Used as directed, benzodiazepines can be a helpful way to get short-term help for severe anxiety. They are not, however, a long-term solution, and can even bring more risk than reward when used or abused over the long term.
what are benzodiazepines?
Benzodiazepines - often referred to as just “benzos” - are a class of sedative prescription drugs that include diazepam (Valium), clorazepate (Tranxene), oxazepam (Serax), lorazepam (Ativan), alprazolam (Xanax), and clonazepam (Klonopin).
what are benzos prescribed for?
Benzodiazepines are mainly used to treat anxiety and panic, seizures, insomnia, general anesthesia, muscle relaxation, depression, alcohol withdrawal and many other conditions.
how do benzodiazepines work?
Benzodiazepines enhance the effects of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain and the spinal cord thus resulting in a calming effect on the nerves.
The benzodiazepine mechanism of action also affects the chemicals and neurons released in the brain as they communicate with other related nerves.
Benzodiazepines then perform the function of reducing the activities of the nerves since excessive nerve functionality often results in what the medical community describes as “anxiety”.
how long do benzos stay in your system?
The amount of time it takes for a benzodiazepine to “kick-in” as well as how long it lasts varies from one type to another.
Some benzos, like Diazepam (Valium), clorazepate (Tranxene), Clorazepate (Tranxene), midazolam (Versed), and triazolam (Halcion) start working quickly, but last for a short amount of time (usually less than 8 hours).
Common benzos like Alprazolam (Xanax) and lorazepam (Ativan) fall somewhere in the middle with a duration of 11 to 20 hours.
Long-acting benzodiazepines such as Chlordiazepoxide (Librium), clonazepam (Klonopin), diazepam (Valium), flurazepam (Dalmane) can last up to 1 to 3 days.
can you be addicted to benzos?
All benzodiazepines have the ability to cause a chemical dependence. Many common benzo prescriptions have a reputation for having a high potential for addiction.
It is important to talk to a medical professional as they help you evaluate whether someone can get off benzos with a simple tapering schedule or if they need more robust assistance with detoxification and addiction recovery.
benzodiazepine addiction and mental health
Benzodiazepine addiction has a significant impact on mental health problems.
Benzodiazepine addiction will often coincide with psychological health issues such as anxiety, bipolar disorder, insomnia, depression and an antisocial personality disorder.
Anxiety disorders, for example, are often caused by inadequate GABA production. Without enough GABA, it is impossible for the brain to inhibit neurons that trigger worry and fear - leading to nervousness or even panic.
Mental disorders and benzo abuse can, unfortunately, be both a cause and an effect of the other. Mental disorders increase likelihood of a person using drugs, whether by abusing a prescription or seeking relief from illicit (street) sources. Conversely, benzodiazepine addiction also greatly increases a person’s vulnerability to mental illness.
benzos and polysubstance abuse
Even though the benzodiazepine high is potent, users will often mix it with other substances like alcohol to further the effects of both.
Many people assume that drinking alcohol concurrently with other drugs can boost the impact of the drugs - but often this is very dangerous. Combining alcohol with benzodiazepines often results in severe, permanent damage to a person’s health and well-being.
effects of combining benzos and alcohol
Both alcohol and benzodiazepines act as depressants, and they relax the body muscles at a very high rate. This relaxation may make the functions of the central nervous system slow to a crawl, resulting in a person becoming unconscious or even ending up in a coma.
The calming effect of the two depressants can also significantly affect the immune system by increasing the chances of a person having severe infections and accidents - especially during activities such as driving.
Combining two sedating substances like benzos and alcohol results in memory loss and fatigue - which can have the added consequence of straining relationships with friends, coworkers and loved ones.
Finally, mixing alcohol and benzodiazepines in large quantities can be seriously dangerous as it may lead to massive organ failures that can result in death.
long-term effects of benzodiazepines
While benzodiazepines are often prescribed to treat anxiety disorders, improper use, abuse, and stopping of benzos can result in the very psychological effects they are meant to treat.
benzodiazepine side effects
Several observable and non-observable signs are linked to benzodiazepine use. Some of the most common signs of benzodiazepine use involve physical, behavioral, cognitive and psychosocial symptoms.
Physical symptoms include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Weakness of the muscles
- Disturbance in sleeping and eating patterns
Cognitive signs and symptoms entail:
- Reduced thinking
- Lowered productivity
- Memory impairment
- Slowed reaction rate
- Inability to create new memories
The symptoms above are not uncommon for someone to experience while on a medically-monitored prescription for benzodiazepines. However, someone who also exhibits signs in the lists below may be in greater danger of an addiction than a simple chemical dependence.
Psychosocial (or behavioral symptoms) may involve:
- Forging prescriptions
- Uncharacteristic isolation
- Irresponsibility in work and school
- A sudden and/or sharp shift in social circles
Or an observable increase in:
- Mood swings
If benzodiazepines are taken continuously (for longer than a few months), stopping suddenly can produce seizures, tremors, muscle cramping, vomiting, and sweating.
The best way to stop using benzos is to consult with a medical professional to establish a schedule to taper the dose off slowly. This will help a patient avoid painful withdrawal symptoms.
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