What you need to know about the dangers associated with benzodiazepines
‘Tis the season for stress! Finding the perfect gifts, hosting family gatherings or taking final exams in college. How do you cope when you are overwhelmed? If popping Xanax or Valium is your answer, you could be putting yourself in harm’s way without even knowing it.
Anxiety levels are on the rise in the United States according to a poll conducted by the American Psychiatric Association. Not surprisingly, the number of prescriptions written for benzodiazepines, which include drugs like Ativan, Xanax and Valium, are also on the rise. The National Institute on Drug Abuse found the number of Americans who filled a prescription for benzodiazepines, sometimes referred to as benzos, increased by 67 percent from 1996 to 2013 or 8.1 million to 13.5 million people.
Risks Associated with Benzodiazepines
Although doctors are prescribing these medications and you hear people talk about them like they are harmless, many patients aren’t aware of the risks associated with this class of drugs, like dependence or addiction.
Benzos actually work in a similar way as alcohol; they quickly provide a temporary calming effect by targeting the brain’s GABA receptor(1). The person’s anxiety fades away, but some feel even more anxious once the medication wears off. In order to keep the anxiety at bay, some people take the medicine continuously, which leads to dependency(2). Dependence is when the body gets used to the drug and a person needs to take higher and higher doses in order to get the same effect. Even when taken as prescribed, a person can develop a dependency. Addiction can also occur. Unlike dependency, addiction is when there are chemical changes in the brain and a person takes the drug despite experiencing negative consequences.
Whether you are dependent, addicted or just take benzos on a regular basis, you can experience withdrawal when you stop taking them. You should always consult your doctor before stopping the medicine because withdrawal can be dangerous. Common signs include(3):
In severe cases a person can experience seizures, rapid heart rate, increased blood pressure and death. Depending on the amount of benzos you are taking, you may need to go to an inpatient detox facility to safely rid your body of the medication.
Besides the risk of becoming dependent or addicted to benzos, it’s easy to accidentally overdose when taking them with other drugs, especially opioids, or alcohol. Opioids, alcohol and benzos all suppress the part of the brain that is responsible for controlling breathing and heart rate. When taken together, a person can stop breathing or go into cardiac arrest. The National Institute on Drug Abuse found that 30 percent of people who overdosed on opioids also had benzos in their system. Their research also found the number of overdose deaths involving benzos increased from 1,135 in 1999 to 8,791 in 2015.
Know the risks before you take the medications! While these drugs serve a purpose, it’s crucial to take them as prescribed, take the smallest dose possible and only when you truly need it. Most importantly, never mix them with other drugs or alcohol.