Benzodiazepines are a class of psychoactive drugs used to treat a variety of conditions including anxiety, insomnia, panic attacks, and alcohol withdrawal.
Benzodiazepines are depressants, which means they slow down activity in the Central Nervous System (CNS). These drugs are often referred to as “minor tranquilizers” because they can produce sedative, hypnotic, and muscle relaxant experiences. When used only for short periods of time, the medication is relatively safe and effective; however, long-term use has a high potential to cause dependency and adverse effects. Despite this concern, they are one of the most widely prescribed medications in the United States.
Different Types of Benzodiazepines
There are many different types of benzodiazepines that vary based on potency, the speed in which they are metabolized, and therapeutic use. The drugs contain chemicals that work to produce a calming effect in the body and a “tranquilizing” effect in the brain. Benzodiazepines are categorized into three different groups: long, intermediate, and short-acting. Short-acting benzodiazepines tend to produce stronger withdrawal effects and can be more addictive than longer-lasting versions. Some of the most common benzodiazepines include Xanax, Valium, Mogadon, Normison, and Serepax. Benzodiazepines have a number of street names that are sometimes derived from the name of the prescription medication used. Common names include benzos, sleepers, downers, xannies, normies, serras, tranx, and moggies.
Effects of Benzodiazepines and Benzodiazepine Addiction
Benzodiazepines are most commonly ingested, but some users may inject them. In many cases, those who abuse benzodiazepines did not begin using them intending to misuse them. More commonly, those who are prescribed medications will take the drug and over time develop a tolerance to it. As tolerance develops, users need more of the drug in order to produce the same effects. As this cycle continues, dependencies develop as a result of increased dosages, which leads to full-blown addiction. While some may use benzodiazepines to get high, others may seek its tranquilizing effects in order to counteract the effects of drugs like cocaine and amphetamines.
Benzodiazepines affect everyone differently, and even when prescribed, there are always risks to taking medication. When using benzodiazepines, users may experience depression, confusion, headache, nausea, impaired coordination, memory loss, slurred speech, and drowsiness. When larger amounts are taken, users may experience more dramatic effects including mood swings, aggression, shallow breathing, over-sedation, unconsciousness, coma, and death. The likelihood of these more dangerous side effects occurring increases exponentially when the drug is mixed with other depressants, such as alcohol. When individuals use benzodiazepines as a way to “come down” from the effects of stimulant drugs, like ecstasy, they put themselves at an increased risk for dependency on both drugs, and are likely to experience a number of unpredictable, dangerous side effects.
When users choose to inject benzodiazepines, they may experience vein damage, scarring, infection, deep vein thrombosis, and blood clots. This puts users at risk for loss of limbs, damage to organs, and stroke. Injecting drugs makes individuals more likely to contract hepatitis B, hepatitis C, or HIV/AIDS, especially if they share needles with others.
Over a long period of time, regular use of benzodiazepines can produce a number of undesirable effects including impaired brain function, memory loss, depression, headaches, skin rashes, weight gain, weakness, personality changes, paranoia, and aggression. With regular use, individuals are likely to develop an addiction and will experience withdrawal symptoms when they go without the drug for long periods of time.
Withdrawal symptoms vary from person to person and often depend on the type of benzodiazepine used. Symptoms of benzodiazepine addiction may last for a few weeks, or they may continue over the course of a year. When going through withdrawal, it is important to consult with a medical professional and seek medical supervision because the symptoms can vary and may be dangerous. Symptoms of withdrawal include headaches, nausea, vomiting, bizarre dreams, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, altered perception, hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, and seizures.
Alternatives to Benzodiazepines
Benzodiazepines are used to treat a variety of conditions, but the number of risks associated with use has caused many to seek alternatives. There are a number of ways to address anxiety and other related disorders without the use of benzodiazepines.
- Counseling: Talking to a counselor or participating in a support group to discuss feelings and experiences can be incredibly beneficial. Many find these environments to be empowering, since they encourage participants to stay positive while simultaneously connecting with others who share similar experiences. Although it can be challenging to start, especially if you struggle with anxiety, the benefits of therapy are overwhelming. Therapy encourages you to challenge negative thoughts and develop ways to deal with uncertainty or anxiety in a productive way.
- Nutrition: Changing your diet can improve mental functioning. Avoiding caffeine, drinking plenty of water, and taking vitamins and supplements can improve mental functioning. Studies show that nutrition deficiencies can contribute to certain mental health disorders such as anxiety. Making these changes can have a profound impact on how you think and feel.
- Herbal remedies: For some, traditional medicine and natural therapies can positively impact mental health. Engaging in a holistic approach to treatment ensures both the mind and body are recovering together and provides a more integrated approach to your health.
- Experiential therapy: Many benefit from engaging in experiential therapies. These therapies provide the same benefits as traditional therapy, but in non-traditional environments. You may choose to engage in yoga, swimming, or sauna therapy. You can also incorporate aromatherapy, massage, or acupuncture. These therapies can help you identify the underlying causes of anxiety and other disorders, while simultaneously developing new, healthy coping mechanisms.