What Type of Drugs are Benzodiazepines?

Benzodiazepines are a type of medication known as tranquilizers or minor tranquilizers, as opposed to the major tranquilizers used to treat psychosis. Familiar names of these drugs include diazepam (Valium), lorazepam (Ativan),clonazepam (Klonopin), and alprazolam (Xanax).

These are some of the most commonly prescribed medications in psychiatry because they have a number of properties which make them useful in a lot of clinical situations. 

Doctors may prescribe a benzodiazepine for the following legitimate medical conditions:

  • Anxiety

  • Insomnia

  • Alcohol withdrawal

  • Seizure control

  • Muscle relaxation

  • Inducing amnesia for uncomfortable procedures

  • Given before an anesthetic (such as before surgery)

Slang names: Benzos, tranx, sleepers, downers, pills, serras, moggies, normies

The Effects of Benzodiazepine

Benzodiazepines slow down the workings of the central nervous system. In addition to their effects of lowering anxiety levels, they’re also used as sedatives and as anticonvulsant medications. They have muscle relaxant properties as well. They are used medically to reduce anxiety, to help people sleep and to relax the body. They should only be prescribed for short periods of time as there is a risk of addiction.

Signs of Benzodiazepine Abuse

At normal or regular doses, benzodiazepines relieve anxiety and insomnia. Sometimes, people taking benzodiazepines may feel drowsy or dizzy. High doses of benzodiazepines can produce more serious side effects.

Signs of acute toxicity or overdose may include the following:

  • Drowsiness

  • Confusion

  • Dizziness

  • Blurred vision

  • Weakness

  • Poor judgment and decision making

  • Slurred speech

  • Lack of coordination

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Memory loss

  • Mood swings and aggressive behaviour

  • Coma and even death from respiratory arrest

Signs of chronic drug abuse can include changes in appearance and behaviour that affect relationships and work performance. Warning signs in teenagers include abrupt changes in mood or sudden deterioration of school performance.

Benzodiazepines are rarely the preferred or sole drug of abuse. An estimated 80% of benzodiazepine abuse is part of polydrug abuse, most commonly used with opioids such as heroin. A two-year study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (in the USA) found that 15% of heroin users also used benzodiazepines daily for more than one year, and 73% used benzodiazepines more often than weekly. Studies indicate that from 5% to as many as 90% of methadone users are also regular users of benzodiazepines. High-dose benzodiazepine abuse is especially prevalent in patients who are also taking methadone.

Benzodiazepines have also been used as a “date rape” drug because they can markedly impair functions that normally allow a person to resist or even want to resist sexual aggression or assault. In such cases, the drug is usually added to alcohol-containing drinks or even soft drinks in powder or liquid forms and can be hard to taste.

Benzodiazepine Health Risks

Long-term use of benzodiazepines increases the risk of dementia. Benzodiazepines cause brain damage and also put one at risk for certain types of cancer. Premature death is also a possibility from taking benzodiazepines.

Benzodiazepine addiction is more likely to occur in individuals with certain anxiety disorders, sleep disorders, and mood disorders. Oftentimes, individuals diagnosed with anxiety disorders or sleep disorders will find the effects of benzodiazepines helpful, and will pursue higher and higher doses in order to increase or simply maintain the effects. This tends to lead to a physical dependence, and individuals may continue seeking high doses to ward off withdrawal symptoms. 

Benzodiazepine Withdrawal Symptoms

Withdrawal effects from therapeutic dosages of benzodiazepines are mainly anxiety symptoms. In addition, autonomic instability (i.e., increased heart rate and blood pressure level), insomnia and sensory hypersensitivity are common. The most serious acute withdrawal symptoms are seizures and delirium tremens, coma and even death.

Suddenly stopping using benzodiazepines can be dangerous. Professional help should be sought and a programme of detoxification arranged within a residential clinic such as Castle Craig Hospital.

Symptoms of withdrawal can include:

  • Disturbed sleep

  • Nervous or tense feelings

  • Being confused or depressed

  • Feeling afraid or thinking other people want to hurt you

  • Panicking and feeling anxious

  • Feeling distant or not connected with other people or things

  • Sharpened or changed senses (e.g. noises seem louder than usual)

  • Shaking and convulsions

  • Pain, stiffness, muscle aches or spasms

  • heavier menstrual bleeding and breast pain in women

The duration of withdrawal symptoms varies but often lasts up to six weeks and sometimes longer. Withdrawal symptoms may not start for two days after stopping the tablets and tend to be at their worst in the first week or so. Some people have minor residual withdrawal symptoms for several months.

Treatment for Benzodiazepine Addiction at Castle Craig

Breaking a benzodiazepine addiction can be very difficult, especially when it stems from a desire to relieve symptoms of anxiety or other mental health conditions. Benzodiazepine rehabilitation begins with a slow detoxification process, eventually weaning a person away from the effects of the drugs while attempting to decrease the severity of the symptoms of withdrawal. As a follow-up to the detoxification program, recovering addicts are encouraged to pursue psychological therapy, group therapy, and other programs to prevent the possibility of relapse. Castle Craig Hospital has over 20 years experience in offering such treatment for patients suffering from a benzodiazepine addiction.

Read about the treatment of benzodiazepine addiction at Castle Craig Hospital in Scotland, in our Treatment section