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Benzodiazepines: The Next Drug Epidemic?


What are Benzodiazepines?

Benzodiazepines are tranquilizer medications that produce a calm feeling and sedating effects by increasing the GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) neurotransmitters in the brain and depressing the central nervous system. They are medications often prescribed for:

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  • Treatment of anxiety
  • Panic disorders
  • Posttraumatic stress disorders
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Depression
  • Treatment of insomnia and sleep disorders
  • Alcohol detox and alcohol withdrawal symptoms
  • Seizures
  • Sedation
  • Muscle relaxation
  • Inducing amnesia for medical procedures

Risks of Taking Benzodiazepines

The risks of taking benzodiazepines include:

  1. They cause a wide range of side effects on users, with common side effects including drowsiness, nausea, respiratory depression, cognitive impairment, slurred speech, and memory loss
  2. They alter important parts of the brain that regulate neurotransmitters, leading to long-term difficulties in stress and anxiety management
  3. They cause users to develop a tolerance that leads to a lessening of the effectiveness of benzodiazepines in their system, making them feel the need to take more resulting in physical dependence with dangerous withdrawal effects
  4. They cause a rapid psychological dependence, making it difficult and dangerous to quit
  5. Overdosing on benzos can cause people to stop breathing, with drug interactions due to the use of alcohol or opioids dramatically increasing the risk of death

Are We Headed for a Benzodiazepine Epidemic?

Benzodiazepines are wonderful medications for short-term use (2-4 weeks), but due to over-prescription and under-regulation of this type of drug, we are headed for a benzodiazepine epidemic. This is due to issues such as:

  1. Doctors allow their own anxieties surrounding the pandemic to interfere with their clinical judgment
  2. American family physicians facing pressure from patients to provide them with a “quick fix” prescription
  3. The acute fear of the pandemic causes people to forego longer-term therapies and medications such as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) and psychotherapy
  4. The difficulty in the American health care system to access other forms of therapy and treatment for mental health issues
  5. Lack of information on the addictive nature of benzos, the abuse risk, and alternatives, and the severe withdrawal symptoms that accompany quitting benzos
  6. Medical doctors are not being trained to handle psychiatric medications like benzodiazepines, and do not have the time to speak in-depth with patients about their condition or provide education on the risks

Prescriptions for Benzodiazepine Rose By 40% During the Pandemic

During the Covid-19 pandemic, it was unsurprising to witness a spike in cases of panic attacks, anxiety, restlessness, and insomnia, reaching new alarming heights. People with prescriptions for anxiety medication found themselves utilizing it more frequently, and in some instances, abusing it, driven by uncontrollable fear, panic, and feelings of helplessness amidst the scary global situation. According to a poll by the American Psychiatric Association in 2020: Alcohol Detox Center Los Angeles.

In light of increased reliance on anxiety medications during stress-inducing times like the pandemic, the phenomenon of transfer addiction becomes a critical focal point. This describes a situation where individuals, after reducing or eliminating the usage of a particular substance, begin to develop dependencies on another. With increased use of anxiety medications during the pandemic, it becomes paramount to ensure that recovery and reduction strategies are holistic and comprehensive, considering the potential risk of transferring dependencies, to guide individuals safely through their mental health journeys.

  • 40% of Americans felt afraid of becoming seriously ill or dying
  • 62% of Americans were afraid of their loved ones becoming seriously ill or dying

The surge in new benzo prescriptions and refills was notably swift, with a 34% increase from mid-February to mid-March of 2020. This abrupt rise is believed to be linked to escalated mental health challenges and other adverse effects, which were aggravated due to the isolation experienced during quarantines and the prevailing uncertainty regarding the future.

Similarly, individuals who are experiencing Zoloft withdrawal might be grappling with heightened anxiety and distress. Just like abrupt discontinuation or reduction in benzodiazepines, sudden cessation of medications like Zoloft can lead to severe withdrawal symptoms. It underlines the overarching mental health impact that such unprecedented times can have on individuals, especially those undergoing withdrawal from medications or dealing with existing mental health conditions. It’s crucial for people facing such challenges to seek appropriate medical guidance and support to manage the withdrawal symptoms effectively. For more information, visit alcohol detox center Palo Alto.

According to the CDC, from January 2021 to February 20, 2021, over two in five adults have experienced symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders during the past seven days. Psychological distress, Covid-19-related fear, and generalized anxiety are also being reported in increasing numbers, along with clinical insomnia, especially in health care workers. These increasing mental health challenges may lead some individuals to consider treatment options like weaning off Zoloft to manage symptoms effectively.

Some of the most common of the various benzodiazepines prescribed to treat insomnia and mental illnesses include:

  • Alprazolam (Xanax)
  • Lorazepam (Ativan)
  • Midazolam (Versed)
  • Triazolam (Halcion)
  • Chlordiazepoxide (Librium)
  • Diazepam (Valium)
  • Clonazepam (Klonopin)

There has been a 40% increase in benzodiazepine prescriptions in the US since the pandemic was announced globally, mainly due to overprescription, along with not enough information being provided to doctors and their patients about the dangers of this type of medication, like benzodiazepine addiction and drug overdoses.

Who is Most Affected by Rising Benzodiazepine Use?

Women are most affected by the rising cases of benzodiazepine use. This began in the 1970s when benzos were marketed directly to women through targeted advertising.

  1. Today, 20% to 50% of women over 60 in America are commonly prescribed benzodiazepines, many without fully informed consent
  2. Male prescribers are more likely to prescribe benzos to female patients than male patients
  3. Women are twice as likely to take benzos as men for alcohol withdrawal, posttraumatic stress disorders, chronic anxiety, and sleep problems
  4. Women are more likely to misuse these drugs to cope, due to reported higher anxiety sensitivity and higher drug cravings, with adverse effects
  5. Women are more likely than men to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders, and are also more likely to have a lifetime prescription for benzos, creating new drug abusers
  6. Many people with substance use disorders in the US have been prescribed a benzodiazepine, with over 40% of drug abusers reporting benzodiazepine abuse, having misused their prescription, by crushing and snorting the pills meant to be taken orally.

Benzodiazepine Withdrawal Symptoms

Common benzo withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Headaches
  • Muscle stiffness/discomfort/muscle spasms
  • Heart palpitations
  • Excessive sweating
  • Hand tremors
  • Nausea
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Dizziness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Sleep disturbance/insomnia
  • Increased tension/generalized anxiety disorder/panic attacks
  • Paranoia
  • Blurred vision
  • Numbness and tingling
  • Mild to moderate changes in perception
  • Cravings for benzodiazepine drugs

There are also less common, but more severe effects that tend to occur in those with severe addiction, including seizures, psychosis, hallucinations, rebound anxiety or insomnia, and depression leading to suicidal ideation.

Tapering Off Benzodiazepines

The severity of a benzodiazepine withdrawal is both physically and emotionally painful and can quickly become life-threatening if you quit without slowly tapering off of the medication in incremental amounts. This is especially true if you have been taking higher doses or using the drug for a long time.

A tapering-off within a medical detox program over several weeks is the safest way to quit using benzodiazepines. Reducing the amount slowly will give the body and brain chemistry time to adjust. In some cases, you will also be provided with a less-potent, long-acting benzodiazepine medication like Klonopin or Valium to keep withdrawal symptoms at bay as you detox.

The Importance of Medical Detox for Benzos

Stopping benzos cold turkey can be dangerous to your health and even deadly due to the possibility of seizures and suicidal behaviors. Even with a slow taper, you will still require medical supervision and treatment to ensure things go smoothly, as withdrawal symptoms can fluctuate in severity and frequency, be unpredictable, and can cause seizures or other dangerous side effects.

Benzodiazepine Detox and Rehab at Resurgence

At Resurgence, we have a medically assisted treatment (MAT) detox program and extended rehabilitation programs for benzodiazepine treatment that will ensure you remain safe, cared for, and supported as you remove the toxins from your body, regain your health, overcome mental illness, get to the underlying roots of your addiction, and learn recovery tools and coping skills.

After you undergo a full medical exam, psychological screening, and in-depth interview to help us determine the best possible treatment plan for your individual needs, with your approval, you will begin your program.

Medical Detox

In the Resurgence Behavioral Health MAT program for benzo detox, you will move into our full-time detox center for the entirety of your detox and receive:

24-hour medical care and oversight: with nurse practitioners onsite daily

Safe and sober place to live as you detox: with good healthy food and a comfortable bed

Dual diagnosis treatment: if needed to begin working on co-occurring disorders like bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, depression, ADHD, PTSD, and trauma. This may include psychiatric medication and specialized therapy

Therapy and counseling: to help you deal with the difficult thoughts, emotions, trauma, and other issues that may come up during this difficult period of your treatment

Medications: can help you through your detox program, stop seizures from happening and help you with feelings of anxiety and restlessness as the drugs leave your system. These may include Buspirone, Flumazenil, Neurontin or other anticonvulsants, and antidepressants like duloxetine or amitriptyline

Inpatient Rehab

The next step after benzodiazepine detox is inpatient (residential) rehab. This is a 30- to 90-day program in which you live inside our rehab facility full-time,

You will:

Attend individual therapy sessions: including cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, EMDR, experiential therapy, and rational emotive behavioral therapy

Attend group therapy sessions: which may include family therapy and couples therapy, SMART recovery groups, and 12-step groups like narcotics anonymous or alcoholics anonymous

Eat healthy: nutritious food prepared onsite by our chefs, with nutritional and physical fitness counselling to help strengthen your body and create new, healthy habits

Be in a new environment: away from the usual stresses, people, and places that may trigger a relapse

Have the chance to make new sober friendships: learn new ways to have fun without substance abuse, and become the sober person you want to be, meeting your own personal rehab and recovery goals along the way

In alcohol and drug rehab, you will gain new coping skills, make broad lifestyle changes and learn new ways of thinking and acting that are more productive and positive, while learning to identify and stop problematic or self-destructive thoughts and behaviors, and treating underlying issues. You will gain new habits, life skills, and a new perspective on life.

Outpatient Programs

Outpatient rehab is recommended for anybody who has completed an inpatient rehab program and is transitioning back to their everyday life, or for people who have a mild addiction or could not be away from home to attend inpatient rehab to stop taking benzodiazepines.

At Resurgence, we have varying levels of care in outpatient rehab, including:

The Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP) – a day program where you live at home or in a sober living home, and commute in for full days of therapy, groups, and other treatments, with rehab being your full-time job, 5 to 7 days a week

The Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) – an outpatient program that is usually three hours a day for three or more days a week of groups, meetings, etc., on a flexible schedule in the evenings or mornings, so you can get back to your life, work, and school with full addiction recovery support

Outpatient and aftercare programs – long-term outpatient rehab, connections to sober support and sober peers are important for people quitting benzodiazepines, because of a syndrome known as Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS). This is a phenomenon in which withdrawal symptoms return or continue to occur for six months or longer after quitting benzos. These symptoms may include anxiety that will not stop, with rebound insomnia, depression, restless leg syndrome, and difficulty concentrating along with drug cravings.

At Resurgence, our team will always be there for you. Drop in to any outpatient treatment center, book a therapy appointment, or come to a group. We will be happy to see you.

As rebound withdrawal symptoms can come back at any time, long-term rehabilitation plans are the best option for those quitting benzos. We can help you be prepared, with relapse prevention programs and a continuum of care that will last as long as you need it to.

To learn more about our detox and rehab for benzodiazepine abuse, or about other drug and alcohol programs contact our team today.  We will ensure you remain safe while inside our sober facilities, and fully prepare you for returning back to your everyday life, providing full support along the way.

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Individualized treatment programs delivered in a comfortable, relaxed setting promote healing in your recovery journey.

Alexa Iocco

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