- Daily use of benzodiazepines for six or more weeks will generally result in physical and/or mental dependence in 4 out of 10 users.
- According to the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy & Innovation, every 10 additional days of using Xanax, even as medically prescribed, can nearly double a patient’s risk of long-term Xanax use and addiction.
Why Is Xanax So Addictive?
Xanax and other benzodiazepine drugs are considered among the most addictive prescription drugs that are available on the market currently. Xanax and other benzodiazepine drugs are commonly misused and abused, resulting in dependence, addiction, and overdose.
Xanax is highly addictive for a variety of reasons, primarily because of how it affects the body and the brain. Xanax and other benzodiazepine drugs slow down the central nervous system, which depresses brain activity and leads to feelings of drowsiness and intense relaxation. Many individuals find this sensation highly appealing, which results in using the drug outside of prescription guidelines, which can develop into a Xanax addiction over time.
Very high doses of Xanax can result in slurred speech, impaired coordination, and respiratory issues. Overdosing on Xanax can result in seizures, coma, or even death.
The Addictive Properties of Xanax
Xanax contains certain addictive properties just like any other benzodiazepine available on the market, properties that can ultimately lead to abuse or even a full-blown substance use disorder (SUD).
Xanax increases dopamine in the brain, which is the desired result for many individuals who use this drug. This surge in dopamine prompts further misuse and abuse.
Benzodiazepine drugs such as Xanax are also often used in conjunction with other substances, including marijuana, alcohol, and other prescription medications (most often opioids). Mixing different types of prescription drugs and illicit substances can increase the chances of abuse, addiction, and overdose.
In addition, individuals have specific risk factors that increase their likelihood for addiction if Xanax is misused. For example, if a person has a family history of addiction, this brings increased genetic and environmental risk factors. Likewise, if they engage in poly-substance abuse or have a co-occurring mental health disorder, such as depression or anxiety, addiction is more likely.
How Does Xanax Impact the Brain?
Benzodiazepines result in an increase of a specific neurotransmitter’s activity: gamma-aminobutyric acid, also known as GABA.
GABA has inhibitory properties that end up depressing the central nervous system. The individual taking the drug ends up feeling relaxed or even drowsy, which some people find appealing both from a therapeutic and recreational standpoint.
As stated above, Xanax impacts the brain by increasing dopamine activity, particularly in areas of the brain that are involved with motivation and reward. Many experts believe that this is an underlying factor in the reinforcing properties of Xanax.
Understanding Addiction to Xanax
The body develops a physical dependence on Xanax if it is used regularly for even a short period of time, like six weeks. This is why benzodiazepines are generally only recommended for short-term use.
If you stop using Xanax after dependence has developed, withdrawal will begin. Benzodiazepine withdrawal can trigger life-threatening seizures, so it’s important to never stop taking Xanax suddenly without medical oversight if you are addicted to the drug.
Psychological addiction involves a compulsion to take the drug, and this can be present even when physical dependence is not.
How to Tell if You Are Addicted to Xanax
Addiction to Xanax can bring out a variety of symptoms. Consider the DSM-5’s criteria for substance use disorder in light of your Xanax use. Ask yourself these questions:
- Have you been taking higher doses of Xanax or taking it for longer periods than intended?
- Have you been wanting to cut back on Xanax use but not able to?
- Are you spending a lot of time acquiring, using, and/or recovering from Xanax?
- Are you having drug cravings when not using Xanax?
- Are you finding work or school unmanageable because of your alprazolam use?
- Are you having relationship problems related to your substance use but continue to use anyway?
- Is Xanax use affecting social and/or occupational obligations?
- Is your Xanax use putting you in dangerous situations?
- Are you continuing to use Xanax even though you are aware it is creating physical or psychological problems?
- Are you having to take more Xanax to get the desired effect?
- Do you start having withdrawal symptoms that require higher doses of alprazolam to alleviate them?
Individuals with mild addictions will answer “yes” to two or three questions. Those with moderate substance use disorder will answer positively to four or five questions, and individuals with severe addictions will answer “yes” to six or more questions.
If you have even a mild SUD, it’s a sign that you need help.
Getting Help for Xanax Addiction
The best course of action for getting treatment for Xanax addiction is to seek out comprehensive addiction treatment that includes medical detox and therapy.
Again, you should never suddenly stop taking Xanax after a period of sustained use. Instead, a doctor should design and supervise a tapering schedule, during which you gradually reduce your dose until you are not taking any. Most often, a physician will switch you to a long-acting benzodiazepine like diazepam versus the short-acting Xanax.
While specific withdrawal timelines will vary according to individuals, studies have found that a gradual withdrawal timeline over 10 weeks generally works well. It is imperative that a doctor supervises this taper.
Detox isn’t enough on its own. Therapy makes up the backbone of treatment, as the root causes of the substance abuse are addressed. There are 30, 60 and 90-day inpatient and outpatient programs available that are often custom-tailored to prescription drug addiction. Your treatment team can help you determine the best type of treatment approach for your situation.
Therapy can take many forms, including individual therapy, group therapy, and alternative forms of therapy, like music therapy, equine-assisted or animal therapy, and art therapy.
Support groups, such as 12-step meetings, can be a crucial pillar of the recovery process. In these meetings, you can learn from other members and share your own experiences in addiction. When you are tempted to relapse, you can often turn to these meetings as a source of support.
The Bottom Line
There’s no question that Xanax is a very addictive drug. If you have been abusing Xanax in any capacity, reach out for help today. There is a path to recovery waiting for you.
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- Behavioral Addiction Versus Substance Addiction: Correspondence of Psychiatric and Psychological Views. (April 2012). International Journal of Preventive Medicine.
- Management of Benzodiazepine Misuse and Dependence. (October 2015). Australian Prescriber.
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