Xanax Addiction: Surprisingly Easy & Deceptively Deadly

The anxiety medication Xanax has become one of the most widely used prescription medications in the world today. In fact, in 2012 alone there were an astounding 49.2 million prescriptions written for this incredibly popular drug.

But just as with a variety of other prescription medications, the more frequent shelling out of this drug by licensed physicians has also led to an increase in addiction to Xanax. And when it comes to the potential dangers of physical dependency, a Xanax addiction is one of the worst kinds you can have.

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What Is Alprazolam and What Does It Do?

Alprazolam, more commonly known by the brand name Xanax, is one of the most widely abused prescription drugs in the United States. It belongs to a class of drugs known as benzodiazepines or benzos for short.

These drugs are primarily used to treat generalized anxiety disorders but may also be prescribed by physicians to help manage panic disorders, sleep disorders, and seizures.

Benzodiazepines interact directly with the brain to bring on feelings of sedation, reduced anxiety, and a general sensation of calmness and tranquility.

There are a wide number of benzos besides Xanax on the market today. Some of the most common ones are:

  • Restoril (temazepam)
  • Librium (chlordiazepoxide)

In addition to coming in a wide variety of forms, benzodiazepines also have a number of street names as well including:

  • Heavenly Blues
  • BZDs
  • Tranx
  • Sleepers
  • Z Bars
  • Qual
  • Tranks
  • Nerve Pills
  • Downers

The brain is made up of billions (about 100 billion in fact) of specialized nerve cells called neurons. The interaction of these cells with other neurons is what produces our thoughts, feelings, sensations, and actions - ultimately who we are.

One way neurons communicate with one another is through the use of neurotransmitters, special chemicals within the brain that trigger certain behaviors in the neurons.

Dopamine, for example, is one of the brain's main neurotransmitters that's typically associated with rewards, memory, and a host of other functions as well. In fact, many substance addictions result from directly influencing the production of this chemical.

Benzodiazepines like Xanax along with barbiturates, on the other hand, directly affect the brain's go-to inhibitory neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid, better known as GABA. This chemical helps to calm the brain down rather than excite it.

Essentially, alprazolam makes GABA more effective, thereby increasing the potency of its effects on the brain. As a result, conditions that result from brain over-activity (like anxiety, seizures, panic disorders, etc.) are less likely to occur.

When these medications are used in moderation and under the guidance of a qualified physician then, they can be absolutely instrumental and reducing the potentially debilitating effects of a variety of mental disorders.

Is Xanax Addicting?

Continued and persistent use of alprazolam, like many other prescription drugs, can result in physical dependency and eventual addiction.

When it comes to the physical dependency aspect of Xanax addiction, your brain eventually gets used to being exposed to the overactive and potent inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA.

In an effort to shift back to a state of "normalcy," the brain adapts to the more powerful GABA by increasing the effects of excitatory neurotransmitters like dopamine or by reducing the number of GABA receptors, thereby decreasing its effectiveness.

This is a process known as building tolerance. As a result, the brain needs more of the drug to produce the desired effect. And if these increased levels aren't achieved, the body may experience a number of withdrawal symptoms as well.

The combination of tolerance and withdrawal are the two main factors in physical dependency.

When it comes to full-fledged addiction though, there's more at play than just physical dependency. Addiction is a complex mental disorder characterized by persistent drug-seeking behaviors, ones that have been reinforced so much that they actually become compulsive and difficult to ignore.

While everyone responds to benzodiazepines like alprazolam differently, the frightening truth about these drugs is that they can create physical dependency much quicker than most people may think.

For example, some Xanax users report symptoms of psychological addiction within just a few doses with actual physical dependency resulting after just several weeks of use. Others, however, may use it for months and be able to come off of it without any problems at all.

It really does depend on the individual person. There are a variety of factors at play here: genetics, social environment, exposure, stress, coping mechanisms, etc. All of these interact and play off of each other, making everyone's experience fully unique.

In general, though, many physicians and medical committees agree that benzodiazepines like alprazolam should only be used in the short-term as physical dependence is a significant risk with these powerful drugs.

The key to avoiding a potentially life-changing addiction to Xanax is prevention. As nearly any substance addict will tell you, you can lay out plans to slow down or quit using in the future, but that doesn't necessarily mean you'll follow through with them.

Taking a proactive approach to your dosage, then, is one of the best ways of preventing an addiction from developing in the first place. And that might mean asserting more control over what you're prescribed and how you're prescribed it.

To explain, there is a very popular misconception nowadays that you cannot and will not become addicted as long as you follow your doctor's prescribed dosage. This, however, is not necessarily true. In fact, dependency can often be traced back to legitimate prescriptions.

It's incredibly important, then, that you take the steps necessary to ensure you don't fall victim to this dangerous addiction. You can, for example:

  • Tell your doctor you would like to wean off of Xanax as soon as possible.
  • Ask if there are any alternative treatments for your condition.
  • Voice your concerns about developing an addiction to your doctor and ask if they have any advice to help prevent it.
  • Only ever take the dosage recommended, never more and never less.

Ultimately, alprazolam is meant to be a short-term solution only. Treating it as such is instrumental in keeping yourself from becoming addicted.


Benzodiazepine Abuse Statistics

Here are a few statistics to put the growing benzodiazepine problem into perspective:

1 Million

From 2005 to 2011, almost 1 million emergency department visits involved benzodiazepines, with 20% of those resulting in serious outcomes like hospitalization or even death.

40-50%

When combined with other drugs like opioid pain relievers or alcohol, the risk of emergency department serious outcomes increased by 24 to 55%.

430%

The number of benzodiazepine overdose deaths increased by 430% from 2002 to 2015 to almost 9,000 deaths a year, or over 24 deaths a day.

70%

The dangers for people aged 65 or older are significantly higher than younger people when it comes to benzodiazepine abuse. A whopping 70% of emergency department visits for this population were likely to result in serious outcomes, compared to 39% in people aged 12 to 34.

It's clear, then, that benzodiazepines like Xanax are a serious problem, both because of their growing abuse in the United States and because of the potentially fatal outcomes of such abuse.


Recognizing the Signs of a Xanax Addiction

The first step in treating an alprazolam addiction is admitting it exists in the first place.

And one of the quickest ways to do that is by taking an addiction quiz. These short tests will give you an indication of if your Xanax problem has progressed into an actual use disorder.

Addiction Quiz

You can also use the criteria offered by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, also known as the DSM-V. This comprehensive self-assessment (provided by the National Institute on Drug Abuse) includes 11 different scenarios that may point to an alprazolam use disorder.

Short-Term Effects of Xanax

Xanax has an especially long list of short-term side effects, both physical and psychological in nature.

And as with many other prescription medicines, the severity of these side effects is dependent on the degree to which alprazolam is abused. The longer its used or the higher the dosage, the worse these effects may become.

Here are some of the most common side effects according to the government-run health database MedlinePlus:

  • Joint pain
  • Weight fluctuation
  • Constipation
  • Changes in libido and sexual ability
  • Dry mouth
  • Talkativeness
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Drowsiness
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Changes in appetite
  • Nausea
  • Increased salivation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Tiredness
  • Light-headedness

It is possible that more serious side effects may occur as well. If you experience any of these, call your doctor immediately. These side effects include:

  • Seizures
  • Depression
  • Confusion
  • Erratic moods
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Impaired coordination
  • Respiratory problems
  • Hallucinations

Long-Term Effects of Alprazolam

Taking Xanax for an extended period of time can also come with a host of long-term side effects as well. On the physical side, these may include sustained and prolonged versions of the short-term effects listed above including fatigue, dizziness, and headache.

However, some of the most notable long-term side effects are the psychological ones. According to the Ashton Manual, one of the most trusted and comprehensive reports on benzodiazepines, long-term use of alprazolam and other benzodiazepines may cause significant and permanent damage to the brain.

The result of this damage may manifest in a variety of ways including:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Aggression
  • Personality shifts
  • Irritability
  • Severe memory impairment
  • Insomnia

Another widely reported long-term effect of Xanax is the development of what's been called "emotional blunting." This state is characterized by an inability to feel neither emotional pleasure nor pain, which can (and does) severely impact social relationships, family life, and overall quality of life.

What's more, another long-term effect of alprazolam use is an increased probability of becoming physically dependent and ultimately entirely addicted to this powerful benzodiazepine.

Given the severity of these side effects, many physicians tend to use Xanax and other benzodiazepines only for short-term management of the symptoms of anxiety.

Symptoms of Xanax Withdrawal

Withdrawals from alprazolam are some of the most uncomfortable of all addictive substances.

In fact, former addicts regularly report that going through benzodiazepine withdrawals is more unbearable than even harder drugs like cocaine and heroin.

The physical symptoms alone are quite extensive and include:

  • Pain and stiffness in the body
  • Weakness
  • Muscle twitches and feelings of being shocked
  • Dizziness
  • Tinnitus
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Flushing/sweating
  • Urinary difficulties
  • Headache
  • Tingling sensations
  • Fatigue
  • Tremor
  • Blurred vision
  • Hypersensitivity to light, touch, taste, sound, and smell
  • Dry mouth
  • Over breathing
  • Skin rashes

In most cases though, the most difficult part of the withdrawal process is enduring the psychological symptoms. Many addicts describe these symptoms as hellish, excruciating, and unbearable.

Psychological Xanax withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Insomnia and other sleep disturbances
  • Agoraphobia
  • Depersonalization
  • Depression
  • Paranoia
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Impaired memory
  • Cravings
  • Excitability
  • Anxiety
  • Perceptual distortions
  • Hallucinations
  • Obsessions
  • Rage and aggression
  • Intrusive memories

These symptoms can in fact become so severe that some physicians have characterized the state as one of actual psychosis.

A Potentially Fatal Detoxification

With the physical and psychological symptoms of Xanax detoxification can be incredibly uncomfortable, the true danger of alprazolam withdrawals is the fact that it can actually lead to death.

As the body acclimates to an increasingly potent GABA (the mechanism of action for Xanax), it also intensifies the effects of excitatory neurotransmitters like dopamine to counteract it.

As GABA quickly returns to its normal potency once alprazolam is quickly removed from the body though, the dopamine stays at the same level of intensity for longer. As a result, the brain may be launched into a storm of electrical activity caused by the much stronger excitatory neurotransmitter taking over.

Think of it like two equal forces pushing against each other and suddenly one is taken away entirely.

One potential outcome of this situation is the development of grand mal seizures which can potentially be fatal.


Ways to Safely Detox from Alprazolam

Given the dangers and the intensity of the symptoms associated with Xanax withdrawals, it is incredibly important that you do not undergo alprazolam detoxification alone.

Seeking the help of a qualified addiction specialist is the best way to cut down on the severity of the symptoms and, more importantly, to ensure your safety throughout the entire process.

With the proper expertise, you and an addiction professional will develop an individually tailored taper program to slowly wean you off of your alprazolam dependency. This will give your body the time and gradual changes it needs to adapt to the decrease in Xanax.

What's more, actual treatment centers also typically have a variety of supplemental therapies such as individual counseling, group therapy, and even activities to help deal with underlying stress such as painting, dancing, and even equine therapy.

Ultimately, the absolute best way to ensure your recovery is by enlisting the help of qualified professionals, not tackling the monster of addiction entirely on your own.

Plus, your life may actually depend on it.

Getting Help When You're Addicted to Xanax

An alprazolam addiction is undoubtedly one of the most difficult addictions to endure. What's more, it also carries with it the most unbearable (and deadly) withdrawals of nearly any drug available today.

It's absolutely crucial then that you get the help you need to kick this dangerous addiction as soon as you can. It really is possible to overcome your addiction to prescription medications like alprazolam.

And the first step is finding the right kind of treatment to help.

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