The promise of a calm oasis that comes from inside a bottle of prescription pills is often a mirage. The group of medications under the benzodiazepine umbrella is effective—when used as prescribed, which is generally through cautious use for periods of a few weeks, or in carefully monitored doses for longer terms. The tranquilizing and sedating effects of these drugs may offer relief from extreme mental discomfort, but they are also addictive.
Why Benzodiazepine Addiction Occurs
Benzodiazepines are the most prescribed group of medications in the United States, because they are extremely effective for short-term use to treat a variety of conditions. In 2008, about 5.2% of U.S. adults (aged 18 to 80) had used benzodiazepines, according to the CDC. In 2012, healthcare professionals prescribed 37.6 benzodiazepine prescriptions per 100 persons in the United States.
Benzodiazepines or benzodiazepine derivatives such as some of the following have proven effective for the short-term treatment of anxiety, panic attacks, PTSD, insomnia and occasionally as an adjuvant to anti-depressants:
Benzodiazepines do one thing too well—they make people feel good—and sometimes it is hard to give that up. It’s also why people take these drugs for purely recreational purposes; the potential for abuse is strong. For example, a person with a fear of flying has to travel on a plane, but their anxiety is through the roof. A doctor may prescribe a drug such as Ativan to help them get through the flight and reduce their anxiety. If they find that the calming effect of the drug helps them, they may take it the next time they feel anxious, and keep taking every time they want that feeling of calm. They may also take more than the recommended dosage if they feel the drug isn’t kicking in fast enough or hasn’t provided the level of relief they’re looking for.
Just because a drug is prescribed by a doctor doesn’t mean addiction can’t occur. If you are worried that your loved one has become dependent on one of the benzodiazepines, there are signs you can watch for. A reputable healthcare provider should realize that their patient is becoming dependent on the medication and wean the person off the drug. If your loved one is visiting more than one doctor for prescriptions (known as doctor shopping) or going to an emergency room with chronic complaints in order to obtain benzodiazepines, they are in the danger zone of addiction.
Desperate people will also attempt to obtain the drug off the street or illegally when they are unable to obtain a prescription. Some people will enhance the effects of benzodiazepines with alcohol, opiates, or other drugs. This is a sometimes deadly depressant combination that can lead to overdose.
Symptoms of Benzodiazepine Addiction
Benzodiazepines do provide relief from anxiety, sleeplessness, or other mental health problems, so any negative side effects may be masked by the improvement in a person’s condition. They may look rested, or be more engaged in activities of daily living. They are happy and that makes you happy, but don’t let the positive effects blind you to a downward slide into addiction.
When that positive mood starts to become inconsistent and pleasure becomes either extreme euphoria or a crash into moody, hostile, or depressed behavior, it is time to seek professional help. People who have become addicted to benzos may have slurred speech, confused thinking, lack of coordination, dizziness, or drowsiness. Once they become dependent, they may exhibit signs of withdrawal when unable to get the drug.
Chronic use of benzodiazepines can cause a rebound effect, meaning that the anxiety or sleeplessness may return even worse than before taking the drug. Benzodiazepine use causes physical and psychological dependence, but if a user decides to just stop taking the drug, that can lead to a dangerous condition known as Benzodiazepine Withdrawal Syndrome. An addict in withdrawal may experience flu-like symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, sweating, and muscle pain. They can also have more serious complications such as heart palpitations, hallucinations or confusion, and seizures. Reducing the dosage of the drug gradually rather than stopping abruptly can prevent some of these symptoms.
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Available Treatment Options
There are reasons that the person you love was prescribed the drug or started taking benzodiazepines, and those conditions don’t go away when you remove the drug of abuse. They’re still there, and dual diagnosis treatment can find a way to alleviate distress and manage pain or mental health disorders without relying on benzodiazepines, reducing the likelihood of relapse.
A medically supervised detoxification followed by a comprehensive program of recovery in a residential treatment program, especially one that treats co-occurring disorders, offers the best chance for recovery.
Opening the door to treatment gives a glimmer of hope for a new day free from addiction.