Xanax is the brand name for alprazolam, a benzodiazepine medication prescribed for short-term treatment of anxiety and panic attacks. This is one of the most prescribed drugs in the US and one of the most abused prescription medications.
How Xanax Works and How It Is Abused
Like other benzodiazepines, Xanax is a central nervous system depressant that acts on the gamma-aminobutyric (GABA) receptors to slow down firing between neurons. This reduces nerve impulses in the body, which helps to calm a person who struggles with consistent anxiety or regular panic attacks. Some benzodiazepines are also prescribed to treat seizures, although Xanax is not one of these drugs. Alprazolam is a short-acting benzodiazepine, meaning it works quickly, and for a very short period of time; it does not linger in the body, and the effects of the medication are usually gone within four hours after the dose is ingested.
However, because benzodiazepines like Xanax create a sense of calm, they can become addictive. Doctors typically do not prescribe Xanax for long-term use anymore because it can be very habit-forming. Even in people who use Xanax as prescribed and stop taking it when they no longer need it, the brain can develop a dependence on the drug, and that can lead to some withdrawal symptoms. Xanax withdrawal symptoms are typically similar to the mental health issue they are used to treat, such as insomnia or constant worry. People who struggle with anxiety or panic attacks may fear going off Xanax because they do not want to experience the symptoms of their underlying mental health condition, and this can lead them to taking the drug longer, without a prescription, or at higher doses than originally prescribed.
Benzodiazepines such as Xanax can have several effects on the mind and body. The drug was designed to change brain chemistry, and when a person struggles with Xanax abuse, they may experience several changes to their mental and physical health.
Effects of Xanax
Mental and emotional side effects of Xanax abuse include:
- Euphoria or a “high”
- Memory loss
- Rebound insomnia and anxiety
Physical side effects from abusing Xanax include:
- Impaired motor coordination, as though one is drunk
- Slurred speech
- Changes to vision
- Muscle weakness
- Aches and pains
- Respiratory depression, as with opioid abuse
- Changes to appetite and weight
People who abuse Xanax for a long time, in large doses, are more at risk of experiencing withdrawal symptoms when they try to stop taking the drug. Withdrawal symptoms include increased heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate. The person may also experience rebound symptoms, including panic attacks, insomnia, and anxiety.
The person will also crave the drug, and if they do not have social support from friends, family, and a rehabilitation program, they are more likely to relapse, and potentially overdose. If the person develops protracted withdrawal, or benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome, they may develop seizures, which can be physically dangerous.
Researchers noted recently that overdoses related to benzodiazepine abuse were on the rise, and the main culprits were Xanax, Valium, and Ativan. In 2013, about one-third of 23,000 prescription drug overdose deaths involved benzodiazepines in some way.
Many people who struggle with substance abuse or addiction use benzodiazepines to enhance the effects of other drugs, including alcohol, cocaine, and opioids. Benzodiazepines do not often lead to overdose by themselves, but they are commonly involved in overdose involving multiple drugs.
How to Get Help
Addiction and substance abuse are dangerous, and they can lead to death from overdose if untreated. Medical detox is required for Xanax withdrawal due to the potential for life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. Generally, doctors use a tapering approach to slowly wean clients off benzodiazepines. Withdrawal must be followed by a therapeutic treatment program to effectively address the addiction issue.