Benzodiazepines, which are more commonly known under their brand names, Valium, Atavain, Klonopin, and Xanax, are a popular class of medications that can be helpful for short-term relief of severe or disabling panic, anxiety, and sleep disorders. However, long-term use of these medications can be associated with serious risks, dependency, and addiction.
So what is it about these medications that make them so addictive?
Scientists have found that the development of dependence on benzodiazepines is quite similar to that of other classes of addictive drugs such as opiates. These medications are associated with the disinhibition of dopaminergic neurons located in the midbrain- known as the ventral tegmental area. This disinhibition causes a surge in dopamine which lends itself to pleasurable sensations.
The drive to increase or maintain the pleasurable effects of benzodiazepine medication often requires higher and higher doses.
This increase in dosage and the frequency of dosing leads to physical dependence. Once the body is dependent on the medicine, individuals may also continue to seek higher doses to ward off withdrawal symptoms they may experience when their higher dosage need is not met.
Thus begins the cycle of addiction.
Though the use of benzodiazepines has sky-rocketed over the last few years, especially during the pandemic, statistics from several years ago already foreshadowed this.
According to National Institute on Drug Abuse, between 2015 and 2016:
And regarding benzodiazepine addiction they found that:
Though benzodiazepine addiction can be scary, it’s important to remind yourself that you are not alone, and treatment is available.
Every day people are recovering from addiction. There are many routes toward recovery such as getting help from your doctor, therapist, a treatment center, a support group, and/or a twelve-step group. Many of these will be covered by your insurance, and if not, some of them, such as a twelve-step group, are free to attend.
Another incredibly important factor to keep in mind if you are someone you love is addicted to benzodiazepines, is that stopping them abruptly can be unpleasant at best, and at worst- fatal. So it is important to speak with your doctor before discontinuing any medication.
Benzodiazepines can be great for short-term use, but for patients struggling with addiction issues, they may not be a good fit. So be honest with your doctor, about any history of substance abuse. And, if you think you may have a problem with benzodiazepine addiction, it is important to tell your doctor and get the help you need.
In our next article, we will take a look at the path to recovery from benzodiazepine addiction, and provide helpful tools and tips to do so.