Recognizing Xanax Withdrawal Symptoms and When To Seek Help

Xanax is now the most prescribed psychotropic medication in the United States, sought after by both therapeutic and recreational users. In many ways, we are now living in an era of Xanax. Despite its indication for short-term use, many are turning to the medication for extended periods of time, leading to a host of Xanax withdrawal symptoms that can cause serious distress and create dependence, or even full-blown addiction. By knowing understanding the dangers of long-term use and when to seek help, you can begin the recovery process comfortably and safely and create a strong foundation for ongoing wellness.

“When I first took it, it gave me the most incredible feeling of numbness in my brain. It pushed past the horrible, horrible past behind me,” says Danielle. She’s slurring her words and seems half-awake as she tells the story of how she became addicted to Xanax. During the interview, part of an Australian television special about the dangers of benzodiazepines, she takes out a pill box and swallows a small round tablet. If she doesn’t take one first thing in the morning, she explains, she starts hallucinating. “It has a horrible taste.”

Danielle is 47 years old and has been addicted to Xanax for years. Despite repeated attempts at getting clean, the withdrawal symptoms she experiences upon discontinuation push her back to the pills every time. “[Withdrawal] is the worst thing I’ve ever been through,” she says. “I went completely mad.”

Danielle is an obvious addict; her behavior broadcasts her addiction the moment you encounter her, and she is entirely aware of this fact. But Xanax addiction doesn’t always reveal itself so readily. In fact, many people don’t recognize addiction in themselves until they begin to experience the withdrawal symptoms that Danielle has struggled with time and time again, symptoms that are not only deeply distressing, but can be life-threatening. Whether you have been using Xanax recreationally or therapeutically, it is vital to recognize these withdrawal symptoms and know when to seek help.

The Era of Xanax

Xanax is a benzodiazepine typically prescribed to people with an anxiety or panic disorder. First introduced in 1981, it offered a faster-acting, shorter-lasting alternative to older benzodiazepines like Valium. With over 50 million prescriptions written annually, it is now the most prescribed psychotropic medication in the United States, surpassing all other benzodiazepines, antidepressants, mood stabilizers, and antipsychotics. As Lisa Miller writes in New York Magazine, “If the nineties were the decade of Prozac, then this is the era of Xanax.” Indeed, Jon Stewart has also spoken of the “smooth, calm, pristine, mellow, sleepy feeling” of Xanax that Miller describes, and references to the drug appear in everything from U2 songs to rap. The effects that make Xanax so popular as a prescription drug also make it highly appealing to recreational users. With so many prescriptions in circulation, it’s easy to find on the black market or in your friend’s medicine cabinet.

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Xanax Withdrawal Symptoms

As pedestrian as Xanax may seem these days, it is far from benign. The feelings of well-being, calmness, and lack of distress you feel when on Xanax are caused by the way the medication enhances the effects of a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). For many people, these effects are highly desirable, alleviating legitimate illnesses that greatly interfere with function and overall quality of life. Others illicitly seek out Xanax for recreational purposes, as its effects can be highly pleasurable—not to mention rapid—even for those without psychiatric illness.

However, over time you come to depend on Xanax as your brain neurologically adapts to accommodate the alterations made by the medication. Sudden or even tapered discontinuation can disrupt the medication-induced equilibrium that has established itself in your brain, leading to a host of emotional, cognitive, and physical withdrawal symptoms. These include:

  • Mood swings
  • Depression
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Tremors
  • Aches and pains
  • Insomnia
  • Impaired concentration
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Paranoia
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures

While the severity of symptoms is often linked to dosage and duration of use, virtually anyone taking Xanax can experience one or more withdrawal symptoms. And often, symptoms are clustered together, resulting in frightening and uncomfortable experiences that may encourage you to keep taking the drug simply to avoid the discomfort of discontinuation.

The Dangers of Long-Term Use

Continuing to take Xanax over extended periods of time to avoid withdrawal is never the best option. In fact, this continuation can put you at serious risk for psychological and even physical harm. One retrospective cohort study conducted by researchers at Warwick University found that Xanax was “associated with significantly increased risk of mortality over a seven year period.” Another study published in The British Journal of Medicine suggests that Xanax use is strongly associated with “an increased risk of Alzheimer’s” and that long-term users are most at risk. But long-term use and sudden withdrawal aren’t your only options; in fact, both can be tremendously risky. Rather, gradual withdrawal under the close supervision of a physician is the gold standard for discontinuation.

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When to Seek Help

If you have tried to get off Xanax and find yourself returning to it despite your own desire to quit or your doctor’s recommendation, you may have more than a dependency—you could have an addiction. In these cases, residential addiction treatment offers you the best path forward to both discontinue Xanax and heal from the underlying issues fueling your use. In a residential treatment environment, you can detox safely with the support of detox specialists who will use the most effective methods to keep you comfortable and minimize Xanax withdrawal symptoms. Here, your brain will have the opportunity to gradually return to a state of equilibrium without relying on dangerous pharmaceuticals.

Disrupting physical dependence is only the first step toward recovery. In order to truly heal, you must fully explore and treat the issues that drive your Xanax use. For some, these issues will be at least partially known—for instance, if you have already been diagnosed with anxiety or panic disorder. Even in these cases, however, there may be additional underlying psychological and environmental causes for your addictive behaviors that must be addressed to move forward. For recreational users, you will uncover what has made Xanax such an attractive option for you and seek to better understand the roots of your drug abuse. Using a personalized curriculum of individual, group-based, and holistic therapies delivered by a strong support network of compassionate clinicians and peers, you will be able to identify the obstacles standing in the way of your healing and remove them, paving a new path toward sustainable wellness.

Addiction may be scary to admit and sometimes it is only when you try to stop using that you come to realize the true nature of your drug abuse. But that realization does not have to be frightening. Rather, in acknowledging your addiction you take the first steps in a journey that will lead you toward recovery of mind, body, and spirit.

Alta Mira is a residential addiction treatment center treating drug and alcohol addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Bay Area programs and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward recovery.