Xanax is one of the most prescribed medications in the United States, with over 48 million prescriptions written in 2013. While this is rapidly changing, largely due to increased awareness of the drug’s potential for abuse, millions of Americans still use it and other benzodiazepines such as Valium and Klonopin. As a result, over 33,000 people were admitted to emergency rooms in 2010 for overdoses on benzodiazepines.
Today, doctors are dramatically reducing the number of Xanax prescriptions. However, the drug is still readily available on the street, where individuals often use the drug recreationally. In addition, about 2% of prescription users are estimated to abuse Xanax, with an estimated 10% of those suffering from addiction. This occurs despite stringent Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategies (REMS), reduced dosage, and the recommended prescription period dropping from a few years to a few weeks to months at most. While many people can and do use Xanax safely, millions of people struggle with abusing it. Why is Xanax so addictive?
What are Benzodiazepines
Benzodiazepines or Benzos are a drug class of medically significant drugs that function as muscle-relaxers. The drugs enhance the GABA receptor, causing a sedative, muscle-relaxant, and anti-anxiety effect. This has led the drug class to be used for anti-anxiety, anti-depression, anti-convulsion, anti-seizure, and to treat short-term trauma and PTSD. Benzodiazepines are useful for everything from minor surgeries to treating withdrawal by preventing spasms.
However, that sense of relaxation and calm makes them easy to abuse and frequently leads to Benzodiazepine addiction. Benzodiazepines are frequently used as a recreational drug in both individual and party settings, where users take the drug to feel good, reduce inhibitions, and to relax. While Xanax is not the strongest benzodiazepine, it is one of the most common.
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Two Types of Dependence
Benzodiazepines interact with the brain in several ways, which can result in both physical dependence and psychological dependence. Each of these work in different ways but tend to interplay with each other, which is one of the reasons Xanax is so addictive.
Physical Dependence – Xanax enhances the effect of the GABA receptor in the brain. It works on receptors already in the brain, meaning that when you take it, the natural response of the body is to adjust how it produces GABA to reduce effects to normal. Over time, users find that the amount they are taking has less and less effect. They might have to take larger and larger doses to achieve a result or the desired result. This is known as tolerance and is the first step of chemical dependence.
Chemical dependence sets in when the body begins to adjust to those different levels of chemicals. If the body is adjusted to having a large amount of GABA stimulation, it won’t likely produce any on its own. Individuals will experience shock, anxiety, agitation, and likely physical sickness when they quit the drug, because their body isn’t producing enough of these chemicals. This is known as physical withdrawal. Physical withdrawal can also be medically significant to the point that users keep taking more Xanax to prevent or reduce withdrawal symptoms.
Importantly, Xanax withdrawal can be dangerous. Persons withdrawing from the drug might experience life-threatening seizures. So it is especially critical that you seek out a medical professional or a detox center before attempting to quit Xanax.
Psychological Dependence – Many drugs eventually create a form of psychological dependence, but benzodiazepines do so more than most. Here, the calming effects of the drug play into the physical anxiety-inducing effects of tolerance and chemical dependence and interact with why you were likely prescribed the drug in the first place.
Many people eventually get to the point where they think they need the drug to function, to feel calm, or to be normal. If you feel anxious and panicky without a drug, it’s easy to take one to feel better. Over time, you can induce panic simply because you don’t have the drug you need to function. This psychological dependence is found with other drugs as well. For example, people find themselves taking painkillers they “need” to walk, long after any physical pain has healed. Xanax functions as a sort of mental crutch, which can be more difficult to break away from than physical addiction.
Xanax Users are Vulnerable to Substance Abuse
Xanax is often abused recreationally, but its user-base is often very vulnerable to addiction. Xanax patients often suffer from anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and PTSD. This makes them both very prone to vulnerability to substance abuse and very prone to the specific dangers of Xanax addiction, mental reliance through anxiety.
At the same time, only about 2% of prescription Xanax users misuse their drug. The volume of abuse happens through the sheer number of prescriptions and the volume of illegal recreational use.
Symptoms of Xanax Addiction
If you or someone you know is using Xanax and you think it might be problematic, it may be a good idea to discuss your concerns with them. Xanax addiction can take many forms, but you can look for symptoms such as:
- Mood swings
- Obsession or always thinking about the drug
- Hiding Xanax usage
- Taking more Xanax than prescribed
- Using Xanax outside a prescription
- Taking Xanax with alcohol or other drugs
- Taking Xanax before driving or operating machinery
- Always taking Xanax with them
- Taking Xanax “just in case” or as a preventive measure
- Insisting on always having Xanax with them even in stressful environments
If you’re concerned about someone’s drug use, it’s important to talk to them about it. They may lie, may hide their activity, and may be unhappy about your questions. However, asking is the first step to getting someone help, so they can get their life back.
Getting Help for Xanax Addiction
Thousands of Americans struggle with benzodiazepine addiction. There is help. Modern rehabilitation approaches benzodiazepine addiction from a holistic point of view, looking at the underlying causes of addiction, and treating behavioral and mental problems as well as physical addiction. Dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorder treatment also works to ensure that individuals suffering from depression, PTSD, and other disorders can successfully treat substance use disorder alongside their mental disorder, so that they can recover without either getting in the way. A modern addiction treatment program often includes a combination of behavioral therapy, counseling, and group therapy, giving each individual the tools to recognize their own problems and to move beyond them.
Xanax addiction changes who people are, how they live, and how they treat the people in their lives. If you or a loved one is struggling, it’s important to get help.