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What You Need to Know About Benzos

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When COVID-19 upended our lives, it also disrupted the availability of mental health services. Sadly, many people bridged that gap by misusing alcohol and drugs to cope with insomnia, anxiety, and other mental health challenges. A significant number of people who were addicted to other substances turned to benzodiazepines to supplement those substances, including alcohol, and to alleviate withdrawal symptoms between uses.

For example, a study by Express Scripts found that prescriptions for medications to treat insomnia, depression, and anxiety rose 21 percent between February 16 and March 15, 2020. Seventy-eight percent of those were new prescriptions.

A 2021 study found that prescriptions for benzodiazepines were stable before the pandemic with between 4.4 and 5 million people prescribed benzodiazepines. In March 2020 in the middle of the pandemic, an additional 450,074 new patients were dispensed benzodiazepines, compared to forecast estimates.

Increased access to and use of telehealth services made getting benzo prescriptions even easier. The DEA allowed for prescribing controlled substances like benzodiazepine without an in-person evaluation, which precluded the possibility of alcohol and drug testing. The DEA also permitted doctors who had a state license and a DEA license in one state to prescribe in states where they did not have a DEA license. 

It was a dangerous intersection – a mental health crisis meeting head-on with more availability of benzos and other controlled substances, less drug testing and oversight of drug and alcohol use, and fewer options for addiction treatment. Not surprisingly, use of benzos continues to be an issue today and benzo addiction continues to be a widespread problem.

What Are Benzodiazepines?

Benzodiazepines, or benzos, are a class of psychoactive drugs used to treat not only insomnia and anxiety but also seizures and muscle spasms, among other conditions. Valium (diazepam), Klonopin (clonazepam), and Xanax (alprazolam), are commonly known brand names for benzodiazepines. They slow down brain and nervous system activity, providing a sedative and hypnotic effect on people who take them.

Benzos Are Highly Addictive Medications

Benzos are a highly addictive drug with painful withdrawal symptoms. Because of how easily people can become psychologically and physically dependent and because of dangerous side effects, many doctors no longer prescribe them. The most common ways people become addicted are taking them for longer than prescribed, or taking larger doses than prescribed. Others become addicted by getting them from other people, or by purchasing them illegally without ever having been given their own prescription.

Signs of a physical addiction to benzos include:

  • Overall body weakness
  • Slurred speech
  • Dizziness
  • Drowsiness
  • Coordination issues
  • Memory problems
  • Slowed breathing
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms
  • Reduced blood pressure

These are the signs the DSM-5 notes as behavioral markers of an addiction:

  • Using more of a substance than intended or using it for longer than it was meant to be used
  • Being unable to reduce or stop using the substance
  • Spending increasing amounts of time trying to get and use the substance and recovering from use
  • Experiencing intense cravings for the substance
  • Neglecting work and personal responsibilities as well as family and other close relationships
  • Continuing to use even when it causes relationship problems
  • Giving up favorite activities, like sports, for example, or required activities, like work responsibilities, due to substance use
  • Using substances in dangerous settings
  • Needing more of the substance to get the desired effect, also referred to as developing a greater tolerance
  • Having withdrawal symptoms when not using the substance
  • Continuing to use despite physical and mental health problems caused by the substance

In 2020, the FDA required a black box warning, its most serious warning, for benzodiazepines to note that use can lead to misuse, abuse, and addiction, which can result in overdose or death. Benzodiazpines are even more dangerous when taken with other medicines, such as opioids, alcohol, or other illicit drugs. Benzo addiction is very dangerous and stopping benzos too abruptly or reducing the dosage too quickly can result in withdrawal reactions, including seizures, which can be life-threatening.

Benzos and Benzo Addiction Has Dangerous Side Effects

Serious side effects include:

  • Memory problems
  • Behavioral changes — for example, increased risk taking
  • Delirium, especially in older people
  • Risk of dependence, especially with long-term use

Misusing them can result in:

  • Coma
  • Reduced heart rate
  • Reduced respiration
  • Death

Benzos Have Short- and Long-Term Effects

Common adverse effects of benzodiazepine include, but are not limited to:

  • Respiratory depression
  • Respiratory arrest
  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Headache
  • Fainting or passing out
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Tremor

In addition to how highly addictive benzos are, they can also lead to long-term symptoms, including:

  • Low energy
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Memory loss
  • Nervous anxiety
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Sensitivity to sights and sounds
  • Digestive issues
  • Muscle weakness
  • Body aches and pains

In a 2023 study, researchers surveyed 1,207 people who had used benzos and found that more than half reported one or more of those symptoms lasting a year or longer.

Find Outpatient Help for Benzo Addiction at Encore Treatment Centers

Benzo addiction requires expert, compassionate treatment. At Encore Outpatient Services in the Washington, DC, area, our experienced, empathetic treatment team offers integrated treatment for addiction that includes addressing underlying issues, like trauma, and co-occurring mental health issues. Treatment that addresses the whole person results in a better chance at sustained recovery and better physical and emotional health.

Encore’s therapists are trained in multiple evidence-based therapies to treat substance use disorder as well as behavioral health issues that may underlie or occur with addiction. Holistic services like yoga, mindfulness, art, and psychodrama help patients manage and reduce stress, anxiety, and trauma symptoms. A family program educates and supports family members so they can take care of themselves and support their loved one in recovery. If you are concerned about your own drug use or a friend or family member’s drug use, contact Encore today for help: 703.436.8158

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