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Valium Addiction: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment Options

Benzodiazepine addiction, including Valium addiction, isn’t fully understood but it's related to the way drug use and abuse can “rewire” the brain’s reward systems. While we don’t know everything about this type of addiction, we do know it’s treatable with a gradual reduction in drug use combined with therapy and counseling.

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Valium & Anxiety

One of Valium’s approved purposes is to treat anxiety. This is notable because certain mental illnesses, including anxiety disorders, often co-occur with issues related to drug addiction. 

Discussed more below, Valium has some inherent abuse and addiction risk. This isn’t to say it can’t be a valid treatment for certain mental health symptoms. Rather, the value it has in reducing those symptoms needs to be weighed against the risks of this medication leading to drug abuse or addiction.

What Is Valium?

Valium is a brand-name medication that consists of diazepam. Diazepam is a benzodiazepine. This class of medications can slow down brain activity. When used correctly, this can help to calm abnormal brain activity. 

When possible, benzodiazepines are typically only used for short-term treatment, as they can cause dependence and they have a higher risk of abuse if used for too long. However, they are sometimes used as part of a long-term treatment plan if alternative treatments aren’t available.

Diazepam is most associated with helping to relieve anxiety and control agitation caused by alcohol withdrawal. It can also be used, typically alongside other medications, to help control muscle spasms and spasticity caused by some neurological disorders. In some cases, it may be used to help control seizures. 

Quick Facts About Valium

  • In 2020, there were nearly 5 million prescriptions for Valium and its generic equivalent diazepam in the U.S. 
  • Almost 1.2 million people were estimated to be taking the drug in 2020. 
  • The average out-of-pocket cost for Valium or diazepam is $4.42 per prescription.
  • Most often, Valium is prescribed in the 5 mg tablet or capsule. This dosage makes up 60 percent of prescriptions.

Side Effects of Valium

Some common side effects associated with Valium include the following:

  • Confusion
  • Intestinal issues, such as constipation and nausea
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Changes in sex drive or ability
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Dry mouth
  • Frequent urination
  • Headache
  • Muscle weakness

In rare cases, using benzodiazepines like Valium is associated with more serious side effects, including panic attacks, agitation, restlessness, irritability and anger, anxiety, depression, difficulty controlling impulses, trouble sleeping, mania, and even thoughts about death, dying, and self-harm. If you experience any of these symptoms while taking Valium, especially if you consider suicide, contact your doctor right away.

How Does Valium Addiction Occur?

The nature of benzodiazepine addiction, including Valium addiction, isn’t fully understood. However, the basics of addiction are at least generally understood. Research has revealed at least some of the specifics of benzodiazepine abuse and provides hints into how this type of addiction can occur.

Addictive drugs work by increasing the levels of dopamine in the brain and creating changes to the brain’s reward systems, reinforcing further drug use behavior. More specifically, research seems to suggest that benzodiazepines increase mesolimbic dopamine levels through what is called disinhibition

On a more practical level in terms of helping to avoid addiction, excessive or prolonged use should be avoided. Valium addiction is the result of excessively using the drug and chemical changes then occurring in the brain that cause a person to feel compelled to continue abusing the drug. It becomes much more likely if a person uses the drug in a different way than as prescribed. 

Drug dependence also factors in. After taking a benzodiazepine for a period of about two weeks, a user will likely develop physical dependence, which means they will experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms if they stop taking benzodiazepines or reduce the amount they’re using. This can even occur using the drug only as prescribed, which is why long-term prescriptions are avoided when possible. 

Dependence is different from addiction, but dependence can significantly increase the risk that a person starts engaging in drug abuse or develops an addiction.

Signs & Symptoms of Addiction

While not all cases of addiction are obvious, especially if a person is in denial about their situation or trying to hide their symptoms, there are generally at least some common signs and symptoms you can look out for if trying to determine whether you or a loved one may have an addiction. Broadly, the warning signs of addiction can be split into three categories.

Physical Signs of Addiction

  • Bloodshot eyes 
  • Pupils that are larger or smaller than usual
  • Deterioration of physical appearance
  • Runny nose or sniffling
  • Sudden weight change
  • Worsening grooming habits
  • Tremors, slurred speech, and/or impaired coordination
  • Unexplained changes in appetite or sleep patterns
  • Unusual odors on breath, body, or clothing

Behavioral Signs of Addiction

  • Acting more secretive or suspicious 
  • Difficulties in personal relationships with family, friends, and loved ones
  • Frequently getting into legal trouble, especially relating to reckless behavior, such as fighting or driving under the influence of drugs
  • Higher levels of tolerance to drugs than normal, requiring a greater amount of a substance to have the same effect it once did
  • Life seeming to be centered around drugs, including obtaining, using, and recovering from the effects of drugs
  • Loss of control over drug use
  • Misusing drugs to avoid withdrawal symptoms
  • Money issues, which may also cause a person to steal or borrow money from others 
  • Neglecting important responsibilities as a result of drug use
  • Sudden, unexplained changes to the activities one engages in, the friends they spend time with, and hobbies
  • Using drugs repeatedly even once it becomes obvious that they are having a negative impact on health and quality of life

Psychological Signs of Addiction

  • Feelings of fear, anxiety, and paranoia with no obvious cause
  • Reduced motivation to do even fun or important activities, often with the person seeming “spaced out”
  • Periods of unusual behavior, including a person seeming excessively drowsy or confused
  • Severe mood swings

Can You Overdose on Valium?

It is possible to overdose on benzodiazepines, although a fatal overdose from benzodiazepine abuse alone is rare. Overdosing on Valium can be the result of accidentally taking too much of the drug while trying to get high. It can also be the result of self-harm, especially because benzodiazepines can sometimes cause people to experience mental health symptoms, including thoughts of self-harm. 

The risk of a dangerous Valium overdose is higher if a person engages in polydrug use, abusing Valium in combination with other drugs. The main concern of benzodiazepine abuse and misuse is its ability to cause respiratory depression, which can stack with the effects of other drugs that cause respiratory depression, including alcohol, opioids, and other benzodiazepines. 

Dangers of Overdose & Withdrawal

An overdose on Valium can cause a person to experience the following symptoms:

  • Confusion
  • Serious lapses in memory
  • Falling in and out of consciousness
  • Entering a coma, with the person unable to be woken up

In cases of severe respiratory depression, a person overdosing on Valium may not be able to draw in enough air to get the oxygen their body needs. This can cause a cascade of issues, and it may cause permanent brain damage or death if medical attention isn’t obtained quickly. 

Benzodiazepine withdrawal can cause major discomfort and make quitting the drug more difficult if one has grown dependent. In rare cases, it can be life-threatening, so medical supervision is required. Common withdrawal symptoms from benzodiazepines include the following:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Tremors
  • Heart palpitations
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Muscle stiffness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Panic attacks
  • Perceptual changes
  • Insomnia

In some cases, withdrawal symptoms may be severe enough to be treated as a medical emergency. Some people withdrawing from benzodiazepines may experience seizures or have temporary psychotic breaks from reality, where they may believe things that aren’t true and act irrationally. It is possible for people experiencing psychotic breaks to potentially endanger themselves or others without realizing what is actually happening. 

Again, it’s imperative to seek medical supervision before attempting to withdraw from Valium or any other benzodiazepine.

Treatment Options for Valium Addiction

If you believe you may be addicted to Valium or any other benzodiazepine, you should talk with an addiction treatment professional, as they can customize your treatment to your unique situation and needs.

Generally, an addiction to a benzodiazepine isn’t treated by suddenly stopping benzodiazepine use completely. This is because a person addicted to benzodiazepines will typically be drug dependent, and suddenly stopping their drug use completely can cause severe withdrawal. 

Instead, an individual has their dose gradually reduced in a tapered approach to withdrawal, which can significantly reduce withdrawal and drug cravings. Ideally, the goal is to reduce their drug use to zero over time, although high-risk patients are sometimes kept on some level of benzodiazepine use until they better handle drug abstinence. 

This process works best when combined with some level of therapy and counseling. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is often recommended to treat substance abuse. This therapy involves talking with a mental health professional about the thoughts and feelings that may lead to drug abuse. They work with you to help you understand the root cause of these thoughts and feelings and how to better control them. 

Other therapies are often incorporated into treatment plans, such as group therapy, family therapy, or alternative therapies, like art therapy, music therapy, or adventure therapy. Support group participation, such as attendance at 12-step meetings, is often recommended as part of the recovery process. All this helps you to build a new life in recovery that supports ongoing sobriety.

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Medically Reviewed By Dr. Alison Tarlow

Dr. Alison Tarlow is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in the States of Florida and Pennsylvania, and a Certified Addictions Professional (CAP). She has been a practicing psychologist for over 15 years. Sh... Read More

Updated June 17, 2023
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