Xanax, also known as alprazolam, is a drug often prescribed by doctors to help with anxiety and panic disorders. This type of medication belongs to a class of drugs known as benzodiazepines that affect the central nervous system, including the brain and the nerves, to calm people who are anxious.
How Does Xanax Work?
Xanax lessens anxiety by enhancing the neurotransmitter GABA that the body naturally produces. GABA functions as a chemical messenger that blocks certain brain signals by attaching to brain receptors. When GABA attaches to these receptors, the brain produces a natural calming effect, helping with feelings of anxiety, stress, and fear. Xanax, or any benzodiazepine, helps stimulate the brain’s natural production of GABA.
Why is Xanax Dangerous?
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, or NIDA, “the number of adults who filled a benzodiazepine prescription increased by 67%” between 1996 and 2013. While benzodiazepines are rarely the cause of an overdose, they are often paired with alcohol or opioids, which can result in a deadly combination.
While benzodiazepines were first introduced in the 1960s, it took another 20 years for researchers to truly understand how Xanax affected the body. During that time, individuals became more likely to abuse the drug. A recent study found that doctors wrote about 75 million benzodiazepine prescriptions in a year, enough drugs for about 4 to 5 percent of the U.S. population.
Because of how Xanax interacts with the brain’s neurotransmitters, it is easy to develop a tolerance to the medication over time. That is why long-term use of benzodiazepines, even when taken as prescribed, can be problematic. Withdrawal symptoms can be severe when someone suddenly stops taking Xanax. As a result, many health care providers now recommend that an individual take benzodiazepines for no longer than one or two weeks.
Types of Benzodiazepines
Xanax works quickly, often within 30 minutes, and the effects on the brain and body can last for up to six hours. There are about 2,000 different types of benzodiazepines, but according to WebMD, only about 15 are approved by the FDA for use in the United States currently. These FDA-approved benzodiazepines are classified by how long people experience their effects on average. While Xanax is one type of benzodiazepine, others include:
- Midazolam (Versed), triazolam (Halcion) — Ultra-short acting
- Lorazepam (Ativan) — Short-acting
- Chlordiazepoxide (Librium), diazepam (Valium), Clonazepam (Klonopin) — Long-acting
When someone uses Xanax over a long period of time, they run the risk of developing a tolerance that can lead to dependence or addiction.
A tolerance occurs when the person needs more and more of the drug to help them feel the same way they felt when they first started taking the medication.
Dependence occurs when the body and mind of the individual taking Xanax no longer function as well if the drug is not in their system.
An addiction occurs when a person continues to abuse Xanax even when they begin to experience negative outcomes as a result. When someone is addicted to any substance, they are often willing to engage in increasingly dangerous or illegal acts to get more of the drug.
Side Effects and Overdose
There is a multitude of side effects someone can experience when taking Xanax. These include drowsiness, low energy, confusion, dizziness, and impaired coordination. Someone taking benzodiazepines may also have trouble sleeping or experience blurred vision and headaches.
Xanax is known to interact with alcohol and other drugs. It is important that someone prescribed any benzodiazepine inform their doctor of other medications they are taking in order to avoid any dangerous interactions. It is also possible for fetal anomalies to occur in pregnant women who take Xanax. Additionally, the medication can be passed to a child during breastfeeding.
Most instances of overdoses involving Xanax also involve another drug or alcohol. Signs of a potential overdose can range from mild to severe. Someone experiencing mild symptoms may suffer from confusion, poor coordination or uncontrolled muscle movements, tremors, a rapid heartbeat, slow reflexes, or slurred speech. More severe symptoms include:
- chest pain
- difficulty breathing
- abnormal heart rhythm
Withdrawal and Treatment for Xanax Abuse
If someone is taking a high dose of Xanax or has been taking the prescription for a long time, they should seek medical help before they stop taking the medication. Otherwise, they can experience dangerous withdrawal symptoms. Signs of withdrawal include:
- sensitivity to light and sound
- blurred vision
- muscle cramps
A supervised detox from benzodiazepines allows the person to gradually wean themselves off the drug to avoid severe withdrawal symptoms. Xanax abuse is common, but unless the drug is combined with other drugs or alcohol, it is rare for misuse to cause serious illness or death. Once someone has been safely weaned from benzodiazepines, it is a good idea for the person to consult with an addiction specialist to help them explore why they were abusing the medication and what lifestyle changes they need to make to ensure they do not resume their abuse of benzodiazepines.
At Bridges of Hope, our treatment philosophy is based on a comprehensive and integrated approach to addressing all issues related to substance use and mental health disorders. Utilizing therapeutically proven, evidence-based clinical practices, we provide superior patient care in Indiana through all-inclusive treatment services.
Remember: we are not medical professionals. If you have any concerns about your use of any medication, please consult your doctor first.