An estimated 30 million Americans take benzodiazepines—that’s 12.5% of the adult population. Doctors prescribe drugs of this class for the short-term treatment of anxiety and sleep disorders. Unfortunately, many people assume that because “benzos” are FDA-approved and doctor-recommended, they’re also safe for long-term use. The result is a new drug epidemic on U.S. soil. Here’s what the staff of Providence Treatment wishes our clients knew about benzodiazepines.
What are Benzodiazepines?
Benzodiazepines are prescription drugs with four therapeutic properties. They are:
- Anxiolytic: Anxiety-relieving
- Hypnotic: Sleep-inducing
- Anticonvulsive: Seizure-preventing
- Muscle relaxing: Muscle spasm-relieving
Doctors most frequently prescribe medications of this class to people suffering from anxiety disorders (especially panic disorder), severe insomnia, and seizures (including those induced by epilepsy). Even if you are unfamiliar with benzodiazepines, you will probably recognize some of the most common brand names.
List of Benzodiazepines
- Xanax (alprazolam)
- Klonopin (clonazepam)
- Valium (diazepam)
- Ativan (lorazepam)
- Librium (chlordiazepoxide)
- Restoril (temazepam)
- Versed (midazolam)
- Halcion (triazolam)
In recent years, experts have observed an uptick in benzodiazepine prescriptions. According to research from Dr. Chinazo O. Cunningham, internist and professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, the number of U.S. adults filling these prescriptions increased by 67% from 1996 to 2013. This comes alongside an increase in benzo-involved overdoses—from 1,135 in 1999 to over 11,500 in 2017.
“The focus has been on opioids, but we need to expand the way we’re thinking about it,” Cunningham stated. “If we don’t turn our attention to benzodiazepines, if we ignore this pattern that we’re beginning to see, we may very well find ourselves in the same position that we have with opioids.”
Why have benzodiazepines become so much more prevalent in American society? The answer is multifaceted. Potential factors include:
- An all-time increase in anxiety diagnoses (associated with the pandemic)
- The drugs are effective and work very quickly, a positive in the U.S.’s instant-gratification-based culture
- Minimal guidelines for prescribing physicians
- Reduced access to alternative solutions like cognitive-behavioral therapy
- Mentions of Xanax and other benzos in music and pop culture
- Insufficient counsel from pharmacists and physicians
- Genuine prescriptions leading to recreational use
- Online availability (dark web, e-pharmacies)
- Long-term use transitioning into physical and psychological dependence (addiction)
The Addictive Potential of Benzodiazepines
The government has placed benzodiazepines in the schedule IV category under the Controlled Substances Act. The exception is flunitrazepam (Rohypnol), which carries schedule I penalties. While schedule IV is typically associated with therapeutic use and a low likelihood of addiction, the truth is more insidious. An estimated 2% of benzodiazepine users misuse their prescriptions, and many will become dependent.
“There’s a lot of ignorance,” said Dr. Anna Lembke, psychiatrist and medical director of addiction medicine at Stanford University. “When patients are started on these medicines, they have no idea that they’re addictive and habit-forming, and that’s because doctors don’t know either. I think people think of it as something benign.”
To prevent or address benzodiazepine dependence, the team at Providence Treatment recommends the following.
- Consider non-addictive alternatives, including individual and group therapy.
- If prescribed benzodiazepines, have a lengthy conversation with your pharmacist and independently educate yourself on the risks.
- Take them sparingly and according to instructions.
- Do not adjust your dosage without a physician’s guidance.
- Do not misuse the drugs by taking them for their recreational benefits.
- Follow proper tapering protocols when discontinuing drugs of this class; sudden cessation can be incredibly dangerous. Withdrawal and treatment should be supervised by clinical professionals like those at Providence Treatment.
Benzo Addiction Treatment is Available
Benzodiazepine use disorders are particularly insidious—many professionals don’t realize they have a problem until they miss a pill and begin experiencing withdrawal symptoms. If you’ve tried to cut back on your benzo use, have begun abusing the drug, or would like help discontinuing this medication, we can help.
The Providence Treatment clinical team offers the highest quality of care to those struggling with addictive disorders. Treatment protocols include detox coordination, medication management, supervised tapering, and access to robust therapeutic programming. All treatment is available on a 100% outpatient basis. To get started, contact our office.