Frequently Asked Questions – Benzodiazepines
What are benzodiazepines?
Benzodiazepines are commonly prescribed anti-anxiety medications. These medications are used as short acting medications. They are most often prescribed to treat anxiety disorders, particularly panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). They can also be prescribed for insomnia, as a muscle relaxer, for restless leg syndrome and for seizure disorders.
Some of the common benzodiazepines are Valium, Ativan, Klonopin and Xanax. Valium was once the most commonly prescribed benzodiazepine, however, today in the United States, Xanax is increasing in popularity.
How do they work?
Benzodiazepines act quickly and can usually help to calm anxiety within 30 minutes of taking the medication. This is why they are commonly prescribed for individuals suffering from anxiety or panic attacks.
Because these medications are quick to work and short-acting, which means they work only for a certain number of hours (usually between 4 and 12 hours), they can be taken on an as-needed basis rather than needing to be taken on a daily basis, such as antidepressant medications.
Benzodiaxpines are not a cure for anxiety. They can help to reduce symptoms of anxiety but will not help to manage the underlying reason. Therapy is often an important part of treatment for anxiety because it can help someone resolve the underlying causes of their anxiety.
These medications are a central nervous system tranquilizer. They work with chemicals in the brain to help slow down or quiet the messages being relayed by neurotransmitters. Chemicals produced in the brain, such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine are reduced, causing you to feel less anxious.
Are benzodiazepines safe?
This type of medication is frequently prescribed for anxiety because they are quite effective at helping to manage and reduce symptoms of anxiety. That is not to say that benzodiazepines do not have side effects or dangers. They are very addictive and it is extremely dangerous to mix these medications with alcohol, prescription pain killers or sleeping pills.
That said, many people to help control feelings of anxiety use these medications on a daily basis. When used as prescribed, and under the supervision of a trusted physician, you should be able to use these medications safely. See also: Benzodiazepines, Are They Safe?
What are the common side effects of benzodiazepines?
Benzodiazepines can cause a number of side effects. Some of these side effects can interfere with daily activities and people should be cautious of driving or operating equipment, especially until they understand how the medication affects them.
Some of the common side effects include:
- Memory loss
- Blurred vision
- Slurred speech
- Slow reflexes
- Impaired thinking
In addition, people taking benzodiazepines over a long period of time have a higher risk of developing symptoms of depression. Because these medications work to decrease emotions, some people may feel an emotional numbness or an inability to feel pleasure or pain while taking this medication.
These types of medication metabolize slowly. This can cause a build up of medication in the body if they are taken over long periods of time. Oversedation, as this is referred to, can have symptoms of lethargy or individuals can appear to be drunk.
Can I become addicted to them?
Anxiety medications, such as benzodiazepines are meant for short-term use. However, some people with anxiety continue to take these medications for long periods of time. Unfortunately, physical dependence or drug tolerance can result.
Drug tolerance is when individuals continue to need more of the medication in order to receive the same therapeutic results. The American Academy of Family Physicians indicates that these drugs lose their effectiveness when used on a regular basis for more than four to six months.
Many people will become physically addicted to these medications after using them for only a few months. Some can become addicted after a few weeks. When you are addicted to the medication, your body will go into withdrawal if you suddenly stop taking it. When discontinuing these medications, you should do so only under the supervision of a doctor and you will probably need to taper the amount of medication taken to reduce or eliminate symptoms of withdrawal.
Psychological addiction can also happen after using these medications for a period of time. Some people believe they need the medication to cope and no longer have the confidence to deal with stressful situations without the medication. If you believe you need medication to help you cope with a difficult time, you may be psychologically addicted to your medication.
What are symptoms of addiction?
Some of the symptoms that you may be dependent on benzodiazepines are:
- You must have your medication in order to cope with stressful situations
- You don't feel well physically if you don't take your medication or you cut down on how much medication you are taking.
- You need more medication than you previously needed to take away symptoms of anxiety.
- You take an extra pill during very stressful times.
- You have begun taking more medication than you previously took.
- You have tried reducing the amount of medication you take but cannot because of physical or emotional symptoms.
- You worry about running out of your medication or you always have your medication with you in case you need it.
If you feel you may be addicted, either physically or psychologically to these types of medication, don't try to stop taking your medication on your own. Talk with your doctor. He or she will help to set up a timetable to slowly reduce your medication and can talk with you on what to expect when you stop taking the medication. Your doctor can also discuss other options for treating your anxiety symptoms once you have stopped using benzodiazepines.
"Benzodiazepine Dependency and Withdrawal", 2002, Sept 7, Ray Nimmo, Benzo.org
"What are Benzodiazepines, How Do They Work, and How Are They Used to Treat Anxiety Disorders?", 2008, Feb 27, Brian Brennan, M.D, ABC News
"Anxiety Medication", Modified 2008, Sept, Melinda Smith, M.A., Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., Helpguide.org