Benzos have been around since the early 1960s as prescription medications used to treat conditions such as anxiety disorders, panic attacks, seizures, alcohol withdrawal symptoms, muscle spasms, and sleeping problems (insomnia). Today they’re still prescribed frequently for those same ailments but can also be found recreationally on the street or obtained without a doctor’s authorization.
It’s estimated that more than 10 million Americans 12 years old and older misused benzodiazepines last year. While some people use them occasionally to feel relaxed, others may become addicted to them over time. Some abusers even resort to stealing their prescriptions from pharmacies. Once physical dependence takes hold, it is extremely difficult to detox from benzos, as the withdrawals can potentially be deadly.
Prescription Misuse and Benzodiazepines
This doesn’t mean all who try benzos will develop a substance use disorder – many patients receive prescriptions from their doctors without abusing them. However, the risk of physical and mental dependence is prevalent regardless of whether abuse is the intention.
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There are several things that put individuals at greater risk for developing an unhealthy relationship with benzos. Here we’ll look at what makes up dependence – the main components necessary to diagnose benzodiazepine abuse successfully.
We’ll discuss how it affects your health and overall well-being, identify warning signs of abuse, and learn about effective treatments.
What Is Benzodiazepine Abuse?
The term benzodiazepine refers to any medication containing this group of compounds, which include diazepam (brand names Valium, Halcion), lorazepam (Ativan), alprazolam (Xanax), and flunitrazepam (Rohypnol). These medicines were developed during the research phase to find better and safer alternatives to barbiturates, another group of commonly known tranquilizers.
They work quickly, typically within 30 minutes, and produce calming effects similar to alcohol intoxication. They affect chemicals called neurotransmitters in the brain. The most important neurotransmitter involved is gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which serves as the body’s natural relaxant.
GABA and Benzodiazepines in the Brain
When released into the bloodstream after drinking alcohol, GABA calms both our bodies and minds. A deficiency of this chemical leads to extreme stress levels, making it harder to calm down when needed. That’s where benzodiazepines come in.
By increasing the amount of GABA available in the system, these drugs reduce nervousness and induce relaxation. If taken too often, however, the positive effect diminishes.
As tolerance develops, users need higher dosages to achieve the desired result, leading to dependency. Additionally, if not treated properly, long-term use has been shown to cause damage to various parts of the brain, including memory loss and mental decline.
In recent years, cases of accidental deaths involving benzodiazepines have increased dramatically. While law enforcement and medical experts have attributed many of these deaths to counterfeit pills containing fentanyl, this doesn’t make black market benzo abuse any less severe.
Abuse vs. Misuse vs. Addiction
Many individuals argue that abuse, misuse, and addiction have distinct phases, with one leading to the next in a chain of subsequent levels of benzo usage. However, other experts claim that there is no difference, with all of them being one and the same.
Perhaps the most logical argument would be they indeed all exist on a spectrum. The biggest difference would be the fact that each of these could be different levels of addiction.
The following is one way of describing the relationship between these three terms:
Benzo misuse can be described as the blatant misuse of benzodiazepines. This would include taking more than the prescribed dose to obtain the effects of intoxication or euphoria. Misuse can exist in the case of prescribed and non-prescribed users.
Abuse is the next step beyond misuse, with users continuing to associate the use of benzos with daily activities. Individuals begin to feel that they can’t have a good time or be “normal” without benzos, and misuse turns to abuse as ingestion becomes more frequent.
During the addiction phase, abuse turns to full-blown physical and mental dependence. Users are unable to function mentally and physically without the use of benzos. When benzos aren’t available, users slip into withdrawal, experiencing some of the most unpleasant mental and physical side effects of detox.
It’s important to understand the signs of benzodiazepine abuse if you want to help someone you know break the chains of addiction. If caught early enough, you could potentially save someone you love from a life of intense misery highlighted by physical and mental anguish.
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Signs of Benzodiazepine Abuse
While there isn’t necessarily a specific sign indicating an individual is currently engaging in benzodiazepine abuse, certain behaviors could indicate otherwise. For instance, a person might begin experiencing rapid mood swings, irritability, or aggression. They may also commonly appear fatigued or “nod off,” similar to opioid abusers.
They also may frequently suffer from confusion or memory loss. Benzos have a distinct effect on memory, and these signs are some of the most common regarding benzo abuse.
You might also see changes in behavior or personality, along with noticeable physical deterioration. Overdosing or becoming dependent on benzos generally results in slowed movement, slowed breathing, cold, clammy skin, shallow breathing, and unresponsiveness.
Further Warning Signs for Prescription Drug Misuse
Recognizing these signs is critical because recovery becomes much more challenging once dependence sets in. At this point, it’s recommended that anyone seeking treatment consult a physician immediately.
Getting caught trying to obtain benzos illegally puts you at serious legal risk. Those arrested face jail sentences ranging from six months to two years, depending on the severity of the offense and whether the accused cooperates with authorities. However, rehab programs offer assistance to clients attempting to overcome dependencies.
The health risks associated with benzo abuse are probably the most important driving factor in the need for recovery.
What are the Health Risks of Benzodiazepine Misuse?
Because benzodiazepines act as depressants, they can make you lethargic and sleepy. Therefore, when taken regularly, they interfere with normal bodily functions and prevent the proper functioning of organs throughout the entire body.
One major problem is that the longer the drug stays in your system, the easier it is for the body to form a habit of needing it again before going through a detoxification. Another negative aspect of chronic use is that it decreases oxygen intake. With less oxygen flowing to the lungs, benzos actually inhibit breathing patterns, causing complications.
As mentioned earlier, benzos’ primary function is to increase the production of GABA in the body. Because of this action, benzos alter the process of dying neurons in the hippocampus region of the brain.
Consequently, the brain shrinks over time. Studies suggest that long-term exposure to benzodiazepines increases the risk of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease.
Additionally, researchers believe prolonged use of benzodiazepines interrupts calcium release from intracellular stores, resulting in damaged nerve cells and impaired learning capacity. Lastly, evidence shows that long-term benzodiazepine addicts suffer from depression, anxiety, poor impulse control, and suicidal tendencies
Now that you know what happens to your body and mind when you depend on benzos, here are some tips for avoiding abuse.
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Benzo Abuse Risk Factors
Did you know that certain people may be genetically predisposed to benzo abuse? Additionally, certain internal and external factors may increase the possibility of abuse.
Although everyone seems capable of developing an issue with benzodiazepines eventually, some people seem to be more susceptible than others. What are some common traits associated with benzodiazepine abuse?
First off, men tend to seek out this type of medicine more often than women. Also, younger age groups are more likely to get hooked on benzos than adults or senior citizens. Finally, it appears that genetics play a role in determining vulnerability. Research suggests that certain genes serve as markers linked to addictive behavior.
If you suspect yourself of having any of these predispositions, don’t hesitate to contact a us today at Icarus Behavioral Health. And keep reading for more information on how to avoid falling victim to benzodiazepine abuse.
Anxiety and Developing Tolerance
One of the biggest indicators that someone may turn to benzos for relief is anxiety. Although doctors prescribe benzos primarily to alleviate anxiety related to medical issues, millions more simply cope with everyday stresses.
People suffering from social phobia, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic attack disorders, and generalized anxiety are frequently prescribed benzos.
Additionally, those diagnosed with manic depressive illness and bipolar disorder sometimes use benzos to manage episodes of mania and hypomania. However, prescribed users are in counseling. As they get older and the counseling becomes more effective, the frequency of benzo usage may decrease over time.
Managing Anxiety in Recovery
On the contrary, many would-be recovering addicts report that although they no longer require as high of a dose, they continue self-medicating with benzos in large amounts.
It’s true that benzos effectively provide short-term relief from anxiety, but continued use can leave behind dangerous addictions. After a few days, it takes only minute amounts of the drug to trigger feelings of euphoria. Soon, the user realizes that just a little bit won’t suffice anymore, which is referred to as tolerance.
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Treatment centers specializing in helping with substance abuse advise against stopping abruptly, citing the fact that abrupt cessation of benzos triggers intense craving symptoms. Instead, specialists recommend gradually tapering dosage over weeks or months until completely eliminated.
Next, we’ll explore how treatment works.
Treatment for Benzodiazepine Misuse
Anyone struggling with benzo abuse should consider entering a rehab program designed specifically to deal with these issues. Most rehab facilities employ medically supervised detoxifications and encourage client participation in counseling sessions.
Participation in medically-assisted detox is strongly encouraged. Benzo detox and withdrawal include extremely uncomfortable side effects and the potential for seizures. In the most severe cases, benzo withdrawal can also be deadly.
Medically supervised detox includes constant monitoring from medical professionals to ensure clients undergo a more comfortable and safer detox.
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Clients are required to undergo evaluations and participate in activities designed to promote sobriety, such as meditation, yoga, exercise, or journaling. Upon completion of the programs at Icarus Behavioral Health, participants are better prepared to go home ready to live sober lives.
However, clients must craft an aftercare plan to promote long-term recovery from benzodiazepine abuse before graduating. This includes continued meetings with mental health professionals and participation in group recovery meetings, all with the ongoing support of our Icarus aftercare planning program.
If you or a loved one are struggling with benzo abuse, please reach out to our dedicated Admissions team today and let them help guide you into lasting recovery without reliance on anxiety medications.