Benzodiazepines, commonly referred to as benzos, are a type of medication generally prescribed my doctors on an as-needed basis. They treat and help deal with a variety of issues, including: insomnia, panic attacks, general anxiety, seizures, & alcohol withdrawal. Benzodiazepines work by affecting the central nervous system of the body, specifically by interacting with gamma-aminobutyric (GABA) neurotransmitters in the brain. Benzos “enhance” the neurotransmitter by allowing chloride ions to enter the neuron. In turn, this makes the neuron negatively charged, and becomes resistant to excitation. This contributes to the calming of the body and muscles.
Benzodiazepines are commonly prescribed in combination with another medication, in most cases with a long-term medication such as an SSRI, to help relieve anxiety and stress. Benzos are considered a short-term “band-aid” for anxiety and panic-attack symptoms, and can easily become addictive and therefore abused. Instead of getting the permanent help they need via a combination of therapy & medication, some anxiety sufferers begin to rely on benzodiazepines to help them cope with their physical feelings and emotions. It is a dangerous spiral that every benzo user needs to be aware of. Many times, doctors will start patients on a low dose to let the patient become accustomed, and will sometimes schedule a monthly-checkup to ensure that the medication isn’t being abused. Benzodiazepines come in a variety of types & amounts. Some are fast-acting with short half-lives, generally having effects within 15 minutes, such as Xanax. Others may have a longer half-life, which means they are slower-acting but last longer than others, such as Klonopin. Generally, benzos with a shorter half-life like Xanax have increased physical effects and are more commonly abused.
It is always important that you do your own research when being prescribed medication so you know what you will experience and how you will react. If you know that you have an addictive personality, let your doctor know that so he can adjust your medication accordingly. Some patients prefer to utilize a variety of organic products, coping methods, and other relaxation techniques instead of benzodiazepines because of the risk of using them. In some offices, your doctor may even flat out refuse to prescribe a benzo. It is vital to be responsible with your medication, and always ensure you keep it in a safe, secure location. If you ever experience any irregular thoughts or feelings while on benzos, contact your doctor immediately and voice your concerns. Never attempt to take yourself off benzodiazepines cold-turkey. It is important to consult with your doctor to create a tapering plan to slowly reduce the amount of medication you are taking until it is safe to completely stop. Quitting your intake of benzodiazepines after consistent use can cause severe withdrawal symptoms and complications, including death.
List of Commonly Prescribed Benzodiazepines:
- Alprazolam (Xanax) Short half-life (fast-acting)
- Clonazepam (Klonopin) Long half-life (slow-acting & prolonged effects)
- Diazepam (Valium) Long half-life
- Lorazepam (Ativan) Medium half-life
- Oxazepam (Serax) Short half-life
- Temazepam (Restoril) Medium half-life
* This list is not intended for any legal or personal use, it is merely for reference. Always talk to your doctor if you experience any negative effects or uncomfortable changes in your mood or behavior, never attempt to take your medication doses into your own hands.
Common Side Effects of Benzodiazepines
Benzodiazepines are considered a potentially very addictive drug. They produce a sense of relaxation and calm in the body by affecting the central nervous system. Because of this “body high”, many users can begin to rely on benzodiazepines as a form of dealing with their anxiety and panic attacks, instead of utilizing a form of psychotherapy such as cognitive behavior therapy for long-term help. It is very important that you are aware of the amount of medication you are taking and how your body will react. Start with a small dose and wait until you adjust to the effects before taking a larger dose. Benzodiazepines should NEVER be taken in combination with alcohol, or after you have been drinking as alcohol can SIGNIFICANTLY enhance the effects of benzos, leading to an extremely dangerous situation. The most commonly experienced side effects include:
- Irregular sleeping patterns
- Anterograde amnesia
- “Hangover” effect
- Unusual changes in brain function & cognition (memory recall, critical thinking, reaction times)
- Physical weakness
- Lack of muscle coordination (feeling “drunk”)
- Blurred Vision
If you ever encounter uncomfortable or frightening physical or mental symptoms, consult your doctor immediately to see what other options are available. Mental health medication research is an ongoing task, and innovations in the field are being made every day. If you ever experience suicidal thoughts and have an urge to act on them, consult with your doctor or call the National Suicide Hotline (1-800-273-8255) immediately.
Benzos & Children
Benzodiazepines are sometimes prescribed to children to help them deal with the immediate effects of anxiety and panic attacks, while a long-term solution is implemented. Many doctors are hesitant to prescribe benzos to children for a variety of reasons. Children’s brains aren’t fully developed, and there isn’t much clear research on the long-term effects of benzodiazepines on children’s brain function and cognitive ability. In addition, the risk of a child becoming addicted to a benzo is a large factor as well. Benzodiazepines are usually not prescribed to children unless there are no other comparable options to help deal with the issues. Used in combination with therapy or another form of treatment, benzodiazepines can greatly help children who suffer from anxiety and panic attacks control their physical and mental sensations until a longer-term solution takes hold.
It is extremely important to monitor your child if they are prescribed benzos, and to schedule regular checkups with your family physician to ensure there are no negative changes occurring as a result of the medication. If you ever notice any kind of irregular behavior or unusual thoughts from a child who is currently prescribed benzodiazepines, it is vital that you consult with your doctor immediately to determine the best course of action. The BC Mental Health & Addiction Services put together a valuable in-depth PDF that goes over benzodiazepine use in children in great detail.
Benzos & Pregnant Women
In general, benzodiazepines should not be used by pregnant women. A combination of various other forms of treatment and therapy should be utilized before benzos are considered. It has been shown that the use of benzodiazepines in the first trimester particularly can contribute to an increased risk of birth defects for your child. The FDA has classified benzodiazepines in categories D & X, which means potential for harming unborn children does exist with these medications.
In some cases, a pregnant woman may have to have benzodiazepines prescribed to treat a variety of issues. In these cases, benzos that have been prescribed longer and have a better safety record are recommended for use, such as Valium (diazepam) or Librium (chlordiazepoxide). As always, if you have any concerns or questions regarding your medication, it is important to consult with your doctor before taking any matters into your own hands. Psych Central provides an excellent article that goes over the use & risks of psychotropic medication in pregnant women.