Benzodiazepines belong to a class of drugs called central nervous system depressants. They are prescription sedatives, hypnotics, tranquilizers, and anxiolytics. Benzos, as they are commonly called, promote calmness, induce sleep, and reduce anxiety. They are prescribed for a host of medical conditions, such as insomnia, anxiety, and panic disorders. If you or a loved one is struggling from benzo addiction, call our 24/7 helpline.
What are Benzodiazepines?
Benzodiazepines are central nervous system (CNS) depressants. CNS depressants slow down brain activity and the transmission of messages between the brain and the body. Benzodiazepines like Xanax, Valium, and Ativan are most commonly used to treat anxiety disorders or acute stress but are sometimes also prescribed to people with insomnia or seizures or those going through alcohol withdrawal.
Benzodiazepines increase the activity of a chemical called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. GABA promotes relaxation, and in larger doses causes sedating effects. While benzodiazepines have legitimate medical uses, they are also commonly abused. When abused, benzodiazepines can lead to serious and even fatal effects.
In the United States, central nervous system depressants such as benzodiazepines are classified as Schedule IV drugs by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). This classification means they are known to carry some risk for abuse and addiction, but are generally seen as less harmful than harder drugs like cocaine, heroin, and even prescription pain killers. 
On the street, benzodiazepines are available as benzos, sleepers, downers, xannies, tranks, moggies, normies, serras, and nerve pills. Some people swallow the pills whole, while others crush and snort them.
Benzodiazepines: A Brief History
The first benzodiazepine, chlordiazepoxide (Librium), was created by chance by an Austrian scientist, Leo Sternbach, who was working with Hoffmann–La Roche in New Jersey in 1956. He later went on to develop diazepam (Valium) in 1963. 
Benzodiazepines were thus introduced in the United States in the 1960s and quickly became popular because of an improved safety profile compared to older drugs like barbiturates. In particular, benzodiazepines were associated with a lower risk of respiratory depression (slowed breathing), lower potential for abuse and addiction, and lower suicide potential. Diazepam, specifically, was widely prescribed, with over 2.3 billion doses sold per year at its peak in the late 1970s. 
Some two decades after benzodiazepines were first introduced, scientists began to better understand their mechanism of action. At the same time, clinicians began discovering the potential for benzodiazepine abuse and addiction. Over time, prescription drug abuse in the United States grew across the board, yet the focus largely remained on prescription opioid abuse, with benzodiazepines remaining on the back burner.
Nonetheless, in 1975, benzodiazepines were placed on the FDA’s list of restricted drugs, given the growing concerns about benzo addiction. Benzodiazepines remain one of the most frequently prescribed classes of medications in the U.S. despite the known risk of addiction and the availability of safer alternatives. 
Increasing Prevalence of Benzodiazepine Abuse
According to the US National Center for Health Statistics, surveys conducted between 2014 and 2016 found that benzodiazepines are prescribed at 27 out of every 100 office-based doctor visits. These numbers are disturbing because benzodiazepine addiction can develop quickly, over a matter of days in some cases. Withdrawal symptoms can make it difficult for a person to quit benzo use. Moreover, benzodiazepine overdoses are potentially fatal.
Data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health 2016 showed that more than 30 million Americans (12.6% of the population) reported past-year use of benzodiazepines. Misuse accounted for more than 17% of overall use. 
These trends are not new and have been on the rise for the last couple of decades. Between 1996 and 2013, the percentage of American adults filling benzodiazepine prescriptions increased from roughly 4% to more than 5.5%. At the same time, the overdose death rate increased from about 0.6 to more than 3.0 per 100,000 adults, although fortunately this figure plateaued after 2010. Benzodiazepines are involved in around 7,000 overdose deaths per year as of 2013. 
A study of more than 385,000 ambulatory care visits from 2003 to 2015 found that benzodiazepine prescriptions increased substantially from less than 4% to nearly 7.5%. Psychiatrist prescriptions accounted for roughly one third of these prescriptions. 
Women are twice as likely as men to be prescribed benzodiazepines. Also, people who are prescribed opioids are significantly more likely to be prescribed benzodiazepines.
What Is Benzodiazepine Addiction?
Although benzodiazepines have several legitimate uses, some people misuse them and develop an addiction to these drugs. The term used by the mental health community to describe benzodiazepine addiction is hypnotic, sedative, or anxiolytic use disorder. Misuse of benzodiazepines means:
- Taking the medication in a manner or at a dose other than prescribed
- Taking someone else’s benzodiazepine medication
- Taking benzodiazepines to get high
Nearly half of all people who misuse benzodiazepines say the motivation for their prescription drug misuse is to relieve tension and relax. A substantial number (roughly 22%) misuse benzodiazepines to self-treat sleep problems. Just under 6% of benzo misusers say experimentation is the reason for their drug abuse. About 12% of drug abusers say they use benzodiazepines to “get high” or because they were “hooked”. Most people who abuse benzodiazepines get the drugs from friends or relatives. Only 20% or so get them from physicians. 
Recognizing Benzodiazepine Addiction
Some of the warning signs of benzodiazepine addiction include:
- Taking the drug at higher doses or for a longer time than prescribed.
- Spending considerable time trying to obtain benzodiazepines, using them, and recovering from their effects
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms or cravings when benzodiazepines are not available.
- Needing larger quantities of benzodiazepines to achieve the desired effects.
- Suffering from impaired performance at work/school and home.
Benzodiazepine Addiction Statistics in the United States
With more than 75 million prescriptions written in the United States each year (2008 figures), benzodiazepine addiction is a growing concern. Here are some statistics that reveal the seriousness of the problem.
- Approximately 2.3% to 18% of Americans report misusing sedatives and tranquilizers at some point in their lifetime. Nearly 10% of these develop an addiction.
Commonly Prescribed Benzodiazepines
Thousands of benzodiazepines have been developed worldwide, but less than 15 are presently FDA-approved in the United States. Benzodiazepines are categorized according to the duration of their effects. 
- The effects of short-acting benzodiazepines, for example, midazolam (Versed), clorazepate (Tranxene), and triazolam (Halcion) last for 3–8 hours.
- The effects of intermediate-acting benzodiazepines, for example, alprazolam (Xanax), temazepam (Restoril), and lorazepam (Ativan) last for 10–20 hours.
- The effects of long-acting benzodiazepines, for example, diazepam (Valium), clonazepam (Klonopin), and chlordiazepoxide (Librium) last for 1–3 days.
Legitimate Uses of Benzodiazepines
Commercially available benzodiazepines in the United States are marketed as anti-anxiety drugs and sedative-hypnotics. It is worth noting, however, that all benzodiazepines have both sedative and anti-anxiety properties. Some of the FDA-approved indications for benzodiazepine prescriptions include: 
- Anterograde amnesia in patients undergoing surgeries (patients cannot remember events while under the influence of the drug)
- Anxiety disorders
- Panic disorders
- Muscle relaxant
- Preoperative anxiety and apprehension
- Seizure disorders and status epilepticus
- Withdrawal from acute alcoholism
Alprazolam (Xanax), diazepam (Valium), and lorazepam (Ativan) are commonly prescribed for anxiety disorders. Clonazepam (Klonopin) and clorazepate (Tranxene) are used to treat seizure disorders. Temazepam (Restoril) and triazolam (Halcion) are prescribed for insomnia. Midazolam (Versed) and diazepam (Valium) are used in anesthesia. Diazepam (Valium) is used as a muscle relaxant. Chlordiazepoxide (Librium) is used in patients undergoing alcohol withdrawal.
Effects of Benzodiazepine Abuse
People who are abusing CNS depressants like benzodiazepines or are addicted to them can display various physical and behavioral signs and symptoms. 
Physical Symptoms of Benzodiazepine Abuse
- Anxiety and depression
- Impaired coordination
- Slurred speech, stuttering
- Sleepiness, fatigue, weakness
- Dry mouth
- Double vision, blurred vision
- Poor concentration, memory problems, impaired thinking
- Slowed breathing
- Low blood pressure
- Diarrhea/constipation, nausea, loss of appetite
Behavioral Signs of Benzodiazepine Addiction
- Personality changes
- Mood swings, hostility, aggression
- Lethargy, lack of motivation
- Changes in sleeping habits, disturbing dreams
- Poor decision-making
Risk Factors for Benzodiazepine Addiction
Most people take benzodiazepines as prescribed. However, a small percentage of people misuse CNS depressants like benzodiazepines in a way that is not authorized by the prescribing physician. For example, someone may use a larger dose of benzos to cope with the symptoms of anxiety or insomnia. The unauthorized escalation of benzodiazepines to higher doses puts users at risk of developing a dependence or addiction to these drugs.
Clinicians should be vigilant for signs of self-medication with benzodiazepines. Repeated requests for early refills are a warning sign of benzodiazepine addiction. Even though the overall potential for addiction to benzodiazepines is low in the general population, certain subsets of the population are at higher risk for benzo abuse.
There is no single cause of addiction. A number of factors can increase the likelihood of developing an addiction. These include:
- People with a personal or family history of substance use disorders
- Having another mental health condition (especially untreated)
- People with a history of alcohol use disorder and antisocial personality disorder
- Young adults 18 to 35 years old
- Being socially isolated, lonely, or having few supports
- Relying on the medication to cope, relax, or numb emotions
- Experiencing high levels of stress or a traumatic event
Other High-Risk Groups for Benzodiazepine Abuse
A group that is at particularly high risk of benzodiazepine abuse and addiction is people receiving opioid replacement therapy with buprenorphine or methadone. In methadone replacement patients, for example, the prevalence of benzodiazepine abuse is as high as 66% (lifetime) and 50% (current). Similarly, 67% of buprenorphine patients report concurrently taking benzodiazepines. Experts believe that the psychological distress, sleep disturbances, and withdrawal symptoms experienced by people receiving opioid addiction treatment makes them vulnerable to high rates of benzodiazepine abuse and addiction. What’s more, many people are under the misconception that benzodiazepines are not dangerous.
Benzodiazepines are generally not recommended in women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, as they can lead to pre-term delivery, low birth weight, and possible birth defects.
Benzodiazepines can be particularly dangerous in people with respiratory conditions such as asthma, sleep apnea, and emphysema or advanced liver or kidney disease. In elderly people, benzodiazepines should be prescribed with caution, as they can increase the risk of falls and injury.
Benzodiazepines and Polydrug Use
Prescription drugs like benzodiazepines are especially dangerous when they are misused in combination with other substances, such as other prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, alcohol, or illegal street drugs.
It is very common for benzodiazepines to be abused in conjunction with other drugs. A relatively small number of drug users report benzodiazepines as the primary drug of abuse. For the majority of drug users, benzodiazepines are a secondary drug of abuse. In other words, benzodiazepines are often used to enhance the euphoric effects of other drugs. Sometimes, benzodiazepines are used to reduce the unwanted effects of other drugs, for example, insomnia due to stimulant abuse, or to alleviate withdrawal symptoms. Studies show that people who abuse benzodiazepines in combination with other drugs tend to use much higher doses compared to people who abuse benzodiazepines alone.
The most common drugs with which benzodiazepines are abused include opioids (55%) and alcohol (25%). These are worrisome numbers because the risks of health complications and death multiply with polydrug use.
Approximately 1 in 5 people with alcohol use disorder also abuse benzodiazepines. Alcohol is involved in 1 in 4 emergency department visits related to benzodiazepine abuse. People who use benzodiazepines in addition to opioids have a 15 times higher risk of drug-related death compared to people who do not use either drug. Opioids and benzodiazepines are the two most common prescription drugs involved in overdose deaths.
What makes polydrug abuse involving benzodiazepines so dangerous? By themselves, benzodiazepines are weak depressants of the respiratory system. However, in polydrug abusers, when benzodiazepines are used in combination with alcohol, opioids, or other CNS depressants, significant and potentially life-threatening or fatal respiratory depression can occur.
Addiction Potential of Different Benzodiazepines
More than a dozen different benzodiazepines are FDA-approved in the United States. Each of these drugs has a variable risk of abuse and addiction based on differences in pharmacokinetics (how the drugs move through the body). For example, benzodiazepines with a shorter half-life (duration of action) appear to have greater potential for abuse and addiction.   Based on research studies, the experience of medical professionals, and testimonies of drug abusers, diazepam has the highest abuse liability among the various benzodiazepines.
Moreover, among drug users who use benzodiazepines recreationally, i.e., to “get high,” diazepam, lorazepam, and alprazolam are rated higher than other benzos. Among these three, diazepam is rated higher than lorazepam and alprazolam. However, alprazolam (Xanax) is the most highly prescribed benzodiazepine in the U.S. and also the most commonly involved benzodiazepine in ED visits related to drug abuse.
Safe Use of Benzodiazepines
Because of the high risk for abuse and addiction, benzodiazepines are not usually recommended for long-term or regular use. These medications can be helpful in reducing acute anxiety (like occasional panic attacks or fear of flying or dentistry) but become ineffective in treating chronic anxiety.
People with anxiety can quickly become reliant on these medications because they work quickly and effectively, seeming to offer a ”magic” cure for anxiety. Unfortunately, the benefits decrease with repeated and regular use. A person overusing these medications to treat anxiety also does not become more skilled or confident in their ability to manage anxiety, and this can even increase their dependence on the medication. Medication is always recommended in conjunction with therapy to help people develop the skills needed to manage their condition long-term.
Benzodiazepines are effective drugs for the short-term treatment of generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and insomnia, but their long-term use carries a risk of physical dependence and addiction. Benzodiazepine addiction is a pressing concern because roughly 60–100% of people who are prescribed these drugs become inadvertently addicted to them. 
Prevention of Benzodiazepine Addiction
People who are abusing benzodiazepines and are addicted to these drugs obtain them from various sources. The most common sources of benzodiazepines include:
- Friends and relatives
- Regular physicians
- Script doctors (healthcare providers who sell prescriptions)
- Doctor shopping (going to multiple providers to obtain multiple prescriptions)
- Pharmacy diversion (employee theft, undercounting of pills by pharmacy staff)
Doctors should carefully identify and monitor benzodiazepine use in high-risk individuals, such as those with a personal or family history of substance abuse. The risk of benzodiazepine addiction can be reduced or prevented by issuing prescriptions for 1–2 weeks’ supply and monitoring for signs of abuse. Pharmacy shoppers and doctor shoppers are at 4–5 times higher risk of escalation of doses, benzodiazepine addiction, and overdose deaths. Prescription monitoring programs can help ensure patients do not obtain benzos from multiple sources (doctor-shopping or pharmacy-diversion).
Urine drug screening for benzodiazepines is complex because one benzo is often the metabolite of another. For example, temazepam is a metabolite of diazepam. Therefore, the presence of temazepam in the urine could lead to the (wrong) conclusion that a patient has been using other benzodiazepines during diazepam treatment. 
Benzodiazepines are an effective short-term treatment for many medical conditions. However, anyone who uses benzodiazepines for more than 3–4 weeks is likely to suffer from withdrawal symptoms if the dose is reduced or the use of the drug is stopped abruptly. Withdrawal symptoms and severe cravings also occur in people who have developed physical dependence or addiction to benzodiazepines.
Benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms include both physical and psychological effects. These effects can begin within a few hours of the last dose and tend to be similar to the person’s original problems. For example, a person who was prescribed benzodiazepines for anxiety may experience a return of anxiety symptoms. Also, the clinical features of benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome can include:
- Loss of appetite
- Muscle pain and stiffness
- Dizziness, lightheadedness, unsteadiness
- Shooting pains in the neck and spine
- Blurred vision, double vision
- Ringing in the ears
- Confusion, disorientation
- Delusions, paranoia, hallucinations
- Poor memory
- Irritability, agitation, restlessness
To prevent or reduce benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms, it is important to gradually taper the dose of the drug over several weeks rather than stopping it all of a sudden. Medically supervised withdrawal allows people to come off benzos safely and comfortably. Medications, such as flumazenil, can help patients rapidly withdraw from benzodiazepines to lower doses and ultimately to abstinence. However, these treatments can be associated with side effects and should only be undertaken in specialized addiction treatment units.
Benzodiazepines are relatively safer in that when they are taken at toxic doses without other drugs, they rarely cause significant effects. Patients with a classic single-drug benzodiazepine overdose typically present with central nervous system depression and near-normal vital signs. Some of the typical symptoms of benzodiazepine overdose include: 
- Slurred speech
- Ataxia (stumbling, falling, incoordination)
- Altered mental status
- Slowed breathing (common when benzodiazepines are combined with other CNS depressants)
- Coma and death (in cases of severe toxicity)
A benzodiazepine overdose can be intentional or unintentional. The risk for overdose greatly increases when these medications are combined with other drugs with sedative properties, including opioids, barbiturates, and alcohol.
If you suspect someone has overdosed on benzodiazepines, call 911 immediately. Drug overdoses are medical emergencies. Prompt medical attention is necessary to prevent health complications, permanent damage, and death.
Getting Help for a Benzodiazepine Addiction
Any addictive disorder can cause pain, suffering, and even life-threatening consequences. It is important to know that no matter how severe your addiction has become, it is possible to stop and even reverse the course of this disease.
Seeking professional help greatly increases your likelihood of successfully stopping. Call our helpline today for more information on treatments, or even just to discuss your current challenges with addiction.
It is important to note that if you believe you are addicted to benzodiazepines, you should not abruptly stop using them on your own, as doing so could be dangerous and even life-threatening. Contact a doctor, addiction treatment center, or inpatient hospital for help if you are experiencing signs of benzodiazepine withdrawal.
Last updated: March 8, 2023
Hailey Shafir, M.Ed., LCMHCS, LCAS, CCS
Hailey Shafir is a licensed addiction specialist and mental health counselor. She graduated from North Carolina State University with a master of education in clinical mental health counseling in 2012, and has developed deep expertise in the areas of mental health, behavioral addictions and substance abuse. She is passionate about using this knowledge to raise awareness, provide clear and accurate information, and to improve the quality of treatment for these disorders.
Hailey is an LCMHCS (license number: S9539) under the North Carolina Board of Mental Health Counselors, and an LCAS (ID: LCAS-21333) and CSS (ID: CCS-20721) under the North Carolina Addictions Specialist Professional Practice Board.
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