The National Institutes of Health reports that 4-5% of the United States population is currently being prescribed benzodiazepine drugs, making this class of drugs one of the most prescribed in the nation. Nearly twice as many women as men are prescribed these medications. Although the majority of people use benzodiazepines as prescribed, those who develop a use disorder or addiction face significant challenges in getting clean due to the drug’s highly addictive nature and severe withdrawal symptoms.
Out of 100 yearly visits to a physician, benzodiazepines are prescribed to American adults over a quarter of the time (27%). These drugs, colloquially called “benzos,” “BZDs,” or “BZs,” are commonly used to treat conditions such as anxiety, insomnia, tremors, muscle spasms, acute seizures, and alcohol and drug withdrawal symptoms. Benzodiazepines act quickly and induce a general feeling of calm by suppressing the firing of neurons in the brain. However, they are also highly addictive, comparable in addictiveness to opioids, marijuana, and GHB.
While only 4-6% of American adults use benzos, their use (and misuse) has been on the rise since the early 2000s. It is crucial to recognize the signs and symptoms of benzodiazepine use disorder and addiction.
Benzodiazepines are used by over 75 million Americans each year, making them one of the most-prescribed drugs in the United States, only slightly less than antibiotics. They are indicated for short-term use because prolonged use can lead to tolerance and dependence. Additionally, they become especially dangerous when mixed with alcohol, hypnotic sleeping pills, and opioid painkillers. Benzos work by boosting a neurotransmitter called GABA, which reduces nerve activity in the brain, inducing relaxation and sleep.
Benzos are divided into two categories: low potency and high potency, each further categorized based on their half-life (how long they last in the body). Here are some common benzodiazepines:
Low potency with a long half-life:
Low potency with a short half-life:
High potency with a long half-life
Another benzodiazepine, flunitrazepam, is no longer prescribed in the United States. Common street names for benzos include “downers,” “xanies,” “tranks,” “blues,” and “bars.”
While benzodiazepines are considered safe at lower doses and for short periods, they pose three main problems. Firstly, they are often used to ease the effects of drug and alcohol withdrawal but are themselves addictive. Secondly, over extended periods, tolerance develops, leading to increased dosage or more frequent use. Thirdly, benzos are sometimes overused for genuine physical and psychological conditions.
A study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that:
Common symptoms of benzo addiction include excessive drowsiness, dizziness, muscle weakness, lack of motor coordination, deep sleep or coma. Chronic misuse may lead to additional symptoms such as anxiety, severe headaches, insomnia, excessive sweating, swelling in extremities, tremors, and constant muscle weakness. Long-term use can suppress the respiratory system, causing difficulty breathing, respiratory arrest, coma, or death, especially when combined with opioids.
If you suspect benzodiazepine use disorder or addiction, consider these questions:
Quitting benzos suddenly and without professional help can be dangerous, leading to withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, panic attacks, sensory disturbances, hypersensitivity, physical symptoms (high blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, sweating), and tremors. While neither rehab nor detox is a guaranteed cure, medical detoxification significantly increases recovery chances and reduces relapse risks. Medical detox involves close observation for withdrawal symptoms and may include medications to manage symptoms. It provides hope that the withdrawal period will be less stressful on the mind and body.
Ending a use disorder or addiction is challenging, especially when underlying symptoms led to initial drug use. Outpatient services, support groups, private therapy, rehabilitation, and detox centers offer various options for assistance. New Day Recovery, a recovery center, provides care for benzodiazepine addiction, including individual treatment plans, workshops, clinical care, and a 12-step curriculum. Trained professionals offer discreet help, recognizing the difficulties of overcoming benzodiazepine misuse and addiction. Support is available for those on the journey to sobriety.