Benzodiazepines: How to quit your addiction and get help
Practicing as a pharmacist, I saw many people clearly abusing benzodiazepines and frequently in denial of the fact that they may have a problem. Abusers will often blame stress in their life in order to downplay the use of benzodiazepines. It is very important to recognize that there may be a problem because that’s really the only way to start solving it! People need to know that 1) they are not alone, and 2) there are options for help. Once people are aware of the signs and symptoms of abuse, it’s easier to seek out support.
Getting help for yourself, a friend, or a family member is imperative. You can easily reach out to your health care provider for medical recommendations. Another great resource is drug abuse helplines.
The National Drug Helpline provides 24/7 drug and alcohol help to those struggling with addiction. Please call the national hotline for drug abuse today to receive information regarding treatment and recovery at:
What exactly are benzodiazepines?
Benzodiazepines or “benzos” are a class of medication also known as tranquilizers. Common benzodiazepines you may have heard of are Valium (diazepam) and Xanax (alprazolam). These drugs are some of the most commonly-prescribed medications in the United States. According to the National Institute of Health, the number of adults who filled a benzodiazepine prescription increased by 67% (8.1 million to 13.5 million people) between 1996 and 2013.
Doctors and other clinicians usually prescribe a benzodiazepine for legitimate medical conditions such as:
• Muscle relaxation
• Alcohol withdrawal
• Seizure control
• Inducing amnesia during uncomfortable procedures
Benzodiazepines work on the central nervous system by enhancing the effect of the neurotransmitter GABA. GABA provides tranquilizing signals throughout trillions of cells in our body. When benzodiazepines are taken, they chemically add to the calming effect that already occurs naturally, allowing you to feel calm, sedated, relaxed, and less anxious.
|Generic Name (Brand Name)||How quickly the drug starts working in the body||Time it takes to eliminate from the body||Common Uses|
|Alprazolam (Xanax)||Intermediate||Intermediate||Anxiety, panic|
|Chlordiazepoxide (Librium)||Intermediate||Long||Anxiety, alcohol withdrawal|
|Clonazepam (Klonopin)||Intermediate||Long||Anxiety, insomnia, seizures, panic|
|Diazepam (Valium)||Fast||Long||Anxiety, seizures, alcohol withdrawal|
|Lorazepam (Ativan)||Intermediate||Intermediate||Anxiety, insomnia, seizures|
|Oxazepam (Serax)||Slow||Short||Anxiety, alcohol withdrawal|
Symptoms of Benzodiazepine Abuse
When people start using benzodiazepines for their sedative effects, it can quickly turn into abuse and lead to addiction of these medications. The chances of abuse are potentially much greater if the user does not have a valid prescription. However, abuse still develops in those patients with a valid prescription if they start taking higher doses than what they were prescribed.
When taking benzodiazepines at prescribed doses, they are usually well tolerated and help alleviate anxiety and insomnia. Problems occur when people start taking high doses of benzodiazepines. The following are signs and symptoms of benzodiazepine overdose or toxicity:
• Slurred speech
• Blurred vision
• Lack of coordination
• Difficulty breathing
Chronic abuse of benzodiazepines can lead to symptoms that caused people to use benzodiazepines in the first place, such as:
How to Treat Chronic Abuse of Benzodiazepines
Treating chronic abuse of benzodiazepines can be done at home with the monitored help of your health care provider or in drug rehabilitation centers. The initial phase of treatment is a slow reduction of the benzodiazepine dosage to ensure withdrawal and potential seizures do not occur. This is a withdrawal method that most health care providers recommend for weaning people off benzodiazepines. Sometimes, providers may switch people to a longer-acting benzodiazepine, like diazepam or clonazepam, instead of fast-acting ones, like lorazepam, to help make this process easier.
Patients usually begin cutting back about 10% of their dosage per week. This allows the detox to be completed in about 10 weeks. For some people, attempting to gradually wean off their medication may not be successful because withdrawal symptoms are very strong. Symptoms may include severe anxiety, increased insomnia, and even panic attacks. Your provider may then recommend a medical detox at a rehabilitation facility to ensure a successful detox can be completed under the direct supervision of a health care provider.
With that said, the withdrawal phase is still much easier than the next recovery phase in which people attempt to remain drug-free. Medical care is a great help, but people need social support, including help finding employment. Family and friends play a crucial role in emotionally being there for people during this difficult time.
How will I feel during a benzodiazepine detox?
Learning what to expect before going into the detox might scare you, but this information will help you know exactly what is going on with your body and the symptoms that are normal during this process.
The start and duration of symptoms vary based on the type of benzodiazepine because of differences in how quickly the drug is eliminated from the body. The severity of the addiction is also a major factor.
Some people experience few to no symptoms of withdrawal. Others will face severe withdrawal effects, requiring placement in a rehabilitation center.
Benzodiazepine Withdrawal Symptoms
Common Anxiety related symptoms:
• Anxiety, sleep disturbance, panic attacks
• Hyperventilation, tremor, muscle spasms, anorexia, weight loss
• Sweating, visual disturbances
• change in mood
• Loud noise hypersensitivity
• Abnormal body sensations
• Feeling disconnected within yourself
• Generalized seizures
• Delirium or other psychotic symptoms
How long does benzodiazepine withdrawal last?
The duration of a benzodiazepine withdrawal depends on how quickly the drug is eliminated from your body.
For example, Xanax is a short-acting drug so it has a short acute withdrawal phase that may last around 7 days.
Valium, a long-acting benzodiazepine, can have acute withdrawal symptoms that may last around 90 days.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy as an Alternative to Benzodiazepines
Discuss these alternatives with your clinician before discontinuing any medication.
According to Harvard University, yoga, breath training, muscle relaxation training, exercise, and hypnosis can be used to relieve both insomnia and anxiety. Psychotherapy is helpful for treating insomnia and anxiety long term. For many people, the best alternative to benzodiazepines is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Treating insomnia with CBT involves recording sleeping habits and optimizing ways to think about sleep. Patients are advised to lie in bed only when actually sleepy and to avoid eating, watching TV, or working on a laptop while in bed. Patients are also taught to wake up at the same time daily no matter how much sleep they got. Breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, learning how to visualize calming scenery, and playing neutral sounds are methods taught to help fall asleep.
Treating anxiety with CBT involves having patients write and analyze their own thoughts and feelings, with careful attention to ones that aggravate or relieve anxiety. Therapy will help patients become aware of impractical thinking. Patients will learn new ways to respond to situations that cause anxiety and how to apply the techniques of exposure during daily life. Many studies have shown CBT to be as effective as benzodiazepines in addressing sleeping problems, with a longer lasting impact on patients’ lives.
I encourage you to discuss with your provider how cognitive behavioral therapy may be more effective than prescription drugs.
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