Benzodiazepines, or “benzos,” are depressant drugs that relax the central nervous system and are prescribed to treat anxiety disorders, sleep problems and seizures. Unfortunately, most people quickly build up tolerance to benzos, and a carelessly managed prescription can easily turn into addiction. Anyone whose doctor recommends benzodiazepines is well advised to ask about alternatives, and—if going through with the prescription—to avoid taking benzos with any opioid drug and have a plan for discontinuing the medication within several weeks. Even with these precautions in place, stay alert for early indicators of possible addiction, including drowsiness, moodiness, reduced initiative or decline in physical and mental functions.
If you’re among the unfortunate ones who’ve already developed an addiction, here are some things you need to know when arranging for benzodiazepine detox.
1. Qualified medical supervision is essential—benzo withdrawal comes with high physical risks.
Taking the “cold turkey” approach to benzo detox is playing a dangerous game with one’s life. Sudden discontinuance may send the brain’s motor neurons into hyperdrive and trigger seizures, heart palpitations or perilously shallow breathing. Mentally, a person may begin hallucinating or go psychotic, perhaps attempting suicide.
To head off potentially devastating consequences from such risks, detoxing from benzodiazepine addiction requires professional medical treatment and careful observation for several days.
2. Complete detoxification from benzos is a long-term process.
The good news: the worst of withdrawal is usually over within a week. The bad news: depending on the individual and the nature of the original addiction (how long it lasted, the specific drug involved, how much was taken per dose, how severe the acute withdrawal symptoms were), it’s possible for lesser “withdrawal” effects to recur long afterwards. As many as one recovering addict in 10 experiences periodic nerve tingling, spasms, dizzy spells, sleeplessness or mood swings for months, even years, after the last dose. An unlucky few develop lasting mental-health issues or partial paralysis.
The risk may be lessened by discontinuing use of the drug at a measured pace. Doctors administering benzodiazepine addiction treatment usually employ the tapering-off approach, where doses are slowly reduced (or replaced with a safer substitute drug) to ease the patient into a more functional state. Since benzo withdrawal symptoms frequently fluctuate, doses are typically administered on a fixed schedule rather than according to severity of symptoms.
Afterward, the client remains at a detox center for several weeks, working toward long-term abstinence through counseling and group therapy. Clients completing inpatient care should retain contact information for a doctor or other emergency support partner, in case of withdrawal-symptom recurrence.
"A medically-supervised detox enables the body to rid itself of the drugs in it in a comfortable and safe fashion, thereby avoiding life-threatening complications of withdrawal."
3. If benzodiazepines were originally prescribed for an ongoing problem, you’ll need to develop alternate coping methods.
A risk in recovering from any addiction is that, with the recurrence of problems a patient had gotten used to “self-medicating,” the dangerous but familiar coping mechanism will start to look attractive all over again. About half the people in recovery from any addiction will experience a relapse at one time or another, and benzo addiction is no exception. While relapse needn’t be more than a setback if handled properly, it usually requires a return visit to the detox center for immediate help in heading off a slide back into full-blown addiction.
Unfortunately, completely removing relapse triggers from one’s life isn’t always an option, especially if emotional stress or physical pain is a significant factor. Benzo prescriptions are always a short-term solution—it’s never safe to take them for extended lengths of time—but the anxiety-based problems they’re intended to treat are usually tied to psychological issues that rarely go away quickly. A competent doctor will advise patients to take benzos as a means of buying a few weeks of clearheadedness, and to use that time to develop other stress-management and anxiety-mitigating approaches that are safe for the long term.
Likewise, follow-up plans for the long term will be part of any benzodiazepine addiction treatment. Depending on the issue that originally led to the addiction, techniques may focus on mental anxiety management or physical relaxation. In a sense, this is itself a form of detox—“detoxing” from the habit of demanding things be controllable, from “what if” thinking, from taking things personally or obsessing about getting everything perfect or being unwilling to accept the inevitable.
Or from seeking a quick fix for everything, which is often the reason people become dependent on the fast-relax effect of benzos. As with any form of personal progress, the only way to really get anywhere is to take responsibility for your own life. A few proven ways to reduce anxiety, insomnia, depression and stress without drugs:
Exercise. A good brisk walk, especially outdoors, gets endorphins flowing and can work wonders in lifting a low mood or increasing your self-confidence.
Healthy eating. Too much caffeine, sugar and fat makes almost anyone feel chronically “down.” You don’t have to give up your favorite comfort foods, but be sure to supplement them with healthy daily servings of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains. And no matter what you’re eating, you’ll get more benefit if you take time to sit down, eat slowly and really taste your food.
Prayer or meditation. You can find online “guided meditations” for every faith tradition—or just put on some quiet instrumental music, sit in a comfortable position, and let yourself get fully absorbed in the music while quietly ignoring any anxious thoughts that attempt to intrude. If you prefer prayer, in “talking to your Higher Power person to person” form, remember to listen and to offer thanks for your blessings, rather than launching into a rant about when something’s going to be done about all your problems and needs.
Bedtime routine. If you have insomnia problems, it usually helps to reserve your last half hour before bedtime for winding down with relaxing rituals: a cup of herbal tea, a hot bath, quiet music, inspirational reading. Avoid “screen time,” high physical activity or working late.
Finally, get active in a support group (there are many specializing in benzo-related problems), get therapy (involving your family if possible), and learn to think of yourself as a strong person who has permanently detoxed from benzodiazepines to embrace a better approach to life!
If you or a loved one are struggling with benzo addiction, Inland Detox can help. Call (888) 739-8296 and ask about our benzodiazepine detox program.