Xanax is a prescription benzodiazepine medication commonly used to treat anxiety, panic disorders, and anxiety caused by depression. It is one of the most commonly prescribed psychiatric medications in the United States; however, its potent fast-acting characteristics make it highly addictive and dangerous when used in combination with other substances, particularly alcohol.
What Is Xanax Addiction?
Xanax, also known generically as alprazolam, is a benzodiazepine medication commonly prescribed for the treatment of anxiety and panic disorders. In rare cases, Xanax may be used to treat depression, agoraphobia (fear of open spaces), and premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
Xanax works by decreasing excitement and activity in the brain. For people who suffer from extreme anxiety or debilitating panic disorders, Xanax can be a beneficial drug that can improve quality of life. However, due to its powerful and rapid calming effects, many people develop an addiction to Xanax and abuse this drug.
Recent research has found that benzodiazepines have a similar effect on the brain as opioids, marijuana, and gamma-hydroxybutyrate, also known as GHB or the “date rape” drug. Given their highly addictive nature and the problems associated with long-term use, researchers are working to develop new anti-anxiety and epilepsy medications that do not mimic the same pathways as other dangerous drugs.
A Growing Problem
Xanax is a highly addictive drug that users often rely on as the sole means of calming down after a stressful day, when they are feeling anxious, or when they are unable to sleep. Because of this, Xanax use and abuse is on the rise around the world.
Furthermore, researchers have found that Xanax is significantly more toxic than other benzodiazepines commonly used to treat anxiety. As doctors are increasing the rate of prescription, patients and individuals both with and without a Xanax prescription are using Xanax at higher rates, which is leading to increased numbers of Xanax addiction and overdose.
Facts & Statistics
When taken as prescribed, benzodiazepines like Xanax cause the central nervous system to slow down to a safe level where the patient experiences relief from intense anxiety. However, these drugs also come with many risks.
In 2014, Xanax overdoses caused more than 4,200 deaths in the United States.
Benzodiazepines such as Xanax are commonly taken in combination with other drugs, which can exacerbate their effect. According to a research study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2014, “Alprazolam [Xanax] was involved in 26% of the drug overdose deaths involving hydrocodone, 23% of the deaths involving oxycodone, and 18% of the deaths involving methadone.”
As of 2015, 39.3 million people used Xanax and other tranquilizers to treat their psychological disorders. In the same year, the Xanax addiction rate and rate of abuse for similar tranquilizer drugs was 11.1 percent of the population over the age of 12 years. This amounts to 29.7 million individuals.
Not only is Xanax highly addictive and dangerous on its own, but when taken in combination with other drugs, the severity of the drug’s effects are amplified and can be lethal.
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Symptoms & Diagnosis of Xanax Addiction
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Signs and symptoms of Xanax addiction include:
- Changes in mood such as irritability or being more talkative or social than usual
- Difficulty concentrating
- Diminished appetite
- Diminished sex drive
- Inability to urinate
- Joint pain
- Sexual dysfunction
- Significant weight loss or weight gain
Xanax is a fast-acting drug, which makes it particularly dangerous. While many other drugs break down slowly in the body and therefore release chemicals over time, Xanax is broken down quickly and absorbed easily into the bloodstream. If an individual consumes too high of a dose of Xanax at once, the effects will be dramatic and occur almost immediately.
Symptoms of a Xanax overdose include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
- Lapses in memory
- Loss of consciousness
- Loss of coordination and balance
- Skin rash
- Slurred speech
Withdrawal & Detox
Benzodiazepines work by altering specific GABA receptors in the brain, which are responsible for controlling dopamine levels. When a person takes a benzodiazepine, the brain experiences a surge of dopamine, which is responsible for pleasurable sensations. After using benzodiazepines for an extended period of time, the brain becomes reliant on the drug to produce dopamine and can no longer produce dopamine on its own.
As a result, the person must consume a benzodiazepine drug in order to feel normal or good. Oftentimes, people will take more and more in order to experience a high, which leads to building up a tolerance. If the person abruptly stops taking the drug, he or she will experience benzodiazepine withdrawal signs as the brain struggles to cope with being without the dopamine-producing benzodiazepines.
The withdrawal process is difficult and can be life-threatening. Some people who withdraw from Xanax experience seizures, extreme irritability, heightened anxiety, and problems sleeping. Due to the health risks associated with these withdrawal symptoms, it is recommended that people who are abusing or addicted to Xanax go through a medically-supervised detox and withdrawal in a residential treatment facility that offers around-the-clock care and support.
If you or someone you care about is struggling with benzodiazepine addiction or withdrawal, an inpatient treatment facility is the safest and most comfortable path to recovery. Residential facilities that provide medical detox care can help you or your loved one through this challenging phase with methods to aid in lessening the unpleasant side effects of withdrawal and by monitoring your health for your safety.
Xanax withdrawal signs will show up differently in each person and depend on a number of factors. However, for diagnostic purposes, mental health and substance abuse professionals rely on a specific set of diagnostic criteria from the American Psychological Association (APA).
According to the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), a person going through benzodiazepine withdrawal will experience two or more of the following symptoms within a few days of stopping benzodiazepine use:
- Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
- Hallucinations, such as hearing, seeing, or feeling things that are not there
- Nausea or vomiting
- Psychomotor agitation (difficulty sitting still)
- Racing heartbeat
- Tremors, or shaking hands
Many factors affect how withdrawal affects each person. For example, the length of time a person has been using Xanax, at what dosage, how frequently they take the drugs, and if they use Xanax in combination with alcohol or any other drugs will each affect the withdrawal process. A person’s mental health and medical history will also affect withdrawal.
Treatment & Prognosis
If you believe you or someone you care about may have developed a Xanax addiction, seek professional mental health or drug rehabilitation treatment. You have several options when it comes to addiction treatment, including:
- Individual Counseling: Seeing a counselor for one-on-one sessions in which you discuss your recovery, mental health, and any barriers you encounter.
- Group Therapy: This can include group therapy sessions run by a counselor or self-help groups such as 12-step meetings.
- Outpatient Treatment: Meeting with a counselor or for group therapy 1-2 times per week for 1-2 hours per meeting.
- Intensive Outpatient Treatment: Meeting with a counselor or for group therapy 3-4 times per week for 2-4 hours per meeting.
- Partial Hospitalization: Attending intensive treatment for 4-6 hours per day on weekdays, usually at a hospital setting.
- Inpatient Treatment: Residing at a drug rehab center for the duration of treatment, which typically lasts 30 days to 18 months.
Substance abuse is a field that is of great concern to medical and mental health professionals. Decades of scientific research on substance abuse treatment has helped residential treatment facilities facilities develop highly effective therapeutic techniques for helping patients overcome addiction to Xanax and other drugs.
For example, cognitive behavioral therapy is an effective and reliable treatment option in which a trained therapist helps patients identify the unhealthy thought and behavior patterns that lead to substance use and abuse. Therapists then help their patients identify attractive alternative behaviors – such as hobbies, exercise, enjoyable employment, and more – to use as coping skills for the unpleasant emotions and experiences that used to be solved with drugs.
Relapse following Xanax addiction treatment is another serious concern. Many people who return to using benzodiazepines like Xanax after stopping use for an extended period of time return to using their previously high dosage. However, after being without the drug, tolerance levels drop. Resuming use with a high dosage can lead to overdose, especially when combined with other sedative medications or alcohol.
Throughout recovery and for several months or years after stopping Xanax use, it is extremely helpful to seek the care of trained professionals who can help you protect your sobriety, even in the face of withdrawal symptoms. While not everyone experiences long-term withdrawal symptoms, those who do may require a higher level of support to avoid relapse and to stay healthy.
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- University of New South Wales: Sydney. (2017). Xanax overdoes and related deaths – A podcast.
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- American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. (5th Edition). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
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- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services. (2016). Prescription Drug Use and Misuse in the United States: Results from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
- Warner et al. (2016). Drugs Most Frequently Involved in Drug Overdose Deaths: United States, 2010 – 2014.