2020: Troubling Trends With Benzo Use

in Addiction
Published Jan 12, 2021
benzo use

As the dust settles on a challenging 2020, it’s becoming clearer than ever that Americans had a difficult time coping with unprecedented times. Case in point: research studies are beginning to show a scary spike in benzodiazepine use (and misuse) in the United States. According to a recent study published in Psychiatric Services in Advance, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) highlighted that more than one in eight adults in the U.S. have used benzodiazepines in the past year, while the misuse of benzodiazepines accounted for more than 17 percent of the overall use.

“Misuse” is defined as taking a medication without a prescription, taking more (or more frequently) than prescribed.

Our Executive Clinical Director, Steve Carleton, LCSW, adds some much-needed color around why benzodiazepines continue to be such a popular way to self-medicate.

What are benzodiazepines?

Benzodiazepines (sometimes called “benzos”) are prescription tranquilizers and sedatives that are used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders. They work to calm or help a person sleep by raising the level of neurotransmitter GABA in the brain. Common benzos include diazepam (Valium), alprazolam (Xanax), clonazepam (Klonopin), temazepam (Restoril), and triazolam (Halcion).

Even though benzodiazepines can be effective at managing anxiety, insomnia, and other mental health disorders, they do also pose a significant risk for addiction if misused or taken for longer than prescribed.

Benzodiazepine prescriptions in the United States

While data shows that benzodiazepine use continues to rise in the US, yet another study found that the number of benzos prescribed to Americans has more than tripled since the mid-1990s. Between 1996 and 2013, the number of adults filling a benzodiazepine prescription increased 67 percent, from 8.1 million to 13.5 million (Source: The American Journal of Public Health (2016).

“When I came into the field, benzos were still a go-to for many psychiatric providers,” Carleton said, noting that when he started working in addiction, treatment with benzodiazepines was already common.

Risks of benzodiazepine misuse

“There are many risks of benzos including withdrawals,” Carleton said, pointing out that those effects can trigger anxiety to worsen over time. He maintains that there is always a danger when it comes to mixing medications, such as respiratory depressants mixed with alcohol and opiates. From a mental health perspective, Carleton also advises that people should understand that these medications actually have an inverse effect on anxiety in the long term, as it’s “been proven in research, but does not always deter prescriptions.”

The fundamental problem with prolonged benzodiazepine use is that it numbs emotions and over time, people become more sensitive to anxiety when they take these consistently. “It is like hitting the pause button on a stereo playing loud terrible music,” he said. “It will mute the stereo but when the music comes back on it feels even louder than before.”

Carleton warns that while there are some important uses for benzodiazepines, “daily use as a way to manage anxiety or other mood related issues is not one of them.”

How to stop taking benzodiazepines

It is generally ill-advised to suddenly stop taking any medication without the supervision of a medical provider. Like other prescribed medications, ceasing benzodiazepine use can result in immediate withdrawal symptoms.

“The most important thing to consider is that peak withdrawals from this type of medication happen three to five days after the last use,” he said. “The withdrawals can be life-threatening and people should seek medical attention.”

He also advises that treatment isn’t complete once the person has reached a post-withdrawal period. “Even after acute withdrawal, people should expect to be on a three-week to three-month taper,” he said, clarifying that the length is determined by how severe the physical dependence is.

Withdrawal can be challenging and is often coupled with a sense of desperation. As a way of coping with that inevitable swirl of emotions, Carleton advises that one should be prepared to navigate them.

“Emotional support is critical to ride these waves,” he said. “Therapy and ongoing care often leads to a sense of empowerment over uncomfortable emotional experiences.” What’s more is that, if properly prepared for withdrawal, it can be overcome in a healthy way. “At times that stereo in our heads gets loud,” he said. “My experience has taught me that people get better at tolerating music and the sooner we accept the noise the sooner it goes quiet again.”

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, we are here to help. At Gallus Medical Detox Centers, we bring compassion to the commotion. Peace to the pain. Empowerment to the powerless. If you or someone you know needs support with addiction problems, bring us your battle. Call us today and take the best, first step towards recovery: 720-704-1432

You might find the following blogs helpful:

Guide to Benzo Addiction Treatment

Can I Drink Alcohol During Benzodiazepine Withdrawal?

Dangers of Using Ambien

What Is The Gallus Method?