Benzodiazepines like Xanax, Valium, and Klonopin are some of the most commonly prescribed medications in the United States. While these drugs offer relief for conditions like anxiety and insomnia, long-term use poses serious risks of addiction and dependence. The following six facts highlight the alarming dangers of benzodiazepine addiction that both doctors and patients need to recognize.
#1 Benzodiazepines are Highly Addictive
Benzodiazepines like Xanax, Valium, and Klonopin are often used to treat anxiety, insomnia, and seizures. These drugs work by enhancing the effects of the neurotransmitter GABA in the brain, leading to sedation and reduced anxiety. However, long-term use of benzodiazepines can easily lead to physical and psychological dependence. Studies show that up to 76% of chronic benzodiazepine users experience withdrawal symptoms when attempting to stop, which drives many to continue taking the drugs. This risk of benzodiazepine addiction is much higher for people taking benzodiazepines long-term versus short-term.
#2 Withdrawal Can Be Severe and Dangerous
Quitting benzodiazepines cold turkey or too rapidly can trigger extremely uncomfortable and even dangerous withdrawal symptoms. These include increased anxiety and panic attacks, depression, tremors, dizzy spells, insomnia, nausea, headaches, concentration problems and seizures. In severe cases, benzodiazepine withdrawal can result in hallucinations, depersonalization, suicidal thoughts and psychosis. The severity of symptoms often depends on factors like the specific drug, dosage and length of use. But without proper medical support, benzodiazepine withdrawal can be an exhausting and traumatic process.
#3 Overdose Deaths are Rising
While benzodiazepines themselves rarely cause fatal overdoses, combining them with other substances like opioids or alcohol puts users at serious risk. Benzodiazepines enhance the effects of other central nervous system depressants, which can lead to dangerously slowed breathing, coma and death. From 1999 to 2019, benzodiazepine overdose deaths in the U.S. rose over 500% to almost 12,000 deaths in 2019. With the ongoing opioid crisis, around 14% of overdoses now also involve benzodiazepines.
#4 Cognitive Side Effects Impact Daily Life
Long-term benzodiazepine use doesn’t just affect users while under the drug’s influence – it can cause lasting cognitive side effects. Studies show those taking benzodiazepines chronically experience impaired memory, information processing speed, reaction times and motor coordination even during periods of withdrawal. These issues make it difficult to perform daily tasks and can put jobs or educational goals at risk. Cognitive deficits from benzodiazepines may continue improving for months after stopping, but some users experience permanent impairment.
#5 Mental Health Often Worsens Over Time
While often prescribed for conditions like anxiety, depression and insomnia, benzodiazepines have been shown to actually worsen mental health over time. The drugs’ sedative effects often stop being beneficial over months of use, leading to increased underlying anxiety, depression and sleep disturbances. Rates of self-harm, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts are higher among long-term benzodiazepine users compared to the general population. Developing addiction and withdrawal symptoms can also take a major toll on mental health.
#6 Long-Term Use Changes Brain Function
Studies utilizing brain imaging technology show that long-term benzodiazepine use leads to actual structural changes in areas like the cortex and cerebellum. Benzodiazepines also alter the functioning in neurotransmitter systems like GABA and glutamate. These brain changes help explain why cognitive deficits outlast benzodiazepine use, and why addiction becomes so entrenched over time. Essentially the brain becomes reliant on the presence of the drugs to function normally. It can take months or years after quitting for the brain to fully recover.
Increased awareness around benzodiazepine addiction potential is key to combating over-prescription and improving treatment.