Benzodiazepines, or benzos for short, are a large class of drugs that are broadly prescribed all over the world for common health issues including stress, anxiety, panic attacks, and insomnia. Benzodiazepines have a calming effect on both body and mind and are thus often prescribed to serve as an anxiolytic (anti-anxiety agent), a sedative (used as a calming agent, to reduce irritability or excitement), or hypnotic (used to induce sleep, treat insomnia). Benzodiazepines can also be used as an anticonvulsant to treat seizures, a muscle relaxant, and are occasionally used to treat some types of depression (especially anxiety-related depression).
Benzos are psychotropic medications, meaning that they are mood-altering drugs: chemical substances that cross the blood–brain barrier and act primarily upon the central nervous system, affecting one’s perception, mood, consciousness, cognition, and behavior. Benzos act selectively on gamma-aminobutyric acid-A (GABA-A) receptors in the brain.
Benzodiazepines are highly addictive central nervous system depressants. Although guidelines provide clear warnings against prescribing benzodiazepines for long-term use, many people end up using benzos long enough to become addicted. Others become addicted to these prescription drugs after abusing the substance(s) over a long period of time. Those abusing benzos will generally develop a tolerance for the drugs and will get to extremely high dosages.
Habituated users who suddenly stop taking benzodiazepines without tapering off properly run the risk of experiencing hallucinations, seizures, strokes, heart attacks, or even death in some cases. In fact, benzos are one of the only two types of substances from which sudden withdrawal can actually kill the addicted or dependent user; the other is alcohol. Benzos and alcohol act upon the brain in similar ways.
The following list includes the most popular brand names for common benzodiazepines as well as the generic names.
- Valium® – Diazepam
- Xanax® – Alprazolam
- Ativan® – Lorazepam
- Klonopin® – Clonazepam
- Restoril® – Temazepam
- Dalmane® – Flurazepam
- Librium® – Chlordiazepoxide
- Halcion® – Triazolam
- Rohypnol® – Flunitrazepam – illegal in the U.S.
- Ambien® – Zolpidem
- Lunesta® – Eszopiclone
- Sonata® – Zaleplon
- Imovane® – Zopiclone – Marketed primarily outside the U.S.
Signs of Benzodiazepine Abuse
A person abusing benzos may manifest symptoms similar to being intoxicated on alcohol.
- Blurred vision
- Poor coordination, unsteadiness
- Forgetfulness, amnesia
- Irritability, hostility
- Disturbing dreams, unusually vivid dreams
- Reduced inhibition
- Impaired judgment, confusion
If a person takes a larger dose of benzodiazepines than prescribed, they are likely to experience severe drowsiness, confusion, poor balance, lack of coordination, light-headedness, and muscle weakness. Mixing benzodiazepines with alcohol significantly increases its effect as a central nervous system depressant. This can lead to shallow breathing and even respiratory suppression sometimes severe enough to cause death.
In addition to the symptoms listed above, it is possible to note substantial changes in a user’s life that become increasingly apparent when addicted to benzodiazepines. Since these drugs are tranquilizers, those dependent on benzos may seem oddly detached from life and sedated. As is the case with other addictions, these individuals may lose interest in matters and activities that were once important to them.
An overdose of benzos can result in symptoms similar to alcohol intoxication, including somnolence (a strong desire to sleep, regardless of location or circumstances) and diplopia (double vision). A coma is a possible result of a benzodiazepine overdose; however, this is relatively rare.
Abusing benzodiazepines along with other drugs is not uncommon, particularly heroin or cocaine abusers which means that benzos can be involved in deaths resulting from combinations of drugs. For instance, a very large dose of benzos can be fatal when combined with alcohol, barbiturates, tricyclic antidepressants, or opiates.
Resources: Benzodiazepine Addiction
Well-Known Mechanism Underlies Benzodiazepines’ Addictive Properties – NIDA – Like opioids and cannabinoids, diazepam and other benzodiazepines take the brakes off activity of dopamine-producing neurons