woman looking at prescription pills

Xanax is a brand name benzodiazepine. The generic name for the drug is alprazolam, and the medication is sometimes sold under this product name. This sedative drug is prescribed to treat generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and anxiety associated with depression. It may also be prescribed off-label to manage insomnia or seizure disorders, but this is much rarer because Xanax is a medium-acting drug.

Some benzodiazepines take effect almost immediately and are rapidly eliminated from the body. Xanax takes effect within 30 minutes to one hour, effects peak between one and two hours, and the drug’s half-life is 12 hours, so it is completely eliminated from the body within one day.

Because it is very effective as a short-term or as-needed treatment for several forms of anxiety, Xanax is widely prescribed. But this benzodiazepine can take effect quickly and stays active in the body for several hours, so it can lead to dependence, compulsive behaviors, and abuse indicating addiction. A medical professional will typically prescribe Xanax for no more than two weeks of continuous use because benzodiazepines can quickly result in tolerance and dependence. Unfortunately, many people abuse these medications by finding multiple prescriptions or purchasing them on the street.

Xanax Abuse

Misuse of prescription drugs is an epidemic sweeping the United States; however, many people think first of opioid addiction and abuse. A 2013 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 70 percent of overdose deaths in the US in involved opioid painkillers, but 30 percent involved benzodiazepines. The medications are now considered a “shadow epidemic,” influencing alcohol poisoning and opioid overdoses by enhancing the intoxicating and dangerous effects of those drugs. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported that, between 2005 and 2011, nearly 1 million emergency room admissions involved benzodiazepines, sometimes alone but often in combination with alcohol, opioids, or both.

To help someone who may abuse a benzodiazepine like Xanax, it is important to know the signs of this form of drug abuse. Xanax and other benzodiazepines work on the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors in the brain, the same area alcohol affects. Because of the similarity in sedative effects, abusing Xanax may cause a person to look or act drunk, and they may experience memory blackouts.

Physical Signs of Xanax Abuse

The short-term physical effects associated with Xanax abuse include:

  • Drowsiness or sleepiness
  • Lethargy
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Vertigo
  • Impaired coordination, including stumbling or falling
  • Changes to vision
  • Slurred speech or stuttering
  • Tremors or shaking
  • Nausea, vomiting, and abdominal cramping
  • Loss of appetite
  • Diarrhea
  • Respiratory depression similar to opioids

Long-term abuse of benzodiazepines like Xanax can cause muscle atrophy, leading to physical weakness. The most harmful physical effect of Xanax is tolerance, which develops quickly once one begins taking the drug. When a person with anxiety or panic disorder develops a tolerance to a sedative medication like Xanax, they will not experience as much of a calming effect as intended. As a result, they may up their dose without consulting a medical professional and continue abusing the drug long after their physician has stopped prescribing it. The person may feel like they depend on Xanax to moderate their mood or to sleep. This could lead to cravings and compulsive behaviors around taking the drug, which indicates an addiction.

Mental Changes from Abusing Xanax

Abusing benzodiazepines can have a strong effect on the brain. Such abuse can cause difficulty thinking clearly or remembering events. Some short-term mental effects of Xanax abuse include:

  • Memory problems
  • Rebound insomnia
  • Vivid or disturbing dreams
  • Confusion
  • Depression
  • Slowed reaction time or reflexes
  • Rebound anxiety
  • Cravings

Consistent, long-term abuse of Xanax and other benzodiazepines has more long-term effects on the brain than the rest of the body. Memory loss from blackouts, trouble thinking and learning, disorientation, confusion, and poor judgment can last for a long time and even become permanent. Mood swings and hostility may also characterize long-term, high-dose Xanax abuse.

Other Signs of Xanax Addiction

There are other signs that may indicate prescription drug abuse, including Xanax addiction. These include:

  • Stealing, selling, or forging prescriptions
  • Keeping a lot of Xanax in the house
  • Taking more than prescribed and frequently returning to the doctor for a refill
  • Rapid mood changes or hostility, especially when questioned about drug abuse
  • Increased or decreased need for sleep
  • Other behavioral changes, including becoming more reclusive
  • Making bad decisions
  • Financial problems
  • Appearing intoxicated, especially drunk
  • “Losing” prescriptions
  • Stealing money or drugs from family or friends
  • Visiting multiple doctors
  • Denial about abuse of the drug
  • Friends or family members who make excuses for the person’s intoxication or mood

How to Overcome Xanax Abuse for Good

male physician speaking with female patient

Many physicians who prescribe Xanax will eventually help their patients safely detox from the medication even if the person takes it as prescribed. The physician will create a tapering schedule, so after two or three weeks, the person no longer needs the drug. An addiction specialist helping a person detox from Xanax abuse and addiction will create a similar plan, although they may replace Xanax with longer-acting Valium to begin changing the person’s compulsive behaviors around taking a lot of pills throughout the day.

Those with a history of substance abuse, including alcohol use disorder, those with a family history of substance abuse, and those with pre-existing mental health conditions for which they are not receiving therapy are at greater risk of struggling with Xanax and other drugs. Xanax should only be taken as directed and used alongside Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or other approaches to treating anxiety. Medication alone does not create lasting mental health changes.

For those who struggle with Xanax abuse, entering a rehabilitation program after medically supervised detox will be important. Many rehabilitation programs are offering both individual and group therapy, especially when treating co-occurring disorders like anxiety and Xanax abuse. This approach changes behaviors around intoxicating substances like benzodiazepines or alcohol, and it can also lay the foundation to treat an underlying mental illness alongside substance abuse issues.