Benzodiazepines are prescription medications often used to temporarily relieve symptoms such as anxiety, panic attacks, or difficulty sleeping. But long-term use of these drugs can significantly increase the risk of addiction or dangerous side effects.
Even for those who have a legitimate prescription from their doctor—and use benzodiazepines responsibly—there’s still a good chance of experiencing side effects and withdrawal symptoms when the drug is no longer being taken.
People struggling with substance use disorder need to understand this kind of drug better. Topics covered here include the side effects and withdrawal symptoms of benzodiazepines, a list of major brand-name benzodiazepines, and treatment options for those who develop a substance use disorder.
What are Depressants?
Depressants are drugs that depress the activity of the central nervous system. 1 They reduce neurotransmission levels (communication among brain cells) in various brain areas. They also decrease the rate at which messages travel between the brain and the rest of the body. Tranquilizers, sedatives, and hypnotics all belong to the category of CNS depressants.
Depressants reduce stimulation and arousal levels, making a person feel relaxed or drowsy. They can hinder concentration and coordination—and slow down a person’s capacity to respond to unexpected situations. In small doses, depressants can help a person feel more relaxed and less inhibited. However, larger doses can cause drowsiness, vomiting, unconsciousness, or death.
Alcohol, cannabis, GHB, and heroin are well-known examples of depressants. Benzodiazepines are also considered depressants. Depressant drugs can be swallowed, drunk, injected, snorted, or inhaled.
How Depressants Affect the Body
Certain depressants work quickly, with effects that only last for a short time. Other depressants can take longer to take effect and slowly wear off.
Low doses of depressants may produce effects such as:
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Higher doses of depressants can produce effects such as:
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Are Benzodiazepines Depressants?
Benzodiazepines are synthetically produced depressant drugs—aka sedatives or tranquilizers. This means they slow down the messages traveling between the brain and the rest of the body. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they make a person feel psychologically depressed.
Doctors commonly prescribe benzodiazepine medicines to treat anxiety disorders such as panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other mental health disorders. They can also be used to treat insomnia and administered intravenously as a sedative before surgeries.
How Do Benzodiazepines Work?
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a chemical that reduces electrical activity in the brain. The way benzodiazepines work is by boosting these inhibitory effects of GABA in the brain, which depresses electrochemical activity. 2
The brain’s neural network uses GABA to send messages. Benzos increase the production of GABA, which quiets overactive nerves and calms the system. These drugs effectively send messages to the body to “relax and chill out.”
As prescribed medications, benzodiazepines can be effective for short-term treatment of symptoms such as anxiety or sleep disturbance, as they can create a sense of calm. Long-term use should happen only under the closer supervision of a medical professional. The use of benzodiazepines is best avoided for people over the age of 55.
Benzodiazepine Safety & Side-Effects
How safe are benzodiazepine medications? This type of drug is most often prescribed for short-term use.
Long-term use comes with potential risks such as:
Some benzos can last for a long time and build up in the body. Which increases the risk of side effects.
Potential side effects of benzodiazepine medications include:
Even correctly managed, long-term use of benzodiazepines has been shown to have serious mental and physical side effects and consequences. 3
It’s also essential that benzodiazepines be used with caution when taking other medications that can also cause drowsiness. This is especially true when taking opioid medications. The combination of the two can lead to overdose and hospitalization and potentially be fatal.
Benzodiazepines as Recreational Drugs
Unfortunately, benzodiazepines are used not only as prescription medications. They also have become popular as recreational drugs. Many people with legitimate prescriptions abuse them by taking more than they should. Others purchase benzodiazepines illegally on the streets.
Informal slang names for benzodiazepines include:
Most people who abuse benzodiazepines take many pills to get their chill-out effect. Others crush them up and snort them up their nose. Some people dilute the medicine and inject it with a needle.
One of the main risks of taking any benzodiazepine medication is that regular use comes with a high risk of addiction. Even people who would not typically be prone to addiction are likely to develop an addiction to benzos.
What makes benzodiazepines so addictive? These drugs create a sense of calm, along with other euphoric sensations. Because of these pleasant sensations, which comprise a gentle “high,” they can be challenging to withdraw from.
When people relax and feel euphoric on benzos, they can fall in love with the feeling. This can lead to a benzo addiction, which can wreak havoc on even the strongest person. Family problems, financial difficulties, issues at work, and legal issues are some of the negative consequences of benzodiazepine addiction.
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List of Benzodiazepines
There are more than 200 different types of benzodiazepines available globally. Though most are used only for surgical procedures or aren’t available in the United States. It’s essential to become familiar with the various kinds of benzodiazepine medications because not all of them have the same uses, side effects, or withdrawal symptoms.
Types of Benzodiazepines
Benzodiazepine medications are classified into three general types: long-acting, intermediate-acting, and short-acting. Short-acting benzodiazepines have more potent withdrawal effects and are more addictive than long-acting ones. 4
Benzodiazepine drugs are known either by their chemical (generic) name or their brand name. There may be several different brand names for a single chemical composition. In such cases, the drugs are the same. They’re just given other names because different companies produce them.
The Most Common Brands of Benzodiazepines
The most commonly prescribed and used benzodiazepines are: 5
Short-term benzodiazepine medications can be used for various purposes, including helping to calm anxiety and restlessness and relieve insomnia. They are also used to cause amnesia when combined with anesthesia before surgery.
These medicines are not intended for long-term use. However, they can still be very addictive.
Long-term benzodiazepines last longer in a person’s body. They have longer effective periods and are safer (though not risk-free) to use long-term. These medications are often used for people who require ongoing anxiety management or suffer serious insomnia. They may also be used as anticonvulsants.
However, even when a benzodiazepine is widely used and considered safe for long-term use with medical supervision, it doesn’t mean it’s safe for recreational use without medical care. Only a doctor can effectively assess and manage the risks of these medicines.
Long-term benzodiazepines include:
Withdrawal Symptoms when Detoxing from Benzodiazepines
Some of the most common symptoms of benzodiazepine withdrawal include the following:
When detoxing from benzodiazepines, there’s often a psychological and chemical dependence that needs to be overcome. Once the benzos no longer numb the person’s mind and body, the previously veiled emotions and sensations are then encountered. This change in emotions can be psychologically challenging.
Generic name: lorazepam
Brand name: Ativan®
Other brand name: Lorazepam Intensol®
Ativan® is a brand name for the benzodiazepine drug lorazepam. Lorazepam Intensol® is another brand name for the same medication. 6
Lorazepam is a benzodiazepine medication approved for treating anxiety, insomnia, or sleep difficulty due to fear or stress, seizures (status epilepticus), and as a medication given right before anesthesia. It can also be used to treat alcohol withdrawal.
Important Information About Lorazepam
Important considerations while taking lorazepam include:
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Generic name: clonazepam
Brand name: Klonopin®
Klonpin® is a brand name for the benzodiazepine drug clonazepam. This medication is approved for the treatment of panic disorder as well as certain types of seizure disorders. Benzodiazepines are also commonly used to treat difficulty sleeping and alcohol withdrawal. 7
Important Information About Clonazepam
Important considerations while taking clonazepam include:
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Generic name: alprazolam
Brand name: Xanax®
Other brand names: Niravam® and Alprazolam Intensol®
Alprazolam (Xanax®) is a benzodiazepine medication approved for treating generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and panic disorder. Benzodiazepines are also commonly used to treat difficulty sleeping and alcohol withdrawal. 8
Important Information About Alprazolam
Important considerations while taking alprazolam include:
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Find Help for Substance Abuse with AToN
When a person takes a benzodiazepine medication for a long time, they can easily develop a chemical and psychological dependence—a substance use disorder—making it difficult to stop taking the drug.
Benzodiazepine withdrawal tends not only to be an incredibly unpleasant experience: But it is also extremely dangerous and potentially life-threatening. Therefore, a person should never attempt to detox from benzos alone. It’s best to receive professional medical assistance.
Our team of compassionate counselors and skilled medical professionals is committed to developing a treatment protocol that addresses each client’s unique circumstances on their path to full recovery.
To enjoy continued sobriety, people recovering from addiction need to learn how to live a life not centered around drugs. This happens here at AToN – we teach clients how to sustain a healthy, sober lifestyle.
To further discuss treatment options, please feel free to contact us.
References & Resources
- What Are Depressants? Alcohol and Drug Foundation.
- Benzodiazepine-Associated Risks. National Alliance on Mental Illness.
- Edinoff AN, Nix CA, Hollier J, Sagrera CE, Delacroix BM, Abubakar T, Cornett EM, Kaye AM, Kaye AD. Benzodiazepines: Uses, Dangers, and Clinical Considerations. Neurol Int. 2021 Nov 10;13(4):594-607.
- What Are Benzodiazepines? Alcohol and Drug Foundation.
- Kroll DS, Nieva HR, Barsky AJ, Linder JA. Benzodiazepines are Prescribed More Frequently to Patients Already at Risk for Benzodiazepine-Related Adverse Events in Primary Care. J Gen Intern Med. 2016 Sep;31(9):1027-34.
- Lorazepam (Ativan). National Alliance on Mental Illness.
- Clonazepam (Klonopin). National Alliance on Mental Illness.
- Alprazolam (Xanax). National Alliance on Mental Illness.