man emptying prescriptions bottle of benzodiazepine medication into his hand

Drug addiction is a challenging condition to live with, and it can even happen to those that have never touched an illegal drug in their life. Addictions often begin when someone is prescribed a drug to treat something and then misuses that prescription. 

It happens every day in the US, with every kind of prescription. One of the most common types of prescriptions written today, for up to 15% of the adult population,  is for benzodiazepines. They have a variety of uses as well as a variety of significant dangers.

What are Benzodiazepines?

Benzodiazepines are a specific class of prescription drugs that are used as a sedative. Benzodiazepines include many drugs used to treat general anxiety disorder, panic, and even insomnia. They are powerful tranquilizers that have devastating effects if misused or abused to the point of addiction. Generally, benzodiazepines are only prescribed to treat severe cases of anxiety or insomnia when they are beginning to impact your

How do Benzodiazepines work?

Benzodiazepines work by altering the levels of GABA (Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid) that reach the corresponding receptors in our brains. It does this by stimulating the GABA production, which functions similarly to taking powerful depressants like alcohol, even though alcohol acts on different receptors. It also produces effects that are remarkably similar to taking depressants. 

Even though benzodiazepines have a wide range of uses, they can still be abused relatively easily, creating an incredibly dangerous situation in the process. This is because prolonged use creates a  level of tolerance and dependence on the benzodiazepine. This benzo tolerance can result in considerable withdrawal symptoms and rebound symptoms if the drug is stopped cold turkey.

What are the side effects of Benzodiazepines?

The side effects of benzodiazepines are often similar to those present after drinking. Not only are the side effects similar, but they can put the user in considerable danger due to these intoxicating effects. Activities that shouldn’t be performed while taking benzodiazepines include swimming, operating equipment, and driving. Some of the most common side effects of taking benzodiazepines include:

  • Powerful sedation
  • Physical weakness
  • Reduction in critical thinking and judgment
  • Drowsiness or inability to stay awake
  • Sudden loss of consciousness
  • Becoming light-headed
  • Reduced ability to speak; commonly, speech becomes slurred or slowed as if the speaker is drunk
  • Problems creating, storing, or recalling memories during or after using benzodiazepines
  • Emotional instability and sudden mood changes

If the user has been taking benzodiazepines for several weeks to months, or even longer, there is also a possibility of experiencing withdrawal symptoms if they stop taking benzodiazepines. 

These withdrawal symptoms can include:

  • Resurgence in feelings of panic or anxiety that the benzodiazepines were prescribed to treat, often called “rebound symptoms.”
  • Sudden panic attacks
  • Significant disturbance in the sleep cycle, including insomnia
  • Restlessness or uneasiness
  • Dysphoria
  • Uncontrollable sweating
  • Flu-like symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and intestinal upset
  • Tremors
  • Hallucinations
  • Convulsions
  • Seizures

Are benzodiazepines addictive?

Benzodiazepines are addictive. By the time the user has built a benzo tolerance, they have likely developed a chemical dependence on them as well. This can be seen in the presence of some or all of the symptoms of addiction laid out by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition, or DSM-5, and include:

  • Benzodiazepines are being taken in increasingly large doses or volumes or more frequently than intended
  • Over long-term use, the benzodiazepines do not produce the same effects they used to
  • Failing to take the benzodiazepine leads to the onset of withdrawal symptoms. 
  • Increasing amounts of time are spent getting benzodiazepines, using them, or recovering from their use
  • The user wants to cut down use or stop entirely, but they are unable to do so themselves

There are additional symptoms and indications of addiction, but these are the most common.

Can you become tolerant to Benzodiazepines?

You can develop a powerful tolerance to benzodiazepines, and this benzo tolerance has been extensively documented and studied. It is widely regarded as one of the most dangerous aspects of benzodiazepine detox, and if attempted solo without the appropriate level of medical supervision and tapering, it can even be deadly. 

The potential for tolerance is so great that long-term usage of benzodiazepines is extremely rare with legitimate prescriptions. Most medical professionals will only prescribe benzodiazepines like Valium for a maximum of four weeks for most average cases. More severe cases have a maximum of four months. 

Taking benzodiazepines for longer than that will almost certainly result in developing a benzo tolerance that will require professional treatment to overcome. It can be a strong indication of tolerance when the recommended dosage is no longer treating panic disorders, general anxiety disorders, or sleep problems that it was originally prescribed for. This tolerance is the first step to building a chemical dependence on the drug, which is incredibly hard to break safely without the help of addiction specialists. 

Addiction vs. Tolerance

Tolerance is just the ability of the body to withstand being subjected to the use of benzodiazepines over a prolonged period. In the case of benzodiazepine use, it means that eventually, the body becomes less and less responsive to the drug. If the drug is being used as prescribed, it means it becomes less effective at managing the symptoms it was prescribed for. 

Addiction is a chronic disease, often called substance use disorder, that is the result of repeated use of benzodiazepines once the body has developed a tolerance. Addiction is often seen as the repeated use of a substance even when faced with harmful or dangerous consequences of usage.

Can treatment help with Benzodiazepine tolerance?

If you or someone you know has developed a benzo tolerance, you must seek professional help immediately since long-term abuse of benzodiazepines can cause dangerous withdrawal symptoms. Reach out today to speak to local addiction professionals about a potential treatment plan that is tailored to the needs of the individual, and start down the path to recovery the safe way.