Over the past few decades, benzodiazepines have become one of the biggest drug problems in America. While opioids, marijuana, and even alcohol seem to get more attention, benzodiazepine class drugs such as Xanax and Valium are now involved in a rising number of ER visits and fatalities.
The 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that, as of the time of their survey, about 12.6 percent of American adults — about 30.6 million — used benzodiazepine class drugs in the past year. While the vast majority of this was legitimate medical use, over 17 percent of the use found in the survey constituted misuse.
Benzodiazepine misuse includes recreational use, combined use with contraindicated substances, taking higher doses than needed, and using the drug in a way that isn’t medically recommended (i.e. snorting, etc.). Given the high rates of use and misuse, there is a good chance you know someone who has recently misused benzodiazepine drugs.
Below we’ll delve more into the overlooked drug problem that you may not even realize is going on. If you’re in the New England area and know someone who needs help with benzodiazepines, check out this list of Boston rehabilitation centers.
What are benzodiazepines?
Benzodiazepines (street name benzos, bennies, downers, vallies, xannies, and many others) are a class of sedative anti-anxiety drugs that includes Xanax, Valium, Ativan, Klonopin, Diazepam, to name a few. They were developed in the 1950s as a safer, less habit-forming alternative to barbiturates, a then widely-prescribed class of anti-anxiety medications.
Benzodiazepine drugs work by making the brain more receptive to the hormone GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). When the brain responds to GABA, activity in key areas is slowed down. Parts of the brain responsible for memory, inhibitions, rational thought, breathing, and emotions are just some of the few that are slowed down.
The ability of benzodiazepines to slow down emotions has made it extremely valuable for controlling anxiety and panic attacks, which are characterized somewhat by overactivity in the part of the brain that controls them. Benzodiazepines are also valuable for controlling epileptic seizures and muscle cramping in some individuals. To date, no classes of drugs better for these applications have yet been approved for use by the public.
Why have they become such a problem?
Benzodiazepines rapidly lose effectiveness within a few weeks of regular use. Abruptly ceasing use of these drugs can also cause highly uncomfortable and potentially fatal withdrawals. They also have a strong synergistic effect with other drugs, such as opioids and alcohol.
This ability of benzodiazepines to make the high from other drugs more intense made them sought after by people who misuse other substances. These synergistic sedating qualities have also made them a commonly-used “date rape drug”, especially when added to an unsuspecting person’s drink,
Because they are so widely prescribed, unauthorized access to benzodiazepines is relatively easy, compared to other drugs. This has been the main reason for their widespread recreational use.
However, their combined use with other drugs, such as opioids, has seen benzodiazepines figuring more often in fatal overdoses. Their combined use with fentanyl, a powerful, widely-misused synthetic opioid drug, is of particular concern.
As benzodiazepines are already powerful sedatives, combining them with other sedative substances like alcohol and opioids can result in a person ceasing breathing. This can cause death from asphyxiation or permanent brain damage. This makes it extremely important to be educated on their use and to only use them as prescribed.
Signs a person is misusing benzodiazepines
The more obvious effects of benzodiazepine use are broadly similar to that of alcohol. People misusing Xanax, Diazepam, Klonopin, Librium, Valium, or the other more commonly available benzodiazepine drugs will regularly exhibit the following:
- Memory loss
- Slurring of speech
- Extreme drowsiness
- Loss of libido
- Loss of appetite
- Mood swings
- Labored breathing
If a person is using benzodiazepines and is constantly exhibiting the symptoms above, it may mean that they are taking a dose that is too high, taking the medications too regularly, or is taking them with a contraindicated substance like alcohol or opioids. In these cases, they may need to have their medication adjusted and get assessed for a potential substance use disorder.
If you’re sure the person is using these or other drugs without a prescription, seek the advice of a qualified counselor. You may also want to consider consulting with a certified intervention expert if the affected individual is not likely to be cooperative.
Xanax, Valium, and other commonly-used benzodiazepine drugs are not likely to go away soon given their immense value when it comes to the treatment of mental health disorders. However, they can be habit-forming and have a high potential for misuse. Because they’re virtually everywhere, they are also relatively easy to source.
Unfortunately, these drugs have strong and occasionally unpredictable synergistic effects when taken with several dangerous substances, including alcohol. That, along with its easy access has resulted in a rise in ER visits and fatalities involving benzodiazepines.
If you are one of the millions of Americans that have been prescribed benzodiazepines, it’s important to only take these medications as indicated by a doctor. You can also work with your doctor to find alternate treatments so that you could take these drugs less often.