Those who suffer from anxiety and become addicted to prescription medication have a unique challenge when it comes to overcoming addiction. Until recently, the only class of drugs that could relieve anxiety with a high degree of effectiveness was benzodiazepines, which are extremely addictive. But the medical community is discovering newer methods of treating anxiety on an ongoing basis.
Let’s explore what you need to know about the connection between anxiety and benzodiazepine addiction.
The Anxiety-Addiction Cycle
It’s common for sufferers of anxiety and panic disorders to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol to lessen the symptoms of their anxiety. While this provides short-term relief, it also sets off a cycle in which anxiety leads to addiction, and then addiction worsens the anxiety, which deepens the addiction.
When a person self-medicates to relieve anxiety, this increases the number of receptors in the brain that need to be filled with drugs or alcohol to feel calm. The more receptors there are, the more alcohol or drugs are needed to achieve the same effect. The individual will build up a tolerance to the drug, needing higher and higher doses to experience relief.
When a person has become dependent on a substance to feel calm, the onset of withdrawal when the substance wears off triggers even stronger feelings of anxiety and panic, leading the person quickly back to the substance. The longer this cycle goes on, the more severe the substance dependence becomes and the more intensely the anxiety resurfaces when the substance is absent.
The Dangers of Benzodiazepines
Benzodiazepines, often called “benzos,” are the most common form of medication-based treatment for anxiety and panic disorders. However, benzos are extremely addictive and the withdrawals from these types of medications are some of the worst and most deadly of any substance.
Physical withdrawal symptoms of benzodiazepine use can include:
- Physical tremors
- Nausea, vomiting, retching
- Difficulty sleeping
- Weight loss
Mental and emotional withdrawal symptoms of benzodiazepines can include:
- Panic attacks
- Psychotic reactions
- Difficulty concentrating
However, with proper medical care, these symptoms can be greatly reduced or even avoided altogether.
Treating Benzodiazepine Addiction
Because benzodiazepine detox can be so dangerous, we always recommend medically assisted detox for benzodiazepines as the first step in addiction recovery for clients with co-occurring anxiety and addiction disorders.
The goal of benzo detox is to slowly wean an individual off the substance. This is far safer than a quitting-cold-turkey approach, and it also helps minimize the symptoms of withdrawal.
During detox, the medical staff will need to carefully plan the medication regimen they use to wean the client off benzos, and the treatment has to be customized to each individual in order to work properly while minimizing the unpleasant side effects of withdrawal.
For this reason, it’s important to be completely honest with your medical caregivers about how many benzos you were taking, and any other substances you might also have been taking as well. It’s also important to take the detox medication exactly as prescribed in order to speed recovery along as painlessly as possible.
Factors that the medical staff will need to know to ease you through the withdrawal process include:
- What type of drug you’ve been using
- How long you’ve been taking it
- How much you take each day and how often – the actual amount used, which may be different than the prescribed dosage
- Any other substances you’ve been taking, including legal or illegal drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, etc.
- The method you use to take drugs
- Any medical or mental health issues, regardless of whether they are related to the addiction
- Any family history of alcohol or drug dependency
If you want to minimize unpleasant withdrawal symptoms and progress through detox as quickly and safely as possible, be sure to correctly report the above facts to your medical team.
Benzodiazepine Withdrawal Timeline
How long does it take to detox from benzodiazepines?
Depending on the severity of the addiction, and the detox approach, symptoms can last as little as a few days to a few weeks. If not addressed with the proper medical care, symptoms can persist for months or even years.
Typically, the first symptoms of withdrawal begin about six to 12 hours after the last dose consumed. In mild to moderate cases, symptoms usually last about one to four days.
In cases of acute addiction, especially where the medication was abused, symptoms can last more than a week, typically peaking around week two and then subsiding after that.
Beyond Anxiety: Benzodiazepine Abuse
In addition to being prescribed by doctors to treat anxiety and panic disorders, convulsive disorders, sleep disorders and impulse control disorders, benzos are often abused both for recreational purposes and when patients take more than the prescribed amount.
Here are a few revealing stats on Xanax and benzodiazepine use in the U.S.:
- An estimated 20.4 million Americans aged 12 and older have misused benzodiazepines.
- In 2010, Xanax alone was responsible for nearly 125,000 E.R. visits (out of the nearly 350,000 benzo-related E.R. trips that year).
- In 2011, 49 million prescriptions for Xanax were filled, and the five most-prescribed benzos amounted to 127 million prescriptions in total.
- Of the more than 7,500 benzo-related deaths in the U.S. in 2010, only 1,035 were a single-drug overdose from a benzodiazepine alone.
- More than 6,500 overdose deaths in 2010 involved other substances in addition to a benzodiazepine.
Why It’s So Difficult to End Benzodiazepine Use
Overcoming addiction can be challenging for anyone, but people who use benzodiazepines to manage anxiety have a particular challenge. Even if they go through detox and end their addiction to benzos, they still have the anxiety symptoms to deal with.
As mentioned earlier, the anxiety-addiction cycle keeps people trapped, afraid to stop for fear that the situation will only get worse. The intense nature of anxiety and panic disorders leads them to worry that they won’t be able to control their anxiety symptoms without medication. As a result, those wondering how to get off Xanax or other benzos for good may feel that it just isn’t possible.
Alternative Treatments for Anxiety
Thankfully, it is possible to break the anxiety-addiction cycle, safely detox from benzodiazepine addiction, and receive ongoing management for anxiety and panic disorders without relying on highly addictive benzos.
The recent exponential rise in cases of addiction to benzodiazepines stemming from prescription drug abuse has led to improvements in treatment for panic and anxiety disorders without the use of benzodiazepines. Thanks to these newer therapies, those with a legitimate need for treatment of mental disorders now have options for controlling their symptoms without benzos.
The first step to a healthier, addiction-free way of managing anxiety begins with a medically supervised detox regimen to safely taper off benzodiazepine use in order to transition to safer methods of managing anxiety and panic attacks. Seek professional help in this process, both to ease the withdrawal phase and also to find out which alternative treatments are most appropriate for your situation.
How to Find Benzodiazepine Addiction Treatment Programs and Alternative Anxiety Interventions
If you’re wondering how to help someone addicted to Xanax or other benzodiazepines, or how to get treatment for yourself, we at Family First Intervention can help.
We can help you locate detox centers and treatment specialists who are experts in co-occurring anxiety disorders and benzodiazepine addiction.
We also assist families who need help in figuring out exactly how to convince a loved one that recovery is possible for them and that treatment for their addiction doesn’t mean that their mental disorder will overwhelm them. A professional interventionist knows what to say and how to say it to convince an addicted individual to seek treatment.
Having an anxiety or panic disorder does not have to mean a life sentence of benzo addiction. With the right help, long-term recovery from benzodiazepine addiction is possible, along with being able to manage a mental disorder without addictive medication.
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