Xanax is the brand name for generic benzodiazepine, alprazolam. Benzodiazepines, also known as benzos, are sedatives used to treat panic and anxiety disorders by suppressing the central nervous system. Sometimes, these medications are prescribed to treat alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Along with other classes of drugs like barbiturates and alcohol, benzodiazepines are in a group called CNS depressants.
How Does Xanax Addiction Occur?
The calming effects that Xanax and other benzodiazepines induce are necessary for people struggling with anxiety or panic disorders, but they can also become highly addictive. The therapeutic calming that Xanax induces occurs quickly because of how this drug is metabolized; however, this also means Xanax has a very short half-life. This means it exits the body relatively quickly. As a result, some people may repeatedly take
Xanax, more often than prescribed, in an effort to continue feeling the effects of the drug.
With repeated abuse, dependence can develop quickly.
Who Is at Risk for Addiction to Xanax?
Although benzodiazepines are susceptible to diversion (illegal sale or trading of prescription drugs for recreational purposes), most people first encounter Xanax and other benzodiazepines through a prescription from their doctor. According to a study on PubMed, in 2008, approximately 5.2 percent of US adults, between the ages of 18 and 80, used benzodiazepines at some point in their lives. The percentage of use, and potential abuse, of benzodiazepines went up with age: Benzodiazepines were used among 2.6 percent of 18-35 year olds, 5.4 percent of 36-50 year olds, 7.4 percent of 51-64 year olds, and finally, 8.7 percent of 65-80 year olds. The age ranges show a serious prescribing problem, because side effects of benzodiazepines are more serious in older and elderly adults.
Older adults are more likely to experience dizziness, confusion, and motor coordination problems already, and these are enhanced by prescriptions like Xanax. This practice puts older adults at a higher risk of experiencing a motor vehicle crash, serious fall, or dementia-like confusion. Older adults ages 65-80 were 31.4 percent more likely to use benzodiazepines long-term, although the number of individuals who received benzodiazepines through a psychiatrist’s prescription decreased with age: 15 percent of 18-35 year olds had a legitimate benzodiazepine prescription, while 5.7 percent of 65-80 year olds had a prescription.
In the PubMed study,
women were twice as likely to use benzodiazepines like Xanax compared to men.
Another concern, however, is a rise of prescription drug abuse among teenagers who steal family members’ prescriptions. A survey from the Centers for Disease Control found that one in five high school students in 2009 said they had taken a prescription drug without a legitimate prescription. The survey covered the most commonly abused prescription drugs: OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin, Adderall, Ritalin, and Xanax. White students were the most likely to recreationally abuse prescription medications, although there was no different in drug abuse along gender lines.
Xanax and other benzodiazepines are frequently taken alongside other drugs for recreational purposes; most commonly, people take both Xanax and alcohol, or Xanax and opioid painkillers. A study published through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Organization’s Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) report notes that, between 2005 and 2011, nearly 1 million emergency room visits involved benzodiazepines, either alone or in combination with alcohol or opiates. Although more people went to the ED due to benzodiazepine overdose alone, the number of people who abused alcohol or opioid drugs with benzodiazepines was also on the rise, and this group of people had a 24-55 percent greater risk of more serious outcomes from overdosing.
Signs of Xanax Addiction
- Blurry vision
- Loss of coordination
- Acting drunk
- Slurred speech
- Difficulty breathing, such as shallow or depressed breaths
- Feeling anxious about when the next dose will come
- Anger or irritation when confronted about Xanax use
- Unable to stop taking the drug
- Stealing Xanax or money to buy Xanax
- Intense and distracting cravings for the drug
- Needing to increase the amount of Xanax ingested to feel “normal” or achieve the same high
- Lying about drug use
- Avoiding social situations or responsibilities to use the drug
- Doctor-shopping to get multiple Xanax prescriptions
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when attempting to quit Xanax
When a person stops taking Xanax, the individual may experience withdrawal symptoms. Xanax withdrawal symptoms include:
- Mood fluctuations
- Panic attacks
- Sleep issues
- Memory issues
- Cravings for the drug
- Muscle stiffness
- Muscle weakness and pain
- Cold or flu-like symptoms
- Nausea and vomiting
The timeline for benzodiazepine withdrawal varies according to many factors, such as dosage of the drug, length of abuse, and personal composition. Co-occurring medical or mental health disorders can also complicate the withdrawal process and affect its length.
Treatment for Xanax Addiction
Medical detox is always required for benzodiazepine withdrawal. Without professional help, some withdrawal symptoms can be life-threatening. Generally, medical professionals taper or wean clients off benzodiazepines rather than stopping all use suddenly. Tapering involves gradually reducing the amount of benzodiazepine the individual ingests every day. This approach can ease many of the withdrawal symptoms associated with benzodiazepine detox, and the body will not go into shock, which can happen if the individual tries to quit Xanax “cold turkey.”
Most often, doctors will switch clients onto a long-acting benzodiazepine before starting the tapering process. Since Xanax has a relatively short half-life, a longer-acting benzo generally works better for the weaning process. The overall tapering process can take weeks to months.
Therapy is the backbone of every addiction treatment program, and it often involves both individual and group therapy. Clients will address their reasons for developing a drug addiction, and learn healthier coping mechanisms.
Medical professionals and rehabilitation program therapists are beginning to understand more about co-occurring disorders. While the term refers to any conditions that occur together, co-occurring disorders most frequently reference instances when both a mental health issue and a substance abuse issue affect the same person. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, over 7.9 million adults in the US struggled with co-occurring disorders in 2014.
Xanax abuse can contribute to co-occurring disorders, just as any substance abuse can. People who suffer serious panic or anxiety problems, post-traumatic stress disorder, or who are trying to overcome an alcohol abuse disorder might receive a Xanax prescription to manage their symptoms, and then develop an addiction to the calming sensations that Xanax produces. Rather than go off the medication or maintain a low dose, these individuals may increase their dose, doctor shop to receive more than one prescription, or steal drugs in order to maintain their access to Xanax. In this case, a mental health issue contributes to addiction; however, it is also possible for people who began with a substance abuse problem, such as alcohol abuse, to change the chemistry of their brain to the extent that they develop PTSD or an anxiety disorder and subsequently receive a prescription for Xanax.
It’s often difficult to determine which issue came first – the substance abuse or the mental health disorder – but it’s not vital to the treatment to know this fact. The key is to effectively treat all co-occurring disorders simultaneously to ensure the individual’s best chance of a complete recovery.
Medical professions now know that it is very important for people struggling with co-occurring disorders to receive treatment for both their mental health and substance abuse problems together. This is known as integrated treatment, and it is much more effective on a long-term basis than treating just the substance abuse or just the mental health issues.
Get Help Today
Xanax is a widely prescribed benzodiazepine that often works well for people who suffer from anxiety or panic disorders, or who are receiving professional treatment for an alcohol use disorder. However, it is easy for the body to develop a dependence on Xanax, and many people find themselves addicted to the calming high that this medication can produce.
Benzodiazepine abuse can lead to overdose, especially when the medication is a short-acting drug like Xanax, because people who become addicted to this medication often ramp up the amount they take, or begin taking the drug with other substances like opiates or alcohol to experience a “high.” It is important for people struggling with an addiction to Xanax to get help, especially if they have a co-occurring disorder. Fortunately, there are many great rehabilitation programs, both inpatient and outpatient, that can help people struggling with Xanax abuse to leave substance abuse in their past and progress to a healthier future.