Effects of Benzodiazepine Abuse

pouring pills into hand

People start abusing benzodiazepines (also called “benzos”) usually in one of two different ways. They may start taking them as prescribed, then progress to taking more than ordered. Or they may start out by getting them illicitly and then become addicted to them. As a person abuses this type of drug, they develop a tolerance and need more and more to produce the sedated, tranquilized effect that results from the drugs in this broad class.

There are fifteen benzodiazepines distributed in the US and another 20 sold elsewhere. They have a high potential for abuse and addiction. When used properly, they can be short-term solutions for sleep problems, anxiety, stress reactions like panic attacks and muscle spasms. In some contexts, they help prevent seizures (like during withdrawal from heavy alcohol abuse).

Primary Effects of Abusing Benzodiazepines

A person using benzos is likely to look drowsy and sleepy, lack coordination, and be hostile and irritable. He or she may have vivid and disturbing dreams. Of course, two of the main effects of abuse are the development of a tolerance and addiction.

A person may not manifest anxiety even if that reaction might be normal for a situation. As several benzodiazepines are used in hospital settings before surgery, the fact that they cause amnesia is considered a plus. So the person abusing benzodiazepines may have a poor memory and complete amnesia of some events.

When benzodiazepines are abused with other drugs, the effect can be coma or death. Hundreds of thousands of people go to US emergency rooms each year for problems with benzodiazepine abuse.

Cognitive Losses from Benzodiazepine Abuse

For quite some time, it was disputed that benzodiazepine use interfered with one’s ability to learn. In 2005, a study was published that stated that not only did the use of benzodiazepines interfere with visuospatial ability, speed of processing thoughts and perceptions and the ability to absorb verbal lessons, but also after a person withdrew from benzodiazepine use, these abilities did not fully return. Those who used benzodiazepines over a longer period of time were more impaired. It is interesting to note that while prescribing instructions specifically state that benzodiazepines should not be given for a long term, the participants in this study had been taking this type of drug for an average of nine years.

Driving and Pregnancy Dangers

Consistent with loss of visuospatial ability and speed of processing, it was found that benzodiazepine use was associated with driving problems like deviation from one’s lane. Those tested the day after taking benzodiazepines showed a similar loss of driving skills similar to a blood alcohol concentration of .05 to .10 (the federally mandated legal limit is .08).

In the elderly, these types of changes are reported to result in an increased number of falls. A woman who takes benzodiazepines during pregnancy risks having her baby develop a cleft in the mouth, withdrawal symptoms and floppy infant syndrome, a condition in which the baby lacks muscle tone and does not develop normally.

Withdrawing from Benzodiazepines

All central nervous system depressants (the category that benzodiazepines and other sedatives or sleep aids fall into) work by slowing the brain’s activity. When the person stops taking them, there is often a rebound effect that can mean seizures or other harmful consequences.

Withdrawal from benzodiazepines can be difficult and usually will need to be done in a medical detoxification program.

All of those going through benzodiazepine withdrawal experience:

  • Perceptual distortions
  • Paraesthesia, defined as abnormal skin sensations such as tingling, tickling, itching or burning
  • Difficult walking
  • Anxiety
  • Tension
  • Agitation
  • Restlessness
  • Sleep disturbance/insomnia

In addition, some people experienced:

  • Feelings of unreality
  • Extreme dysphoria (depression, unease, dissatisfaction with life)
  • Depersonalization (state in which a person feels that their feelings or thoughts belong to someone other than himself/herself; loss of sense of personal identity)
  • Feelings of persecution
  • Paranoid thoughts
  • Pain/headache
  • Seizures
  • Depression

Occasionally, those withdrawing experienced:

  • Psychosis
  • Confusional states
  • Fits

More extreme withdrawal symptoms are more likely for the person who has been abusing this drug for a long time or at a high dosage.

Recovering from Benzodiazepine Addiction

Despite the long list of withdrawal effects and the damage created by benzodiazepine abuse, it is possible to recover lasting sobriety after addiction to this drug. In the case of benzodiazepines, the first step for some people might be a medical detox to step down off high dosages. Once this is done, the Narconon program can take over providing sobriety. Early in the program, one phase of the overall recovery program addresses the residues left behind by these drugs. Using a sauna, a strict regimen of nutritional supplements and moderate daily exercise, the Narconon New Life Detoxification flushes out these residues and results in a resurgence of interest in life and clearer thinking.

Once this is done, each person proceeds to repair the damage done by addiction and learn or re-learn the life skills needed to stay sober.

Find out how the Narconon drug recovery program can help someone you care about who is addicted to benzodiazepines.