What Are Benzos, and How Does Addiction Form?
Benzodiazepines (benzos) are sedatives often prescribed by doctors to treat conditions such as ADHD, anxiety, and seizures. They create a calming effect by slowing down the racing thoughts of the brain. Popular benzos include Valium, Xanax, Ativan, Librium, and Klonopin.
Benzo addiction can occur when a person uses too much of the substance, uses it for too long, or uses it without a controlled prescription.
Reports from the National Institute on Drug Abuse recognize the increasing use of benzos as well as the intensifying risk of abuse. In one survey of 102,000 adults in the U.S. from 2015 to 2016, it was found that 12.5 percent used benzos. About 2.1 percent of them misused benzos at least one time.
Necessary or Addictive?
The hardest part of understanding benzo addiction is learning when the use of a drug goes from being necessary to treat a condition such as anxiety, insomnia, or seizures to being the onset of a substance use disorder.
If you do not have a prescription for benzos, don’t use them. Using benzos outside of a prescription is the number one factor in developing an addiction. Here are a few other signs of dependence and addiction to watch for:
- Increasing use of the drug, needing to use more of the drug or use it more frequently to get the same results (a condition called tolerance)
- Spending a lot of time finding the drug, including going from one doctor to the next to secure a second prescription
- Needing to spend time recovering from the use of the drug, such as sleeping it off
- Lack of ability to maintain responsibilities in tasks at home, work, or school
- The drug becomes the focus of daily life – thinking/obsessing about the next use
- Physical and psychological symptoms of benzo addiction include slurred speech, confusion, blurry vision, and lack of motor coordination. Some people also struggle with poor decision-making or difficulty remembering things.
A person who misuses these drugs chronically may also develop conditions such as insomnia, anxiety, headaches, and anorexia. The longer benzo addiction lasts, the more of the drug a person needs. This increases the risk of overdose.
How Does Benzo Addiction Develop?
Benzos can be safe to use if they are controlled carefully. Over time, addiction develops as drug use increases. Repeated use of these drugs, especially in high doses, can create physical dependence. When these drugs are used consistently, they change the way the neurotransmitters in the brain communicate. Over time, the brain becomes dependent on these drugs to function normally.
Benzos can be addictive because of the intense euphoric feeling they create. When this happens, dopamine, the feel-good hormone in the brain, is released at a higher level. Over time, the brain recognizes the drug as the cause of that good feeling. It seeks out more of it on an ongoing basis. This leads to compulsive behavior.
A person with a dependence on benzos isn’t able to stop using on their own. The withdrawal symptoms and cravings become so significant that it becomes nearly impossible to stop taking the drugs without help. This often leads to the need for drug detoxification.
Common withdrawal symptoms for benzos include:
- Physical aches and pains
- Feeling crawling on the skin – changes in skin sensation
- Weight loss
- Muscle spaces
The first stage of withdrawal from benzos can begin as soon as the same day a person stops. Acute withdrawal can last from 5 to 28 days. Others experience some level of withdrawal for several months, up to a year, with symptoms including anxiety, loss of sex drive, poor concentration, mood swings, and a loss of pleasure.
What Can Be Done to Treat Benzo Addiction?
Treatment starts with detox, in most cases. This breaks the dependence a person feels, creating a significant improvement in overall mental stability. Treatment will continue with behavioral counseling to learn coping skills, dealing with mental health disorders, and developing a long-term plan for healing.
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