Last updated: January 11, 2021
It’s no secret that drug use has been on the rise since 2020 came screeching to a halt in March of this year due to the pandemic. Illicit drug use may spring to mind when the topic comes up but prescriptions for anxiety medications–like benzodiazepine for instance–are being filled in droves.
In fact, an Express Scripts research report, America’s State of Mind, noted that prescriptions for benzodiazepine and other anti-anxiety medications increased 34% before the end of the first quarter. That news becomes even more alarming when you consider that The New England Journal of Medicine reported that the number of people being treated with benzodiazepine grew from 8 million in 1996 to almost 14 million in 2013.
If we add 34% to the 2013 figure, the number of people who are using or have used anti-anxiety medications totals around 18,760,000–and that just covers the prescriptions! It makes sense to assume the figure is even larger due to the black market.
This medication is helpful for many when used on a short-term basis, however, taking benzodiazepine over a long period of time is another story.
What is it?
Often referred to as benzos, benzodiazepine is a psychoactive medication that works on the central nervous system producing a calm, sedative effect within the brain. Readily prescribed by physicians, they are marketed under brand names such as:
It’s no wonder that people are seeking relief from anxiety–some would say 2020 has caused nothing but! Still, coping with anxiety over the long-term using any of these medications is a serious risk.
Anxiety isn’t the only condition treated with benzodiazepine, others include:
- Panic disorder
- Muscle spasms
- Alcohol withdrawal
Benzodiazepine is listed as a Schedule 4 drug on the Controlled Substances Act. That means the drug causes dependence because the brain soon recognizes it as part of being “normal” causing the body to build up a tolerance. This increases the user’s risk of addiction and, of course, overdose.
Dependence on the drug can form in as little as thirty days even when taken as directed by a physician. Even though physicians are becoming aware of the dangers, they prescribe them heavily. If someone becomes dependent by the end of their prescription they can find the drug on the streets. Or, they may choose to seek another physician’s care to obtain a new prescription.
Signs and symptoms
It can be difficult to detect that someone is abusing benzodiazepine. The most common side-effects are dizziness, drowsiness, or sleepiness because the drug slows down the central nervous system. Users greatly increase their risk of overdose when mixing benzos with opioids or alcohol.
Other side-effects include:
- Mental confusion
- Short-term memory loss
- Lack of motor control
- Slurred speech
- Slow breathing
- Muscle weakness
If you suspect someone is misusing benzodiazepine or other harmful drugs, some signs of addiction are:
- A strong craving to use repeatedly throughout the day
- Constantly increasing the dosage
- Complaining of not feeling “normal” when they aren’t using
- Continuing use even if it’s causing problems with friends and family
- Feeling sick if they try and quit
In addition to the risk of becoming psychologically and physically dependent on benzodiazepines, these drugs may also affect cognition and memory when used for an extended period. The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry published these findings stating visuospatial ability, speed of processing, and verbal learning were the most severely affected.
- Visuospatial ability is how we see, process, replicate, and understand where objects are in relation to other things.
- Processing speed is the way we complete simple tasks after learning them.
- Verbal learning skills pertain to speech and language.
Thankfully, many of the changes made in the brain after prolonged exposure to benzodiazepines may be reversed when someone stops using—but it takes awhile.
When someone stops taking this medication “cold turkey,” it causes an overexcitement of the nerves and neurons that were previously suppressed by the drug. This results in an elevated heart rate, a rise in blood pressure, and panic attacks.
Other withdrawal symptoms may include any or all of the following:
- Mood swings
- Short-term memory loss
- Suppressed appetite
- Cognitive difficulties
It’s best to withdrawal from benzos slowly under a doctor’s care. Medical or mental health professionals set up a plan to taper off the medication over time. This decreases the discomfort experienced during withdrawal and makes drug cravings manageable.
Warding off an emerging epidemic
We’ve learned a lot during the opioid epidemic that has plagued our country for nearly two decades. One weapon of defense against drug use that has proven effective is education. When people—adults and teenagers alike—are educated it enables them to make informed decisions.
Promoting the dangers of drug abuse and addiction can be enough to keep someone from ever using drugs in the first place. Especially, if they have witnessed the detrimental effects of drug addiction first hand.
The widespread use and the growing number of people seeking relief from anxiety have benzodiazepine poised to become a major drug epidemic in our country. We need to create higher safety standards before things get out of control.
Researchers and patient advocates are calling for increased awareness among medical students, doctors, and patients regarding the dangers of extended use.
Employers who are bringing employees back to work or hiring new workers need to be aware of the signs and symptoms of benzodiazepine and other drugs.
Drugs in the workplace are nothing but a hazard.
The risk of accidents increase, absenteeism goes up, productivity goes down, and the end result is the loss of revenue. Not to mention that your company’s reputation can be ruined—especially in the case of a serious accident.
Ultimately, though, we have to remember that drug use destroys an addict’s life—and the lives of those who love them. If an employee tests positive for benzodiazepine, or any drugs for that matter, showing compassion—even though you must follow through with the company policy that you have in place—can make all the difference in the world.
Knowing that you care about their well-being and are encouraging them to seek help may be the reason that they do it.
It might seem like a long shot, but it’s certainly worth a try.