For over 50 years, benzos have been used to treat conditions such as anxiety, epilepsy and sleep disorders. But as prescriptions for this psychoactive drug become more and more common, so too does its abuse.

America currently finds itself in the middle of a prescription drug epidemic, and benzodiazepine is playing a major part. Benzo abuse is sweeping the United States at an unprecedented rate, and it doesn’t look to be slowing down.

Considering how often benzos are both prescribed and misused, it’s important to educate yourself on the risk of addiction. If you’re currently taking benzos, are planning on getting a prescription from your doctor, or are wanting to acquire them illegally for recreational use, you’ll definitely want to read this first. It might just save your life.

What Are Benzos?

Benzodiazepines (or “benzos”) are one of the most commonly prescribed pharmaceuticals in America today. These psychoactive drugs were first synthesized in 1955, and became available on the market five years later.

Some of the better-known types of benzos (in order of strength) are:

  • Alprazolam
  • Diazepam
  • Clorazepate
  • Clonazepam
  • Lorazepam

In 1960, the first ever benzo, Librium, was made available for medical use. A number of other benzo brands designed to treat a variety of ailments soon followed, and they became widely used as sedatives. Benzos are almost always taken orally, but are sometimes administered intravenously.

You may recognize some of the benzodiazepine brand names on this list:

  • Xanax
  • Valium
  • Ativan
  • Restoril
  • Klonopin
  • Ambien

How Do Benzodiazepines Work?

Benzos are classified as a depressant. Their sedative effect is used to ease medical ailments under the supervision of a doctor.

Much like barbiturates, benzodiazepine’s mechanism of action involves stimulating the brain’s neurotransmitters. In the case of benzos, the affected neurotransmitter is dopamine. Dopamine is responsible for sensations such as pleasure, motivation and arousal.

When dopamine is released in the brain, it feels like a chemical reward. When benzos are ingested, the brain releases far greater amounts of dopamine than normal. It’s this rush of feel-good chemicals that make benzos so highly addictive.

Why Are Benzodiazepines So Addictive?

Despite the initial hype, the medical community’s excitement over benzos as an innovative new drug soon gave way to grave concerns. It was clear that the pharmacokinetics of benzodiazepines were causing worrying dependency among users.

While taking benzos short-term as prescribed by a medical doctor is considered to be an effective treatment for relevant conditions, prolonged periods of use can easily lead to an out-of-control addiction.

A benzo habit can form in as little as six months. Despite this risk, a 2008 study showed that one quarter of all Americans with a benzo prescription had been using the drug long-term.

Prolonged use of benzos not only causes the user to become more addicted over time, but also builds up a tolerance in the body. Higher and higher doses are required to maintain the same effects throughout a long habit.

Astoundingly, doctors are filling more benzo prescriptions than ever. 1 out of every 20 Americans currently holds a benzo prescription, and that number is climbing each year. Benzo prescriptions increased by 67 percent between 1996 and 2013— that’s roughly 200,000 new prescriptions every single year.

What Are The Side Effects Of Benzos?

The longer you take benzos, the more unpleasant side effects you’ll experience. But it doesn’t take long to start noticing them.

Some of these more immediate effects can include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Blurred vision
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Affected speech
  • Shallow breathing
  • Difficulty thinking clearly
  • Stomach cramps

The long-term side effects of benzos are even more concerning than the short-term. Over long periods of time, these drugs can negatively affect the user’s physical and mental health, with lasting negative effects on brain function.

Some long-term side effects are:

  • Sleep issues, such as insomnia or fatigue
  • Body tremors
  • Memory and concentration problems
  • Irritable demeanor and mood swings
  • Headaches
  • Increased anxiety

Ironically, many of the ill effects of long-term use mimic the symptoms of the conditions benzos were designed to treat.

Do You Need A Prescription For Benzos?

Benzos are defined as a Schedule IV controlled substance in the United States, which means you must hold a valid prescription from your doctor in order to legally buy, possess and take benzos.

Unfortunately, their dangerously addictive nature means that many users unable to get a prescription resort to obtaining them illegally. Taking pharmaceuticals that aren’t prescribed to you is incredibly dangerous, but especially so when they’re as addictive as benzos.

Benzo Use Among Women

Women are some of the most high-risk users of benzos. One study claimed that a staggering 20-50% of the world’s women above the age of 60 have benzo prescriptions, mostly for anxiety and sleep-related conditions.

Sadly, benzos have become more of a burden than a blessing to a vast majority these women and their ailments. Many of the women who participated in the study believed that they were completely dependent on benzos after as little as four weeks’ use.

Women are also far more likely to be prescribed psychotropic drugs (including benzos) than men. These prescriptions are often recommended to treat conditions such as menopause and family-related stress.

Mixing Benzos With Other Substances

Recreational benzo users have been known to mix benzos with other substances in order to gain a more intense high. However, combining benzos with other substances can prove to be a fatal mistake.

Benzos and alcohol are similar in that they both have the ability to ease anxiety and promote a sense of euphoria. Online forums like Reddit and Erowid are often filled with questions from users about the potential risks and benefits of mixing benzos with alcohol.

Despite any benefits, it’s extremely dangerous to mix benzos with other substances— especially alcohol. The combination of these two depressants can easily cause respiratory failure.

It is not at all uncommon to hear stories about benzodiazepine deaths caused by mixing alcohol and benzos.

Risk of fatality aside, taking benzos while drinking alcohol has been known to cause blackouts, which are also detrimental to your health.

Have you been prescribed benzos for a medical condition? Wondering how long you should wait between your last dose of benzodiazepine and drinking alcohol?

Considering the risk, it’s really not safe to drink alcohol at all when undergoing a treatment of benzodiazepine. Certain benzos can have a very long-lasting presence in the body after being ingested. The risk of combining the two substances, even unintentionally, is just too high.

Benzos should also not be combined with any of the following substances:

  • Opioids
  • Dissociatives
  • Amphetamines
  • Other sedatives

The biggest issue with mixing benzos with other sedatives and depressants is the risk of depressed breathing, which can cause respiratory failure and even death.

Benzos’ strong effects can be dangerous when combined with a drug that’s equally or more potent, such as methamphetamine.

What Are The Biggest Risks Associated With Benzos?

Benzos’ addictive chemical structure and effective potency have led to the deaths of thousands of Americans, many of who struggled with benzo abuse for years on end.

Opioids may have been responsible for the majority of prescription drug-related deaths in 2013, but benzos were involved in a total of 30%. Benzos are not only the second most abused drug in the United States, but they also have the second highest death count of any drug in the entire country.

Overdoses, also known as benzodiazepine poisoning, make up the majority of benzo-related deaths. As a depressant, overdosing on benzos can cause shallow breathing and eventually, respiratory failure.

Other symptoms include:

  • Weakened movement
  • A drop in both body temperature and heart rate
  • Dangerously low blood pressure

Hospitalized overdose patients are sometimes treated with activated charcoal in order to pull the drug from the body. If the overdose isn’t too severe, the hospital often chooses to instead simply observe the patient’s vitals over time.

A drug called Flumazenil is sometimes used to treat benzo overdose in hospitals, as it has the power to reverse any effects of benzodiazepine in the body. However, it also has a long list of potential dangerous side effects, which means it’s used less and less to treat overdoses.

Besides the risk of overdose, users struggling to acquire benzos to satisfy their addiction may be compelled to turn to other dangerous and illegal drugs, including opiates.

There is also a risk when driving and operating machinery under the immediate influence of benzos, as they can dull the user’s reflexes and motor skills.

The Telltale Signs Of Benzodiazepine Abuse

Benzo abuse may be incredibly common, but you might not even realize that you or someone you know has already formed a habit. So what are the warning signs?

If you’re concerned that a loved one may be abusing benzodiazepine, keep an eye out for the following telltale symptoms:

  • Slurred speech
  • Erratic and hostile moods
  • Trembling
  • Difficulty with focus and memory
  • Constricted pupils

If you’ve been taking benzos for a prolonged period of time and have been experiencing similar symptoms, it’s important that you seek help as soon as possible.

How To Get Help For Benzo Abuse And Addiction

Thanks to modern science, the age of dangerously addictive benzos may soon be over.

Swiss scientists are currently working on a new type of benzodiazepine that interacts with the brain in a less harmful way. The hope is that certain receptors in the brain will not be affected, drastically reducing the risk of addiction.

After all, the easiest way to conquer benzo addiction is by not allowing users to form these habits in the first place. If you’ve recently been prescribed benzos for a medical condition, keep in mind the powerful addictive potential when taken over a long period of time and be sensible with your dosage.

While a less-addictive benzodiazepine is good news for those who may require prescriptions in the future, it still doesn’t address the thousands of American currently living with benzo addiction.

There’s no denying that benzodiazepine addiction is hard to overcome. But perhaps the hardest part of giving up benzos is deciding that you really don’t need them at all.

You may be hesitant to give up benzodiazepines, since withdrawals are no walk in the park. It’s important to work with your doctor and chosen treatment facility to gradually wean yourself off benzos in order to make the experience a little easier.

Remember: many people have kicked their unhealthy addictions. With the right treatment, you can do the same and start living your life to its full potential.


National Institute of Drug Abuse

National Center for Biotechnology Information

Center for Substance Abuse Research

National Institute of Health

Women’ Health Data


US News