Every decade seems to have its drug of choice. In the 1970s, benzodiazepines were the most popular drugs out there.
People were taking these drugs as a remedy for all sorts of common ailments, including depression, anxiety, and nervousness. There wasn’t a problem that benzos couldn’t cure, it seemed.
Since then, a lot of new research has come out about benzodiazepines, and that new info has made some providers a little nervous about handing these drugs out to everyone with an issue. Many other drugs have been developed that are a little more effective in handling psychiatric complaints.
While benzo use might not be as common as it once was, it’s certainly not gone for good. In fact, research suggests that some people are using benzos for novel reasons. Instead of using these drugs for psychiatric concerns, they’re using them for addiction purposes. When they do, they could face a number of very serious problems.
In 2008, about 5.2 percent of Americans ages 18-80 had a prescription for benzodiazepines, per a study in JAMA Psychiatry. Typically, these prescriptions are written for people dealing with acute anxiety. They’re handling a rush of fear when they’re asked to perform an everyday task, such as:
- Giving a presentation
- Talking with strangers
Even thinking about doing these tasks can fill these people with feelings of dread and despair. Their brains are flooded with chemical signals of alarm that are difficult or impossible to ignore. They feel overwhelmed and powerless.
Benzodiazepines are considered an ideal form of therapy for people like this, because they work very quickly. As soon as the drug hits the person’s bloodstream, it rushes to the brain and slows down those alarm signals. People feel soothed and calmer, and in some cases, they even feel calm enough to handle tasks that they’re desperately afraid to perform.
For example, a woman profiled by U.S. News and World Report has a terrible fear of riding in a car, as she survived two car accidents when she was younger. She can’t even think about getting into the passenger seat unless she has a prescription. With her benzodiazepine medication available, she can soothe that tension and ride in the car without riding a wave of anxiety, too.
When people take benzodiazepines as they are prescribed (which typically means they’re taking them for a short period of time on an as-needed basis), cases of addiction rarely develop, per an article in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. But when people begin to break the rules and take these drugs in ways that are unusual and/or damaging, very real difficulties can emerge.
Benzodiazepines can slow down activity in the brain, but they can also boost a signal that’s associated with pleasure or euphoria. This is the sort of signal a person might feel naturally only when things are going really, really well. It’s not the sort of feeling a person can experience every single day, but benzos do seem to promise that kind of joyful life. People who take them at high doses do feel that kind of joy every time they take pills.
The brain tends to adjust to the constant availability of benzos. A dose that worked one day may no longer work at all. That means people who take benzos for the pop of pleasure often have to take very high doses of the drugs they’re addicted to. Small doses just won’t work – they need a lot.
Often, that means people addicted to benzos must spend a lot of time in doctors’ offices, and primary care doctors are good targets for benzo drugs. A study in the journal Psychiatry (Edgmont) suggests that 55 percent of benzodiazepine prescriptions are written by primary care doctors, while only 16 percent are written by psychiatrists. This study seems to suggest that psychiatrists might lean on other tools to help clients. So people who just want drugs might head to regular doctors first.
People with addictions might make multiple visits to different doctors, with the hope of filling prescriptions for the drugs they like to take. Some people with addictions even ask for prescriptions for their children, their parents, or their pets. When the prescriptions are filled, these people take the drugs that are intended for others. That’s the best way, they think, to get the high they’re looking for.
Drug dealers also provide benzos to people who want them, and these dealers tend to get their drugs via really unpleasant methods. They might break into pharmacies and steal all of the stock, or they might steal pharmaceutical delivery trucks and steal all of the cargo. With pills in hand, these dealers charge outrageous prices to people with addictions.
Raising the Risk
Taking benzodiazepines for a long period of time, particularly at the high levels seen in drug abusers, can be really hard on brain cells. In one study of the issue in CNS Drugs, researchers examined the cognitive function of people who had taken benzodiazepines for time periods ranging from 1-34 years, and they took scans of non-drug-users, too. At the end of the study, researchers said that people who had taken the drugs for longer periods of time had a worse level of performance than people who hadn’t taken the drug for long periods.
Those cognitive declines can vary, but typically, they involve the ability to remember small details, like dates, times, and names. People who have abused these drugs for long periods of time can seem forgetful and slow, as though they just can’t get control over the data that makes up a life. Also, people with a history of long-term abuse can struggle with emotion. They seem sedated and slow, as though they can’t respond normally to even routine emotions, like anger, grief, or pain. They’ve been numbed down, and they find it hard to ramp back up again.
Clearly, benzos are dangerous, but they’re even more dangerous when they’re paired with some kind of sedative. Swallowing a benzo pill with a bolt of alcohol, for example, can overwhelm the brain with signals involving sleep. A person can become profoundly exhausted in just minutes, and both breathing and heart rates can slow accordingly. These people may seem peaceful, but they’re hovering on the edge of death. Without quick help, they can lose that battle.
People taking benzos who don’t wish to drink can get the same sedating effect by adding a painkiller to the mix. They might get that idea from visiting a primary care doctor. According to research from the American Academy of Pain Medicine, prescriptions involving a benzo and a painkiller, written by primary care doctors, rose 12 percent every year between 2002 and 2009. That seems to suggest that more people are walking into a doctor’s office with one problem and walking out with two pills. They might combine them recreationally, and when they do, they could experience that same sedating, life-threatening effect seen with alcohol/benzo combinations.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that blending benzos with alcohol and painkillers can boost the risk of a “serious outcome” by 24-55 percent.
Clearly, it’s a serious problem, but people with addictions may not see or understand that risk. To them, it’s just getting high.
A Safe Recovery
While taking benzos addictively can cause serious problems, people who want to address the issue can’t take drastic measures in order to get well. As the National Institute on Drug Abuse points out, an addicted person’s brain has become accustomed to the presence of benzos, and if they’re removed quickly, serious problems can take place.
In some people, those withdrawal symptoms are mild, involving anxiety and unusual thoughts, but there are some people who develop seizures when they attempt a cold-turkey withdrawal from sedative drugs. That’s why it’s vital for people with these addictions to work with a medical team on recovery. They need a managed withdrawal, assisted by medications, so they can get sober safely.
Benzo detox usually involves a medication taper. Over a period of several days, the amount of benzos people take gets smaller and smaller, with reductions so small that they’re easy to ignore. In time, people are taking no benzos at all, and they feel just fine.
Then, therapy can begin. A study in BMC Health Services Research suggests that a multidisciplinary approach works best for long-term benzo recovery. Rather than simply relying on one kind of treatment (like therapy) or one kind of helper (like one therapist), people tend to do better when they have a variety of different types of treatment to draw upon.
In a structured benzo rehab program, people can get that kind of layered help. They might have counseling sessions with one clinician, augmented by medical appointments with a doctor, and support group sessions with other addicted people. They might spend much of one day in family therapy, working through issues with the people they love, and they might spend much of the next day in exercise and yoga sessions, learning to clear anxiety without the use of drugs. They might spend some time each day studying printed documents about addiction, or they might spend much of the day talking openly. There are a number of different tools programs can use, and variety is key. This kind of care attacks the addiction on many fronts, giving people so many different tools and ideas they can use to steer clear of benzos in the future.
Finding the Right Program
If you’re dealing with a benzo addiction, you’ll probably need an acute facility in order to heal. The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake might have the right program for you.
The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake offers around-the-clock care for addictions, including those complicated by mental illness. Patients start their stay in the detox ward, and when they’re feeling stronger and more capable, they move to the rehab wing. There, they have access to a number of dedicated professionals who can provide support, therapy, and supervision. Days are devoted to recovery, and the setting is exquisite, surrounded by trails and greenery you just can’t find anywhere else. This is the spot for rest and recovery, and you can be a part of it. Just call to speak with the admissions team. They can get the whole process started for you, and they’re available around the clock. Please call.
Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.