Benzo Abuse Symptoms, Signs & Effects

Benzodiazepines, also called benzos, are a type of medication that is used to help relieve anxiety disorders, insomnia, seizures, and promote muscle relaxation. These psychoactive drugs work by acting upon the central nervous system of the body (CNS) by enhancing the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is responsible for reducing the activity of neurons that cause stress and anxiety. While these medications are prescribed by physicians for legitimate medical conditions, unfortunately they are one of the most commonly abused drugs. When an individual takes benzos without a prescription, for their sedative or intoxicating effects, this is when it becomes abuse. Used on a short-term basis benzos are generally safe and extremely effective, but long-term use can lead to tolerance and dependence.  Withdrawal from benzodiazepine abuse can be very dangerous and in some cases fatal therefore medical treatment is necessary in most cases. 

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Statistics

In the United States at any given time, 11 to 15% of the adult population has taken a benzodiazepine one or more times during the year prior, while only 1 to 2% have taken benzos daily for longer than 12 months. As benzodiazepine abuse seldom occurs alone, approximately 80% of those who abuse benzos use another substance (most commonly opioids) as well.

Causes and Risk Factors for Benzodiazepine Abuse

While certain people may have a tendency toward addiction, there is no single cause or risk factor that determines if a person will become addicted to a drug like benzodiazepines. The most commonly understood causes and risk factors for addiction to benzodiazepines includes:

Genetic: Researchers have long-established that addiction has a genetic component. People who have a first-degree relative, like a parent or sibling, who has struggled with some form of addiction are more likely than those without a similar history to develop an addiction to certain substances, including benzodiazepines.

Physical: It appears as though there is a link between repeated use of an addictive substance and the ways in which the human brain experiences pleasure. Many addictive substances act on the pleasure center of the brain, and with frequent use, these drugs can actually alter the structure and function of the brain. After prolonged abuse physical dependence will develop and the brain will no longer be able to properly function without the drug.

Environmental: Certain environmental triggers and stressors are related to the development of addiction. High levels of stress, multiple family tragedies, and growing up around drug abuse are some of the greatest risk factors for abuse and addiction of drugs.

Risk Factors:

  • Being female – this risk factor may, in fact, be correlated to the knowledge that females are 37% as likely to seek treatment and obtain prescriptions for benzodiazepines than males
  • Lower socioeconomic status
  • Peer group who uses drugs
  • Experimenting with drugs or alcohol at younger ages
  • Unemployment
  • Being abused as a child
  • History of trauma

Signs and Symptoms of Benzodiazepine Abuse

When not used as prescribed by a physician benzodiazepine abuse can display a number of different signs and symptoms depending on the length of abuse and the amount abused. The most common symptoms of benzodiazepine abuse include:

Behavioral Symptoms:

  • Drug-seeking behaviors
  • Doctor shopping, or visiting a number of doctors to obtain more prescriptions
  • Benzodiazepines taken in larger doses than intended; for longer time than intended
  • Forging prescriptions
  • Increasing desire to be left alone
  • Inability to meet expectations and responsibilities at work, school, or home

Physical Symptoms:

  • Increased respiratory infections
  • Physical dependence
  • Double vision
  • Muscle weakness
  • Vertigo
  • Headaches
  • Changes in eating and sleeping patterns

Cognitive Symptoms:

  • Memory impairment
  • Anterograde amnesia
  • Increased confusion
  • Slowed thinking
  • Slowed reaction time

Psychosocial Symptoms:

  • Increased anxiety
  • Irritability and hostility
  • Depression
  • Mood swings

Effects of Benzodiazepine Abuse

Despite the many therapeutic uses for benzodiazepines, if abused these medication can lead to a number of negative life consequences. The most frequent long-term effects of chronic benzodiazepine abuse can include:

  • Inability to hold down a job
  • Homelessness
  • Lack of interpersonal relationships
  • Mounting legal problems and/or incarceration
  • Worsening mental and physical health
  • Increased drug-seeking behaviors often to stave off withdrawal symptoms
  • Self-harm
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors
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 Withdrawal and Overdose

Physical dependence upon benzodiazepines can lead to a very serious condition called benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome. Benzodiazepine withdrawal should always be guided by trained medical and psychiatric staff in order to reduce side effects and obtain the care needed to address psychological addiction.

Benzo withdrawal symptoms are typically observed four hours following the last dose and can persist for days to weeks. Symptoms of benzodiazepine withdrawal include:

  • Flu-like aches and pains
  • Restlessness
  • Confusion
  • Feelings of unreality
  • Psychosis
  • Hallucinations and delusions
  • Seizures
  • Suicidal ideations and behaviors

At prescribed doses, benzodiazepines are great drugs for alleviating symptoms of anxiety and insomnia. However, if taken in combination with other drugs or at higher doses than prescribed, benzodiazepines can be very dangerous. Symptoms of benzodiazepine overdose can include:

  • Drowsiness and sedation
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Blurred vision
  • Weakness
  • Poor judgment and decision making abilities
  • Slurred speech
  • Decreased coordination
  • Coma
  • Death from respiratory depression and arrest

Co-Occurring Disorders:

It is not uncommon for benzodiazepine abuse to occur with additional mental health disorders. Some of the most commonly seen co-occurring disorders include the following:

  • Depressive disorders
  • Other substance abuse
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • PTSD
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