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What are the Long-Term Effects of Benzodiazepine Abuse?

Benzodiazepines, such as Xanax and Ativan, have grown in popularity because of their ability to rapidly reduce anxiety. These drugs, however, have a high potential for abuse due to their strong anxiolytic effects and ability to potentiate other depressant substances.

Benzodiazepines are a highly addictive class of drugs with anxiolytic, hypnotic, sedative, and muscle relaxing effects. Though considered safe for short-term treatment of anxiety-related disorders, they can quickly produce physical dependence if abused or used long-term. Benzodiazepines work by quickly acting on the GABA receptors in the brain, but like most drugs, chronic use eventually changes the chemistry of the brain, causing sever withdrawal symptoms when the drug is discontinued. These changes in brain chemist have been shown to cause severe cognitive damage overtime. A 2005 Journal of Clinical Psychiatry article explains, “long-term treatment with benzodiazepines has been described as causing impairment in several cognitive domains, such as visuospatial ability, speed of processing, and verbal learning.” These risks are compounded when benzodiazepines are taken in combination with other depressant substances such as opioids or alcohol.

The physical dependence associated with long-term benzodiazepine abuse is severe. Withdrawal symptoms can occur after only one month of use, and include irritability, sleep disturbances, anxiety, confusion, and nausea. After a long period of time using the drug, however, there is a risk of suffering grand mal seizures, which could potentially be fatal without medical intervention during the detoxification process. Although helpful to people with serious anxiety disorders, men and women suffering from the disease of addiction are unable to successfully use this class of drugs. There are alternative to benzodiazepines in the treatment of anxiety disorders. Psychotherapy and non-medication based therapy can be just as effective as benzodiazepines to manage symptoms of major anxiety. As men and women in sobriety, we should discuss our anxiety problems with a medical professional to determine an effective course of treatment that does not rely on mind or mood-altering chemicals.

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