Benzodiazepine medications are often prescribed to people who have symptoms of mental illness. The drugs take hold quickly, and they can work from the moment they hit the user’s body. Rather than waiting for days or even weeks for the drugs to build up to therapeutic levels within the user’s body, practitioners can provide benzodiazepine medications and deliver almost immediate relief, and that might allow the person in need to participate in therapies and other treatments that could allow the mental illness to abate for good.
Since these drugs are so helpful, they’re also quite common. In fact, according to research quoted in an article published in American Family Physician, 11 to 15 percent of all Americans have taken drugs in this class at least once during the preceding year. Often, these people take the drugs for very serious mental distress. But sometimes they take the drugs for recreation, and when they do, an addiction can develop.
Comparing Use to Abuse
People who take benzodiazepine medications like Valium, Xanax and Halcion are given a specific dose to take at a specific time. Since the drugs work so quickly, patients might not take the medications for a long period of time. Instead, they might use the medications to help them to move through a difficult period, and when that episode is complete and other therapies begin to produce relief, these people work with their doctors to get sober once more.
Clinicians often use benzodiazepine medications to correct a chemical imbalance deep inside the brain, and anxious patients may not find the medications to be pleasant or interesting.
According to research quoted in an article in The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, people who have anxiety disorders often choose a placebo pill over a benzodiazepine pill. They just don’t seem to notice or enjoy the way the drug makes them feel.
People who do not have anxiety disorders, on the other hand, may find that the drug brings about a deep sense of relaxation paired with a feeling of euphoria. The chemical changes may be the same, but the people who don’t have a mental illness just have a different sensation in response to these medications. They definitely enjoy them, and they take them to boost that feeling of enjoyment.
Patterns of Use
When a prescription for benzodiazepines is in play, patients might take the medications as directed, never wavering from the schedule in any way. They may lean on the drugs to help them through difficult days and restless nights, but they may not be drawn to take any extra pills in response to an outside trigger like a party or a happy event.
Those who abuse benzodiazepine medications, on the other hand, might be deeply interested in taking as much of the medication as they possibly can. According to a study in the journal Addiction, people who have addictions to these medications can take 30 to 120 times more than experts recommend. They’re chasing a high, and as they work for euphoria, their bodies amend responses to the drug. In time, they might be forced to take the drugs in unusual ways, including snorting the medications or injecting the ingredients in pills. They’re not coming close to following a doctor’s orders here. They’re chasing a high.
Benzodiazepine abusers also take the medications alongside other substances, such as:
- Prescription painkillers
Blending drugs in this manner can provide a user with a customized form of euphoria, and it can sometimes make sensations of intoxication last for a longer period of time. Benzodiazepines can also help addicted people to manage symptoms of withdrawal they might feel when they don’t have access to the substances they’re accustomed to abusing. While people with mental illnesses might never blend their prescription drugs with altering substances, addicted people are more than willing to do so.
Addictions to Benzodiazepines
Whether people take benzodiazepines for therapeutic reasons or for recreational purposes, long-term use can lead to a form of physical dependence, in which the person needs access to the drugs in order to feel healthy and in control. Without the medications, the person feels ill and even sick, but with the drugs, the person feels calm and able to handle day-to-day life.
It’s important to note that people who are physically dependent on benzodiazepines aren’t necessarily addicted to the substances. Addiction has a completely different set of criteria. Those who are addicted might have a physical dependence, but they might also:
- Spend a significant amount of time purchasing or using drugs
- Neglect responsibilities at home or at work in order to take or use drugs
- Continue to use drugs even when it’s clear that the activity is harmful
- Find it impossible to stay sober, even when the person tries to do so
The length of time in which the person abuses benzodiazepines is a key part of this addiction syndrome, as continued use tends to cause chemical alterations that make clear thinking and reasonable problem-solving quite difficult.
But the drugs a person uses can also play a role in the speed in which an addiction develops, according to research published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. Benzodiazepines like diazepam, which have a fast speed of onset, tend to be more rewarding for drug users, and as a result, they might be capable of causing rapid addiction-based changes. Drugs like oxazepam, on the other hand, are slow to work, so they might not be so addicting.
Risk of Untreated Addictions
Addictions can give people a false sense of control, as they might come to believe that they can handle anything the drug has to offer with no concerns about abuse at all. But benzodiazepines can be quite sedating, meaning that they’re capable of slowing down the speed at which the heart beats and the rate at which the person breathes. People who abuse these medications may take huge doses that put their lives at risk.
Those who mix benzodiazepines with other sedating medications might be at an even greater risk of premature death, as the combined effects of these drugs could very easily prove fatal. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, many modern drug users are mixing benzodiazepines with prescription painkillers, as admissions to treatment programs for this combo have risen 569.7 percent between 2000 and 2010. Those who mix and match like this might quickly lose their lives, and they might not even be aware that they are in danger.
Supervised Withdrawal Is Vital
What to Do
If you think that someone in your household is abusing benzodiazepines, it’s time to take action. These medications are dangerous and leaving the drugs in play can mean leaving a person at risk for psychological distress or even premature death. With help, people with addictions really can get better. Without it, they might never do so.
We can help you to find the right treatment program to help the person you love. Please call us, and we’ll explain how treatment works. If the person you love has a mental illness in addition to addiction, we can even help you to find a program that treats both conditions. Call our admissions coordinators now. We’d like to help your family to heal.
Further Reading About Benzodiazepine Addiction
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David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.
Reviewed by: Kim Chin and Marian Newton