Despite benzos being frequently prescribed medications, they actually carry many health risks due to their highly addictive quality. Physical dependence can develop quickly, and addiction treatment is necessary to quit the drug safely.
As benzo withdrawal symptoms are among the most intense and dangerous, the withdrawal period can be highly uncomfortable, especially when someone stops using benzos suddenly.
Tapering benzodiazepines as part of medical detox is the safest and most effective way to ensure a long-term recovery. Find out more about how to get off benzos here.
What Are Benzos?
Benzos, or benzodiazepines, are sedative drugs commonly prescribed to treat anxiety disorders and insomnia. They can also be used to control seizures, relax muscles, and help with alcohol withdrawal. Benzos can additionally be used as a medication before surgery in medical settings.
Benzodiazepines work by interacting with gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain and body, leading to feelings of relaxation. In addition, the overstimulation that occurs in the brain during a period of anxiety can be counteracted by benzodiazepines.
Typically prescribed by medical professionals, there are a variety of benzodiazepine drugs with different uses. Some of the common benzodiazepines include:
- Xanax (alprazolam)
- Valium (diazepam)
- Ativan (lorazepam)
- Klonopin (clonazepam)
- Versed (midazolam)
When used within medical guidelines, benzos can be effective and safe in the short term. However, they are not safe to use long-term due to their addictive quality. Unbeknown to many, it is possible to become dependent on benzos within as little as two to four weeks, which is when their adverse side effects usually arise.
What Is Benzodiazepine Withdrawal?
Benzos are incredibly addictive – even people who have been prescribed them by a doctor are at risk of abusing them and becoming dependent. The greater the number of benzos that someone takes, the more severe their tolerance. Unfortunately, developing a tolerance to benzos makes it difficult to feel the intended effects when the drug is consumed.
Suddenly giving up benzos when the body has become dependent on them causes the body’s systems to go into overdrive in a bid to reset the neurotransmitter levels due to a lack of GABA. In turn, benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms are experienced.
Benzodiazepine withdrawal can be hazardous and poses significant health risks, some of which can be life-threatening. This means that a benzodiazepine detox should never be attempted without the support of a licensed medical professional.
Quitting benzodiazepines cold turkey should never be tried as this can be fatal. It is imperative to go through detox by tapering benzodiazepines with professional support rather than stopping taking them suddenly to mitigate the harmful side effects.
What Are Withdrawal Symptoms?
Benzo withdrawal symptoms commonly start within 24 hours of last being used, but they can take longer to begin and can last from a few days to months. The severity of benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms will depend on various factors, such as:
- The length of benzodiazepine use
- Underlying psychiatric symptoms
- Individual body type
Short-acting benzos, such as Xanax, leave the bloodstream faster than long-acting benzos, such as Valium. This means that Xanax withdrawal symptoms usually start quicker than those of Valium.
Some common benzo withdrawal symptoms include:
- Panic attacks
- Problems concentrating
- Aches and pains
Unfortunately, the symptoms that benzos are often prescribed to treat, such as anxiety and sleep issues, can return once the drug has been discontinued. This is what is known as a rebound effect.
Anxiety and insomnia are both symptoms that arise during benzo withdrawal. For many people, it can be confusing to determine whether these symptoms are withdrawal symptoms or a return of mental health conditions.
What Are Severe Withdrawal Symptoms?
Quitting benzos should only be done under the guidance of a licensed medical professional. During this time, those in treatment receive a personalized treatment plan to ensure that their individual needs are met and closely monitored. Not only does this help make the tapering experience as comfortable as it can be, but it reduces the severity of some withdrawal symptoms.
However, a sudden cessation of taking benzos can be extremely dangerous. For this reason, it is not advised, especially for those who are heavily dependent. This is because the following severe withdrawal symptoms may surface:
- Hallucinations and delirium
- Grand mal seizures
- Suicidal thoughts
How To Taper Off Benzos
When a person becomes physically dependent on benzos, they will need to go through a gradual taper with the help of professional medical advice and detox. Tapering off a substance means gradually weaning off the drug by slowly reducing drug intake – this is the best way to prevent the most intense withdrawal symptoms.
Benzo tapers can be categorized into two main strategies:
- Direct Tapers. A direct taper works by slowly reducing the dosage of benzodiazepines over time.
- Substitution tapers. Substitution tapers involve switching short-acting benzos, such as Xanax or Ativan, to long-acting benzos, such as Valium.
A benzodiazepine taper plan should be personalized, taking into account each person’s health history, environmental factors, and reasons for taking the drug in the first place. A substance abuse assessment should be conducted for those seeking addiction treatment, and mental health conditions should be closely monitored during the tapering process.
A tapering guide from the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder suggests reducing the dose by 25% to 30% for those who take a higher dose and are chronic users, to begin with. This should then be reduced by a 5% to 10% daily to a weekly dose.
However, the treatment process under medical supervision generally suggests that each person’s benzo use should be reduced by 10% increments weekly, and in some cases, by 25%. Though this may be effective for some, each person will require a different treatment plan, so it is vital only to complete this process under medical guidance.
It should be noted that a benzo taper does not mean that a person will not experience any withdrawal symptoms, as mild symptoms may still arise.
What Addiction Treatment Is Available for Long-Term Recovery?
Once a person has successfully tapered off benzos and the physical symptoms have subsided, they will need to seek additional treatment for the psychological side effects and underlying mental disorders that may have caused the initial drug abuse.
Additional treatment options include lifestyle changes and psychological support to uncover the root cause of benzo addiction. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), group therapy, and support groups are all ways to improve mental health and develop coping mechanisms during recovery.
Furthermore, many people benefit from additional treatments, such as:
Benzodiazepines should be used with caution and only under the strict guidelines set out by a medical professional to prevent them from being abused. As noted above, benzos are somewhat addictive, and benzo withdrawal can be dangerous if the drug is suddenly discontinued.
A gradual taper through dose reduction in increments each week is recommended to beat the physical dependence safely. Those who are taking short-acting benzos may be required to switch to longer-acting benzo during medical detox. Different medications may be administered to help those in recovery overcome withdrawal symptoms and make the process more manageable.
After medical detox, therapy, counseling, lifestyle changes, and support groups are all beneficial. Drug addiction is frightening, but it can be overcome, and a life free from benzodiazepines is possible.