The first benzodiazepines were developed back in the 1950s, when researchers were looking for solutions for people who felt paralyzed by stress and the demands of their busy lives. It wasn’t until the 1980s that experts began to reassess the use of these drugs, as the number of people who developed a compulsive relationship with their medications began to rise. Now, almost everyone agrees that benzos have the potential to cause very serious addiction syndromes. Even so, the drugs remain remarkably popular and startlingly easy to get. As a result, it’s often the responsibility of families to spot an abuse syndrome and get someone who is addicted into a treatment program that can help.
Benzodiazepines are prescription-regulated medications. People can’t simply walk into a pharmacy and walk away with these drugs. Instead, they must visit a doctor, describe a specific set of symptoms and obtain written authorization to use these drugs. In theory, it should be difficult to get these medications, as they should only be given to people who have very serious cases of mental illness that lifestyle adjustments and other types of therapy simply can’t help. In reality, many people visit a doctor and emerge with a slip of paper that gives them access to the drugs they want.
- Valium (diazepam)
- Lorazepam (Ativan)
- Alprazolam (Xanax)
- Clonazepam (Klonopin)
People might use these drugs to help them sleep through the night, or they might take these medications in order to reduce feelings of anxiety that hit them during the day.
While these medications are often prescribed, they are not, by any means, the most effective choice when dealing with all types of mental illness. For example, a report produced by the National Center for PTSD suggests that benzodiazepines aren’t effective in subduing some of the more serious symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, including avoidance or a feeling of hyperarousal. However, many of the medications that do work on mental illnesses take a long time to reach a point of clinical efficacy. SSRIs, for example, need to build up within the user’s body for months before they begin to transform the electrical and chemical impulses that stand behind mental illnesses. As a result, practitioners might hand out benzodiazepines to simply sedate their clients for a time, until they can feel a transformation from the other medications they might take.
How Addiction Develops
While practitioners might provide benzos due to the sedating effect the drugs can bring, many of these substances also produce a sensation of euphoria. In a long chain of reactions, the portions of the brain responsible for signaling a pleasurable activity are stimulated by some benzo medications, and that can leave people feeling a burst of joy they might not otherwise feel. For some, that intoxicating feeling is remarkably rewarding, and they might begin to take very high doses of the drugs in order to ensure that they feel the joy.
Unfortunately, with each dose of drugs a user takes, the brain amends responses and tweaks chemical production. In time, a user might need to take very high doses of drugs in order to feel any kind of boost at all, and that user might feel emotionally bereft when no benzodiazepines are available. When physical dependence and emotional dependence are both in play, a diagnosis of addiction is reasonable.
Consequences of Benzo Addictions
If benzodiazepines are used appropriately with a prescription, and their use is stopped after a week or two, they’re generally considered safe. However, when people take them for long periods of time, very serious consequences can take hold.
In one study of those consequences, published in BMJ, researchers found a link between early death and benzodiazepine use that lasted for more than 90 days. This is an observational study, so there is the possibility that something unforeseen could stand behind these early deaths, but it does seem to suggest that these medications cause changes at the cellular level that could lead to an early end to life.
A separate study in BMJ found a link between benzodiazepine use and the development of dementia. Again, another factor could be at play here, but the researchers felt fairly confident that the medications were causing brain changes that led to thought difficulties.
It’s important to note that both of these studies dealt with dosages of benzodiazepines that doctors might consider therapeutic. These weren’t massive doses that would be common for someone who had an addiction. These were doses that someone might take under the direction and guidance of a doctor. If these therapeutic doses could be so very dangerous, it’s hard to know just how deadly an addiction-fueled dose might be.
It is clear, however, that people who take benzos recreationally often take doses that are incompatible with life, particularly if they mix their pills with alcohol. These medications can slow breathing and heart rates, and mixing them with alcohol can lead to a sedation that’s so overwhelming and profound that people simply can’t survive the episode. Many people lose their lives each year by knocking back a drink with their drugs, and it’s likely that these people had no idea that the doses of drugs they were taking could be considered deadly.
Abuse Warning Signs
Many of the signals families look for in order to spot abuse are related to the behaviors people must engage in to keep a habit alive. These drugs can be quite expensive when they’re bought from street dealers, and they might also be somewhat difficult to find. People with a habit might be forced to steal either money or pills, and they might spend all of their free time moving from one doctor to another in order to purchase more pills.
But people who abuse benzos over the long-term might also have physical manifestations of addiction, as these medications tend to build up within the body’s tissues. People with a long-term habit might develop these symptoms, according to CESAR:
- Impaired ability to think clearly, remember details and make good judgment calls
- Slurred speech
- Lack of muscle coordination, or muscle weakness
How to Handle Addiction a Benzo Addiction
Families that spot these signs might be tempted to push the person to stop the abuse right now, cold turkey, while they look for treatment programs that can help. Unfortunately, this is a terrible way in which to handle a benzo abuse issue. These drugs tend to cause such significant damage that quitting cold turkey could lead to a loss of life. As the cells in the brain adjust to a lack of drugs, they may emit ramped-up electrical signals that could turn into seizures in just moments. Some people can survive these episodes, but others can’t.
In a treatment program, people with these addictions are placed on a tapering schedule, so they take smaller amounts of drugs each day until they’re sober.
This is a much safer way in which to approach an addiction, and it could lead to a robust recovery that just wouldn’t be possible in a cold turkey approach.
Families should approach the people they love regarding addiction, but they should be prepared to send that person to a professional benzo treatment program as soon as the talk is through. At The Oaks at La Paloma in Memphis Tennessee, we can help. We offer a robust recovery package for benzo addictions that includes detox with the help of consulting physicians, rehab support and follow-up therapy. People who enroll in our benzo program really do get better, and we can help make it all happen. Please call and we’ll tell you more about our philosophy.