Though the opioid crisis has taken center stage in the media spotlight, benzodiazepines are another prescription drug that represents a growing problem. This popularly used drug is useful for treating sleep and anxiety disorders but it can also be highly addictive. Xanax is among the most popular benzos on the market. Learn more about these commonly used prescriptions, their dangers, and what can be done to treat Xanax addiction.
Xanax (the trade name for alprazolam) is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant in the benzodiazepine class that’s used to treat anxiety disorders and can act as a mild tranquilizer. Because of the prevalence of both anxiety and sleep disorders, benzodiazepines are an exceedingly popular prescription medication, and Xanax is among the most popular benzodiazepines. According to a 2016 survey, Xanax was the third most commonly prescribed drug used be adults.
Xanax is unique to other benzos in its onset of action. It’s a fast-acting benzodiazepine and can begin to take effect within a few minutes. This makes it ideal for the treatment or panic disorders but it comes with a few drawbacks. It’s rapid onset of action also comes with a shorter half-life, reducing to half of its original concentration after four hours. This makes it less useful for sleep disorders that involve waking in the middle of the night. This issue can be overcome by it’s extended release version can last through the night.
However, fast-acting psychoactive substance tends to have a higher potential for misuse. If you are using a drug recreationally, drugs that will provide immediate effects. Xanax is a popular drug of abuse, which often leads to use at parties alongside alcohol. Together, the two substances intensify, leading to potentially dangerous effects.
Xanax, like other benzos, has a high risk for addiction and dependency. Benzos are generally intended to be used for therapeutic purposes, which means they should be used temporarily to relieve and correct sleep and anxiety disorders. If they are used for more than four weeks, they have the potential to lead to dependence and addiction.
Xanax increases the efficiency of gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA), a natural brain chemical that’s responsible for inhibiting the nervous system to calm you down, induce sleep, or manage stress. Xanax binds to GABA receptors to modulate its effects. After a while, this binding can start to lose its effects, requiring heavier dosing to keep working normally. The resulting dependence on Xanax can lead to worsening insomnia or anxiety symptoms.
Xanax is typically prescribed for short-term use but, in some cases, they may be given for longer periods. If you become dependent on Xanax, addiction is a significant risk. When your limbic system (the reward center) responds to the relaxation and anti-anxiety effects of Xanax, it may begin to confuse the drug use for life-sustaining activities. However, there are several signs and symptoms of dependence and addiction that you should be aware of if you or a loved one has been prescribed benzodiazepines.
The first sign is typically a growing tolerance. If it’s starting to take more frequent or heavier doses of the drug to achieve the same effects, you might be experiencing the beginning stages of dependence. Another common sign of dependence is craving. If you start to crave Xanax or start to feel a compulsive urge to use it, it could point to dependence.
Other signs and symptoms include:
Dependence turns into addiction when you continue to use a substance despite serious consequences. If you can’t manage to quit even after significant consequences to your health, family, social life, career, or other aspects of life, you may have a problem with addiction.
One of the most important steps in Xanax addiction treatment is medical detoxification. Benzodiazepines like Xanax suppress the nervous system and when you suddenly stop using them, it can cause potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms. For several days after you stop using a CNS depressant, there is a risk for medical complications that are triggered by an overactive nervous system like seizures and the potentially deadly symptom called Delirium tremens (DT). DT can lead to catatonia, coma, and death if left untreated.
In medical detox, you will have access to 24/7 medically managed services. First, these services are intended to make sure that you don’t encounter any life-threatening medical complications. Experienced medical professionals will be on-staff at all times monitoring, avoiding, and treating any medical emergencies. Second, medical detox services can help alleviate uncomfortable symptoms of withdrawal. Aside from the serious and potentially life-threatening Xanax withdrawal can cause anxiety, insomnia, restlessness, agitation, irritability, muscle aches, and tremors.
Medical detox is also an ideal first step in treatment for people with a co-occurring medical and psychological needs. Addiction is often closely linked to other diseases and disorders. Whether the disease is an underlying cause of addiction, caused by addiction, or otherwise unrelated, it’s important for immediate medical needs to be addressed in treatment. Psychological, emotional, and cognitive needs can also be addressed by clinicians.
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Addiction is a complicated disease that requires time and effort to overcome. It’s more than just a problem with brain chemistry that’s addressed in detox. Addiction is a disease of the brain’s reward center. It has learned to associate drug use with positive, life-sustaining activities like eating and sleeping. Your limbic system is responsible for encouraging you to repeat activities that are good for you. For instance, eating a good meal releases “feel-good” chemicals in your brain like serotonin and dopamine. Drugs also cause a release of these types of chemicals, or it alters the way your brain processes them for powerful effects. This tricks your brain into believing you need to repeat drug use.
Through addiction treatment, you can learn to cope with cravings triggered by the reward center in your brain. Learn to recognize high-risk situations, develop strategies to avoid relapse, and explore any underlying issues that may have contributed to your initial drug use problem. In many cases, co-occurring mental health problems lead to addiction, like depression.
After detox, you should continue your addiction treatment through each appropriate level of care, which includes:
If you have used benzodiazepines like Xanax for a while, you may need to enter into inpatient treatment. Benzos can cause dangerous withdrawal symptoms even a few weeks later. In inpatient treatment, you will have medical monitoring at all hours of the day. This allows you to begin addressing the disease of addiction through therapies tailored to you while medical staff helps you avoid dangerous symptoms.
If you don’t have immediate medical needs and you don’t have a high risk of relapse, intensive outpatient (IOP) may be your next step in the continuum of care. In IOP, you will receive nine or more hours of clinical services every week as continue through your treatment plan. You may attend group therapy, individual therapy, and any other interventions that you and your counselor work out in your treatment plan.
Before you are ready to begin a life of independence and abstinence, outpatient services may be a necessary transition phase. In outpatient treatment, you will have access to less than nine hours of clinical services, which allows you more independence and flexibility but still offers stability. Continue to learn relapse prevention strategies to employ when your complete treatment.
After you complete formal treatment, you should still pursue recovery goals in aftercare services. Aftercare services can help you find a job, create a resume, find housing, and connect you to continue services and community groups. Support groups and 12-step programs are a great way to maintain accountability and the pursuit of your goals.
Xanax is a commonly used prescription drug but that doesn’t mean it’s automatically safer than other drugs. In fact, central nervous system depressants are among the most dangerous drugs of abuse. Benzos have a high risk for dependency, and your body may start to get used to them in as little as four weeks. They are designed for therapeutic use; long-term use increases your risk of addiction. As a fast-acting benzodiazepine, Xanax also has a high likelihood of abuse. If taken in a high enough does it may have an intoxicating effect similar to alcohol, and some people will even mix alcohol with Xanax to increase the high.
Together, the two substances have a synergistic effect, which means they build off of each other to increase the intensity of their respective effects. Mixing Xanax with alcohol increase your risk of overdose which causes severe sedation, depression, slowed breathing, hypotension, fainting, muscle weakness, coma, or death.
Like other CNS depressants, Xanax can be potentially dangerous during withdrawal. As you become dependent on a benzodiazepine, you are regularly suppressing your nervous system. It’s like building a dam to keep back excitatory effects. If you suddenly remove a dam, the river doesn’t automatically return to a normal flow. As your tolerance to the depressant grows, your brain may produce chemicals to counteract the drug. To achieve the same effects as you started, you will need to take more frequent or higher doses. The build-up of excitatory chemicals is held at bay by the increasing dose of Xanax.
If you were to suddenly remove the benzo dam you’ve built up, you will experience a flood of nervous system activity that can lead to dangerous symptoms.
Nervous system overactivity caused by withdrawal can lead to insomnia, chest pains, anxiety, hypertension, paranoia, panic attacks, and tremors. The most dangerous symptoms are tonic-clonic seizures and Delirium tremens.
A tonic-clonic seizure is a condition that briefly but suddenly affects the entire brain and body. It’s commonly associated with epilepsy and it comes in two phases. The first is the tonic phase, which causes you to faint or lose consciousness and muscles tense up, pulling limbs toward the body. This phase only lasts for a few seconds before the second phase begins. The clonic phase comes with rapidly contracting and relaxing muscles with causes sudden convulsions. In some cases, these muscular movements can cause injury.
Seizures typically aren’t deadly on their own but they come on suddenly and have the potential to cause dangerous accidents and complications. If you have other medical conditions that can be complicated by seizures like a heart problem, seizures can be deadly.
Delirium tremens (DT) is the most dangerous side effect of abrupt withdrawal and comes with a significant risk for fatal consequences without medical treatment. DT is marked by sudden confusion, hallucinations, and catatonia. In some cases, DT symptoms involve severe anxiety and are accompanied by a feeling of panic and impending doom. It also comes with autonomic hyperactivity like high heart-rate, blood pressure, and hyperventilation. This can be dangerous for some people, putting stress on vital systems. Without treatment, DT can be fatal as high as 25 percent of the time. The threat of experiencing DT can also last for up to 10 days. It can outlast other symptoms, leading you to believe you are in the clear when an episode occurs. The safest way to avoid DT is to enter into medical detox.
From 2002 to 2015, the number of benzo overdose deaths increased 4.3 times.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017, September 15). Overdose Death Rates. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates
Samuel, L. (2016, March 14). More than just an opioid crisis: Benzodiazepines deaths rise, too. Retrieved from https://www.statnews.com/2016/02/18/benzodiazepines-overdose-deaths/
Welch, A. (2016, December 12). Study reveals how many U.S. adults are taking psychiatric drugs. Retrieved from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/psychiatric-drugs-study-reveals-widespread-use-women-men/