Repeated use of benzodiazepines can increase your tolerance, leading you to take a higher dose to achieve the same effect. Taking benzodiazepines for a long period of time can lead to addiction and dependence.
Withdrawal symptoms usually include anxiety and sleeplessness. Signs of an overdose include confusion, dizziness, falls, or slowed breathing.
Recovery from benzodiazepine dependence is possible with slowly decreased dosages, therapy, and patience. Consult a licensed medical professional to start your recovery.
Benzodiazepines — including the familiar brand names Ativan, Klonopin, Valium, and Xanax — are some of the most frequently prescribed and misused drugs in the world. Sometimes called “benzos” or “downers,” and abbreviated as BZDs, the drugs are considered depressants because they calm, sedate, or tranquilize.
Benzodiazepines are usually prescribed for short-term use to curb anxiety. They are also approved to treat seizures and alcohol withdrawal symptoms. However, taking these substances for long periods of time or with alcohol, ecstasy, or opioids can lead to intoxication, physical injury, overdose, and death. And once a person becomes dependent on benzodiazepines, it can be difficult and even dangerous to quit without medical supervision.
If you have become dependent on benzodiazepines, know that help is available and recovery is possible.
When taken as prescribed, benzodiazepines are effective, targeted therapies to help you address certain situations in the short term. For example, you may feel anxiety when you fly. Before you board a plane, you take your benzodiazepine dose as prescribed. The medication relieves the anxiety.
Benzodiazepines can cause euphoria, or a high. It can therefore be tempting to misuse them by taking more than the minimum necessary amount to treat anxiety or insomnia.
If you continue to use the drug for months and years — even when not using it for those times you fly — you can develop a tolerance. You start to need more doses and can become dependent on the drug. With dependence comes withdrawal symptoms, which can occur shortly after the drug’s effects wear off. And dependence can occur even if you’re using the drug as originally prescribed.
Needing and taking more of the drug can be harmful because benzodiazepines work by pumping the brakes on the central nervous system. When misused, they can cause serious risk by slowing your breathing, putting you in a coma, or even causing death. They are especially hazardous when taken in combination with other sedatives, such as opioids.
Use only medication that you are prescribed. If you or someone you know is prescribed a benzodiazepine, take only the required amount and read the label explaining how the drug interacts with other substances. And given the high potential for dependence, explore alternative therapies for anxiety and sleep disorders before opting for a prescription for benzodiazepines.
Benzodiazepines and the brain
Benzodiazepines help those with anxiety and sleep problems by allowing them to relax and rest. But benzodiazepines don’t target just the area of the brain that might be causing symptoms. A benzodiazepine spreads like a heavy blanket over multiple regions of the brain, making it difficult for someone to control their perception and movement, including breathing, motor and sensory functions, and speech.
Withdrawal from benzodiazepines depends on several factors, including the type you are taking, how long you’ve been taking it, the dosage, and whether you are taking it in combination with other depressants, such as opioids or alcohol. The shorter the duration of usage and the lower the dosage, the less severe the withdrawal. Larger doses taken over longer periods tend to extend the withdrawal period.
Symptoms of withdrawal include:
If you find that you are experiencing benzodiazepine withdrawal (for example, because you have run out of your benzodiazepine prescription), seek immediate medical attention. Untreated benzodiazepine withdrawal can lead to seizures and other potentially life-threatening consequences.
Do you think you or someone you know has overdosed on a benzodiazepine? Call 911 immediately.
If you recognize the signs of benzodiazepine misuse or dependence in yourself, take a first step toward recovery by seeking help from a licensed medical professional. With medical help, you can reduce your dependence on the drug.
Usually, a clinician will help you taper the dosage slowly and carefully in an outpatient setting. In some cases, where it is not safe for you to continue the medication at all, you will be admitted to a facility for a faster medically-supervised taper.
Anxiety or sleeplessness may return during the tapering process. Lessen these side effects through physical exercise, which studies show can increase your brain’s serotonin levels and stimulate feelings of peace and relaxation.
In an overdose, the medication Flumazenil is sometimes used to reverse the effects of benzodiazepines. This intravenous solution is typically administered to patients in health care settings. The drug can cause serious side effects, particularly among those in withdrawal from addiction to sedatives. Unlike naloxone (i.e., Narcan), it is not available in the United States over the counter without a prescription.
Recovery from benzodiazepine dependency is possible, and treatment works. A licensed medical professional can help you lower your dosage over time, and a mental health professional can provide therapy and other ways to relieve symptoms.
Cognitive behavioral therapy and other behavioral therapies obtained from a licensed mental health professional can help you understand and reduce the symptoms of anxiety or sleeplessness. Behavioral therapies, meditation and mindfulness, and physical exercise such as walking, yoga, or tai chi all help lower blood pressure, relieve stress, and improve sleep.
Once you are established in a treatment program, you can often manage your progress independently with the ongoing support of family, friends, others in recovery, and the guidance of medical and mental health professionals. Learn more about making a plan for your recovery.
Content reviewed by Jasleen Salwan, M.D., MPH, FASAM, August 2023.
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