Benzodiazepine use is a silent epidemic. The rise in heroin use seems to get all the press, but in the United States alone, 11% of Americans reported some form of benzodiazepine use in the past year. Around 4 million people, approximately 2% of the adult population, have been prescribed benzos regularly for 5-10 years or more. Even prescriptions from doctors, taken as directed, can result in benzodiazepine dependence after weeks or months.
Benzos such as Xanax, Ativan, and Valium are meant for short-term relief. But when taking the medication as prescribed, people can find themselves becoming dependent. Persistent use of benzos can turn from a short-term solution into a long-term problem. Many people continue to use them, not for symptom relief, but to prevent painful withdrawal.
Here’s a list of common symptoms people experience during benzodiazepine withdrawal. In addition, I have included personal testimonials for each symptom from people who walked through withdrawal and are living full lives without them today.
If you do anticipate withdrawal symptoms from benzodiazepines or abuse drugs like Xanax or Valium, consult with a doctor or choose a qualified recovery center prior to help formulate an abstinence/treatment plan. Withdrawal from benzos can be life-threatening in severe cases, so it is best to ensure your safety with the help of a trusted medical provider. This article is not intended to substitute, but rather complement and encourage, the advice of qualified professionals.
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- Increased irritability and/or emotional outbursts
- Inability to concentrate, perform simple tasks and/or memory problems
- Body Aches, pains, and/or muscle stiffness/soreness
- Sleep disturbance
- Anxiety and or panic attacks
- Suicidal thoughts, seizures, death (severe symptoms)
Increased Irritability/ Outbursts
Benzos act as a depressant. That means the drug slows down functions of the body and dulls chemical receptors in the brain. When benzodiazepine use stops, “calming” chemicals benzos provide are no longer present. After long-term abuse, individuals deal with a range of difficult emotions. No longer able to calm themselves without medication, users may exhibit intial benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms like obsessive, irrational, raging, hyperactive or hysterical behavior. They may also demonstrate inappropriate responses to social cues, commonly known as being “socially awkward.”
It’s important to realize that once abstinence begins, feelings can get intense, overwhelming, and in some situations, almost unbearable. But it’s also temporary. Feelings aren’t facts, and the longer a person can abstain from benzo abuse, the quicker the brain begins to heal.
“ Once detox began, I was blown away by all my feelings. I reminded myself that these feelings weren’t permanent, and using again will only temporarily stop the pain.”
12 step programs help people come to terms with the powerlessness they feel. These fellowships pass along actionable strategies to help sufferers gain freedom from problematic substance abuse. It’s incredibly relieving to meet individuals who’ve experienced the same difficulties and walked through better than ever. Find recovery support groups in your area via Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, or SMART Recovery.
“Benzos made me angry; however, coming off them made me angrier. I can say that I began feeling relief once I got involved in a fellowship and began to work the steps.”
Inability to Concentrate/Perform Simple Tasks/Memory Problems
As a depressant, benzos slow down all bodily functions including the production of transmitters that have a stimulating effect. These transmitters are essential for coordination, memory, emotional responses, alertness and basic reaction times. When there is not enough transmitted stimulation from the brain, the body will not work properly. Duh, right? Basic functions like writing, going to the bathroom, walking and speaking become difficult.
People should do what they can each day, even if it feels small. The body and brain need to relearn how to work together and accomplish tasks. Start with small things like taking short walks, painting nails, drawing, journaling, learning how to knit, singing or playing catch. Eventually people are able to build upon these small tasks and return to normal functioning.
“ When I first got to treatment, I couldn’t tell them who the President was. I knew in my brain, but I couldn’t get the words to come out. I re-taught myself how to write by journaling each day. I started with a sentence, but at the end of 2 months, I could write pages.”
Body Aches, Pains, Muscle Stiffness and Soreness
Many people state this is the most difficult part of benzo withdrawal. Common areas for intense pain are the neck, shoulders, arms and legs. Muscle spasms, twitching, vibrations, tightness, jaw clenching and “ jelly legs” are frequently reported. In isolated cases, this symptom was so severe that the sufferer was misdiagnosed with Multiple sclerosis (MS).
It’s one of the most problematic aspects of withdrawal due to extreme physical discomfort. Wearing comfy clothes and taking a warm bath/shower will provide some relief. But the best defense is to stay active despite the desire to do nothing. Many people found stretching or Yoga extremely helpful.
“There were times when I felt as though I couldn’t walk, but at the same time if I stayed still, I felt like my legs would explode. I needed to stay as active as possible. Moving your body can definitely relieve some pain.”
Sleep Disturbance and/or Insomnia
People on benzodiazepines sleep. A lot. But it’s not the good kind of sleep. Benzo users are not able to enter the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep cycle. For a brain to function properly, it needs at least 20% of total sleep time to be spent in REM each night. Imagine the damage done to the brain by depriving it of REM for one month, let alone years. So when REM is reintroduced, it takes time for cycles to return to balance. This can cause people in the intial stages of abstinence to wake up multiple times throughout the night. They may also experience intense dreams and nightmares.
Minds enduring benzo withdrawal are hypersensitive to stimulation. When stimulated, the brain takes longer than normal to relax. At night, take a few hours before bed to “unplug”. Avoid TV, the internet and intense conversations. Sufferers should make the place they sleep a safe, comfortable spot. Get some scented oils. Play soft music. Read an interesting book. Use a white noise generator. Or meditate. With discipline and abstinence and healthy practices, normal sleep patterns return.
“ I needed a dark room, with limited noise and a fan. Then I thought about a place where I couldn’t help but smile when I thought about it. I focused on this place and breathed as deep and slow as possible until I fell asleep.”
Anxiety or Panic Attacks
Anxiety and benzos have a Catch 22 relationship. People often start taking the drug to curb anxiety, yet over time, the substance dulls senses. When absintence begins, anxiety swells and can be overwhelming.
Anxiety and panic attacks manifest in many ways. People often describe feeling shortness of breath, rapid heart rate, shaking, cold sweats, impending sense of doom, paranoia and the sensation of imminent death.
What triggers anxiety is generally specific to that person. Similarly, what calms anxiety is specific to that person. What works for me and countless others is remaining in the present or getting back to the present. “Get where your feet are!”
Anxiety and panic attacks ignite an overwhelming sense of fear. People should be reminded that, “…in this moment, nothing is wrong and you will not die”. In the middle of a panic attack, it’s also helpful to get present by initiating an enjoyable activity. Distract the brain by playing guitar, knitting, writing, exercise or whatever brings the tiniest bit of peace.
“I was on my hands and knees. I couldn’t breathe. I felt like the world was ending. Everywhere was scary and nobody understood what I was going through. My friend put my guitar in my hands and asked me to play. My hands were shaking so badly I could barely strum, but it helped my mind think about something else. Even to this day when I feel anxious or scared, I go to my guitar, and it helps.”
Suicidal Thoughts, Suicidal Ideation, Seizures or Death
Preoccupation with thoughts of suicide while going through withdrawal falls into the severe symptoms category, along with hallucinations, seizures, mania, psychosis and in very isolated cases, death. Many who have undergone withdrawal played out this fantasy to escape the pain of the withdrawal itself. Or perhaps they cannot imagine living a life without the assistance of the substance.
Consult with a doctor, a trusted individual, go to the ER, call 911 or call 800.273.8255, the national suicide hotline, immediately if you or someone you know experience any of these symptoms.
Anyone who has gone through withdrawal will tell you they thought about suicide at least once. If people have thoughts about self-harm, it is vital that they open up to someone about it immediately, preferably somebody in a position to get help. Talking with another person or qualified professional tends to take away the power of suicidal thoughts.
“I felt suicidal the first time I went to treatment. I did not know how to cope without drugs. However, the longer I stayed sober, the better it got. It also helped when I was honest with another person about where I was at emotionally. The more I talked about my struggles, the stronger I began to feel.”
“It was the combination of the physical and mental pain. I hurt everywhere and I had failed at life again. I woke up one morning and the physical pain was gone. I remembered thinking, ‘ It’s just a mental game now. I think can actually do this.”Two of the most powerful weapons to combat anxiety are mindfulness meditation and exercise. Most benzo users suffer from various levels of anxiety, acute and/or sporadic. These two practices offer demonstrated coping methods for non-prescription solutions to the anxiety dilemma.
This form of meditation has been clinically proven to reduce levels of anxiety. Follow this link to learn more about the mindfulness meditation-drug addiction relationship, and how to start meditating today!
This shouldn’t be a secret anymore. But it seems like lots of people still haven’t jumped on the treadmill. Cardio workouts have been shown, time and time again, to reduce levels of stress and anxiety. They can expeditate the substance abuse recovery process too. Start yesterday if you have completed the benzo withdrawal phase and transitioned to complete abstinence.
You don’t have to join the gym to experience the benefits of exercise. A simple 20 or 30 minute walk through the park or in your neighborhood is a phenomenal start.
Remember, you can do this. Get help. Stay clean. Live healthy and happy!