We live in a stressful world that expects more and more of us seemingly every day. More than 49.2 million Americans turn to Xanax – or its generic form alprazolam – as the answer, IMS Health statistics reported in 2012.
Xanax, or alprazolam, is the most prescribed psychiatric drug in the United States, per Fox News, and the 13th most prescribed medication overall.
Xanax is a benzodiazepine medication that works as a central nervous system depressant, suppressing anxiety and high stress levels, and promoting feelings of relaxation and calm. Benzodiazepines are tranquilizers that function to lower heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature, which can all be raised during stressful circumstances.
Xanax is often prescribed for anxiety or panic disorders and takes almost immediate effect, as users will feel better within 15 or so minutes of taking it. Xanax is also relatively short-acting and leaves the system in around six hours.
Who Takes Xanax?
Xanax is meant to be taken for a short-term period of time, however, since it can be habit-forming. Even when taken as directed, users can develop a tolerance to Xanax, requiring higher doses each time, and users can become physically and psychologically dependent on the drug.
Women are prescribed Xanax more than twice as often as men, and primary care physicians with no special mental health training are writing the prescriptions much of time, according to Fox News. Xanax works as a sort of a band aid, temporarily providing relief from symptoms, but not addressing the actual root of the potential mental health issue.
Since taking Xanax also makes the user feel good, it is often misused and abused. Any time a prescription medication is used for recreational purposes, or beyond its medical necessity, it is considered abuse. In 2013, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) published that 1.7 million American adults aged 12 and older abused tranquilizer prescription medications like benzodiazepines.
In 2011, the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN), reported that 123,744 people sought emergency department (ED) treatment for an adverse reaction related to the non-medical use of alprazolam, which is roughly one-third of all ED visits for the nonmedical use of pharmaceuticals overall. Likely the most dangerous short-term health risk associated with Xanax abuse is the potential for a fatal overdose, which is generally caused when the drug suppresses vital life functions, such as breathing, heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature, to dangerously low levels.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists drug overdose as the leading cause of injury death in the United States. In 2013, more than 30 percent of prescription drug overdoses involved benzodiazepine medications.
Other side effects of Xanax abuse may include:
- Lack of muscle control
- Blurred vision
- Difficulties concentrating
- Short-term memory loss
- Shortness of breath
- Slurred speech
Adding alcohol amplifies the effects of benzodiazepines, as they are both central nervous system depressants, and doing so can increase the risks for a life-threatening overdose. The DAWN report indicated that in 2011 around one in five ED visits for the nonmedical use of pharmaceuticals also involved alcohol.
Other drugs can have dangerous adverse interactions when mixed with Xanax as well. For instance, the CDC reports that many drug overdose deaths involve both benzodiazepines and opioid painkillers.
Withdrawal Symptoms and Risks
Benzodiazepine medications should never be stopped suddenly as withdrawal symptoms can be difficult to manage. Drug tolerance and withdrawal symptoms are frequently indicators of addiction. Since Xanax works to suppress anxiety and panic, if you are dependent on the medication, your brain may experience a rebound effect when you remove it. In this instance, your brain attempts to restore balance, and the feelings that were suppressed may return with a vengeance.
Withdrawal from Xanax can be psychologically dangerous and can include intense anxiety, paranoia, depression, cognitive difficulties, and insomnia. Suicidal thoughts and behaviors may also be side effects of benzodiazepine withdrawal. Physical symptoms may occur as well, such as tremors, involuntary eye movements, sweating, irregular heart rate, nausea, decreased appetite, headache and slowed reflexes.
Benzodiazepine withdrawal should be managed by a medical professional and often the drug will be tapered off in a slow and controlled manner in order to avoid or decrease these symptoms. Often other medications such as longer-acting benzodiazepines may be substituted during detox performed in a specialized facility with 24-hour medical monitoring and care available from consulting physicians.
Getting Help for Addiction
Abusing Xanax can quickly lead to a physical and psychological addiction to the drug. The NSDUH reported that in 2013 more than seven million Americans over the age of 12 needed treatment for a drug abuse or dependency problem. Fortunately, addiction is a highly treatable disease.
When you take a medication like Xanax, the chemical messengers, or neurotransmitters, in the brain are affected, and their natural production can be disrupted. These neurotransmitters are often responsible for mood regulation and pleasure. By interfering with the way they work normally, over a period of time, the brain can become dependent on the chemical interaction provided by drugs in order to feel normal or balanced.
Pill bottles may be found in easy to reach and accessible locations, and prescriptions may go missing from medicine cabinets. Xanax is commonly abused by taking prescriptions when they are no longer medically necessary, such as taking it after a prescription runs out, taking extra doses at one time, “doctor shopping” or asking multiple doctors for a prescription, or taking it for recreational purposes.
Xanax typically comes in a tablet form that is swallowed, although sometimes it may be crushed and snorted. The NSDUH reports that more than half of diverted and abused prescription medications are obtained for free from a relative or friend.
Researchers aren’t totally clear on the long-term effects of taking a medication such as Xanax, although they do universally recognize the potential for addiction. Recent research may indicate that using Xanax for a long period of time may more than double the risk for developing Alzheimer’s, according to a study published in Forbes, although research is ongoing to determine the validity of this. Most medical professionals will agree, however, that Xanax is safest when taken for short periods of time in conjunction with mental health treatment.
Behavioral therapies can be effective in reducing anxiety symptoms and teaching new coping mechanisms for managing stress. When addiction and mental illness occur simultaneously, the optimal treatment is likely dual diagnosis treatment, which is an evidence-based treatment model that integrates medical and mental health professionals’ input and expertise with scientific research in order to form a specialized and comprehensive care plan for each individual during recovery.
FRN treatment centers are state-of-the-art facilities specializing in the treatment of both mental illness and substance abuse. Contact an admissions coordinator today at 844-768-0308 if you suspect a Xanax abuse or addiction. We can provide details on the best possible treatment plan for you or your loved one. Call now.
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