abuse is the fastest-growing drug problem in the United States. Some of the most commonly prescribed drugs are benzodiazepines (a.k.a. benzos).
As the number of these prescriptions has grown, so has the abuse. Some types of benzos are more commonly misused recreationally, often in combination with alcohol. Others are more likely to be abused as a result of an unnecessary prescription.
Unfortunately, many people who abuse these drugs assume that since their use is so common, they must also be “safe.” This is far from the truth.
Why Are Benzodiazepines Prescribed?
Benzodiazepines can be useful for those with panic disorders, generalized anxiety disorder, insomnia, and even, in some cases, alcohol withdrawal. They are best prescribed by doctors when they believe that the patient’s need for them outweighs the possible risk of addiction, overdose, or abuse. Xanax is one of most popular and well-known of these types of benzos, but other varieties include Klonopin, Valium, Ativan, Restoril, Librium, ProSom, Halcion and Versed.
Doctors typically recommend that benzos either be used only occasionally, as in the case of patients who take Xanax when facing a panic attack, or for short-term courses, as when easing symptoms from alcohol withdrawal. The longer benzos are used, the greater the risk. Even prescribed doses, when taken for a year or longer can cause serious withdrawal problems.
Unfortunately, many people do end up using these drugs to the point of becoming addicted, either as a result of bad advice from their doctors or by choosing to continue to take the drug longer than necessary.
Why Are Benzodiazepines Abused?
Doctors often prescribe medications in the benzodiazepine family to correct a chemical imbalance in the brain. So, patients who truly struggle with anxiety and panic disorders may not find the drugs to be especially “fun” or interesting. They serve to bring them to a baseline level of emotion and daily functioning.
But, when people who do not have anxiety or panic disorders take benzos, they often find that the drug can bring them a sense of deep relaxation and feelings of euphoria. Instead of taking them to correct an imbalance, they take them to boost the euphoria.
According to Addiction, people who are addicted to benzos often take 30 to 120 times more than experts recommend. Over time, they often develop a tolerance to the drug and have to find new ways to take the drugs—like snorting or injecting— in order to the get the same high. Taking extremely high doses of benzodiazepines can result in coma or death.
Deadly Combinations: Mixing Benzos with Alcohol and Other Drugs
Some studies have shown that the number of annual benzodiazepine-related unintentional deaths have begun to outnumber those related to cocaine and heroin. Several celebrities have died in the past 10 years who had benzos in their systems that may have contributed to their deaths. Heath Ledger died in 2008 from a mix of opioid and benzo prescriptions. Amy Winehouse had Librium in her system when she died in 2011. And, Whitney Houston, when she died in 2012, had a combination of Xanax and alcohol in her system.
Benzodiazepine abuse rarely occurs alone. The majority of people who abuse benzos also use another substance (most commonly heroin, cocaine, methadone, prescription painkillers and alcohol) at the same time. Mixing benzos with any other drug that affects your nervous system—even antihistamines—can be dangerous.
For example, when a person combines Xanax and alcohol, they find themselves feeling unexpectedly sleepy and get into the shower to try to wake themselves up. Since they are so sedated, they can end up losing their ability to stay balanced and stay conscious which can lead to them falling and drowning from inhaling water into their lungs.
Dual Diagnosis: Benzo Abuse and Other Disorders
It is very common for those who abuse benzos to also struggle with other disorders like depression, anxiety, panic disorders, bipolar disorders, and PTSD. Sometimes they have been prescribed these drugs as a way to manage the symptoms of these disorders. They may eventually end up abusing them, as they build up a tolerance and find themselves needing larger doses to get the same effects as before.
This is why, at The Meadows, we believe it’s important to find and treat the underlying causes of behavioral disorders, and not just the symptoms. Benzos and other substances, when used to mask the symptoms of another addiction or disorder, can contribute to a sense of powerlessness people often have about their disease. By addressing underlying trauma, patients can take back the control of their day-to-day lives from the unhealthy coping mechanisms they’ve developed in the place of real healing.
Signs and Treatment
Once someone has developed a dependency on benzos, avoiding withdrawal symptoms may start to be their biggest daily motivation. Some of the signs that someone you know may be addicted to benzos are…
- You find multiple pill bottles from multiple doctors.
- You find bags with pills or someone else’s prescription bottles.
- The person seems strangely detached. Loses interested in things that were once important to them.
- The person withdraws from family events and social interactions.
- The person shows increased hostility, and may even act out violently.
- The person may show withdrawal symptoms such as sweating, dizziness, hallucinations, insomnia, and irritability.
It is critical that those addicted to benzodiazepines get proper medical and psychological treatment from qualified addiction professionals. A cold-turkey approach to quitting benzos can be deadly due to the likelihood of developing a withdrawal syndrome. Patients need a supervised, structured withdrawal program, where they are safe and can also learn techniques, like mindfulness and meditation, for relieving the increased feeling of anxiety that can come with withdrawal.
Since benzo addiction so often occurs with other mental health issues, they also need a program where they can address their addiction, their disorder, and any underlying emotional issues that are likely fueling both. At The Meadows’ programs, we specialize in providing intensive, highly-individualize treatment for complex and cascading disorders. Although the thought of spending 45 days or more in an inpatient facility, away from the life you’re familiar with, may be scary, it is sometimes the best way to finally free yourself of the dangerous trappings of addiction. If you or someone you know needs help, give us a call today at 800-244-4949 or contact us online.