Benzos Symptoms & Effects

Benzodiazepines, or benzos, are a category of central nervous system (CNS) depressants that are often used to treat symptoms associated with insomnia, generalized anxiety disorder, and panic disorder. Benzos are also commonly prescribed to patients who are suffering from seizures or muscle pain, or who are experiencing delirium as a result of alcohol withdrawal. Ativan (lorazepam), Klonopin (clonazepam), Valium (diazepam), and Xanax (alprazolam) are among the more frequently prescribed medications that contain benzos.

Benzos work by enhancing the effectiveness of GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, a neurotransmitter that controls the behaviors of CNS neurons. While benzos’ sedating and relaxing effects can be valuable to doctors and patients, they also make benzos a prime target for misuse for purposes of either recreation or self-medication. In addition to being abused on their own, benzos are often used in combination with stimulants such as amphetamines and cocaine, usually as a means of reducing the more intense negative effects of the stimulants.

Regardless of why a person misuses medications containing benzodiazepines, the results can be devastating. Benzos pose a danger of addiction even when used as directed by a qualified prescribing physician, and once a person has become dependent, he or she will experience painful withdrawal symptoms when attempting to stop taking the drugs. Thankfully, an addiction to benzodiazepine is a treatable condition, and many individuals who were once trapped in a downward spiral of benzo abuse and addiction have, with effective professional help, gone on to live healthy drug-free lives.

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Statistics

Every year, doctors in the United States write more than 50 million prescriptions for medications that contain benzodiazepines, making them one of the most commonly prescribed drugs in the nation.

Data collected as part of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NS-DUH) indicates that about 2.3% of high school students between the ages of 14 and 17 have abused a benzo at least once in their lives, and about 1.4% has done so at least once in the previous year.

The Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) reports that more than one third of all drug-related visits to emergency rooms and urgent care facilities are related to benzo abuse, with most of these visits involving adult patients between the ages of 35 and 44. Between 2004 and 2010, the number of ER visits that involved benzodiazepines increased by 136%.

Causes and Risk Factors for Benzodiazepine Abuse

A person’s risk for abusing and becoming dependent upon benzodiazepines or another drug can be influenced by a number of genetic and environmental factors.

Genetic: Having a parent or sibling who developed a substance use disorder or experienced mental illness increases the likelihood that a person will also have a drug problem. Because medications that contain benzos are used to treat mental health issues such as anxiety disorders, people who are genetically predisposed to these conditions will also be at increased risk for developing a substance use disorder involving benzos.

Environmental: Substance abuse and mental illness in a family can also be environmental influences on the development of a substance use disorder. Children who grow up in households where the misuse of benzo-based medications is common are more likely to engage in similar behaviors than are people who were raised in drug-free environments. Also, individuals who live in communities where substance abuse occurs frequently, or who work in high-stress jobs, may be more likely to seek relief via substance abuse.

Risk Factors:

  • Family history of substance use disorders and/or mental illness
  • Personal history of substance abuse and/or mental illness
  • Being female
  • Being age 30 or older
  • Living in poverty
  • Experiencing significant stress
  • Having an anxiety disorder
  • Experiencing chronic pain
  • Possessing poor coping skills

Signs and Symptoms of Benzodiazepine Abuse

The following are among the signs that may indicate that a person has been abusing a medication that contains benzodiazepines:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Lying or being otherwise deceptive about medication use
  • Depending upon medications to deal with stress
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Using prescribed medications contrary to the prescribing physician’s directions
  • Trying to get multiple prescriptions by visiting several doctors
  • Borrowing or stealing medications that have been prescribed to someone else

Physical symptoms:

  • Blurred vision
  • Slurred speech
  • Impaired coordination
  • Poor motor skills
  • Irregular breathing
  • Twitches and tremors

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Delayed reflexes and reactions
  • Retrograde amnesia
  • Confusion
  • Powerful and disturbing nightmares
  • Poor judgment
  • Lowered inhibitions

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Drastic mood swings
  • Irritability and hostility
  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia
  • Depression
  • Anhedonia
If you feel that you are in crisis, or are having thoughts about hurting yourself or others, please call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.

Effects of Benzodiazepine Abuse

Benzodiazepine abuse is associated with several unpleasant outcomes, including the following:

  • Memory problems
  • Confusion
  • Disorientation
  • Muscle weakness
  • Spasms and tremors
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Family discord
  • Strained interpersonal relationships
  • Declining performance at work or in school
  • Academic failure
  • Job loss and unemployment
  • Social withdrawal
  • Suicidal ideation and self-harm

Co-Occurring Disorders

The following disorders may also be present in people who have developed a substance use disorder related to benzodiazepine abuse:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder
  • Other substance use disorders

Effects of Withdrawal and Overdose

Effects of benzodiazepine withdrawal: The following are among the common symptoms that are associated with benzo withdrawal:

  • Strong drug cravings
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Hallucinations
  • Double vision
  • Tinnitus
  • Hot and cold flashes
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Increased sensitivity to touch, sound, and/or light
  • Depression
  • Agitation
  • Suicidal ideation

Effects of benzodiazepine overdose: Benzo overdose can be fatal. Anyone who experiences the following after abusing a medication containing benzodiazepine may be in need of immediate medical attention:

  • Loss of control of body movements
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Irregular heart rate
  • Cardiac arrest
  • Low body temperature
  • Hallucinations and delirium
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Coma
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