Benzodiazepine Abuse Effects, Signs & Symptoms

What is Benzodiazepine Abuse

Understanding Benzodiazepine Abuse

Benzodiazepines (also known as “bennies,” “planks,” and “bars”) are a widely-prescribed prescription medication that are used to treat, among others, anxiety and insomnia. Compared to barbiturates, benzodiazepines are relatively safe medications and even with overdose, rarely cause death. Benzodiazepines are often prescribed for people struggling with anxiety disorders and sleep problems, and four types of drugs that are most commonly prescribed of this drug class are Xanax (alprazolam), Valium (diazepam), Klonopin (clonazepam), and lorazepam (Ativan). Most benzodiazepines produce rapid effects and are often prescribed on a short-term, as-needed basis as many anxiety disorders do tend to worsen and diminish over time. This allows for people who struggle with chronic anxiety disorders to have the ability to use the drugs intermittently.

Unfortunately, benzodiazepines have a potential for abuse when used chronically. Benzos are often taken in combination with other types of drugs of abuse to augment a high. Some people mix benzodiazepines with other central nervous system depressants such as alcohol or heroin to increase feelings of well-being, intoxication, and calm. As central nervous system depressants carry risks for respiratory depression, combining several CNS depressants can increase the risks for serious respiratory depression and death. Other people mix benzodiazepines with central nervous stimulants such as meth or coke in order to reduce the unpleasant feelings associated with CNS stimulants. The combination of CNS depressants and stimulants can lead to cardiovascular failure and collapse, leading to serious complications.

In lower dosages, benzos are sedating, in moderate doses, they counteract anxiety, and in high doses these drugs are hypnotics. People who abuse benzodiazepines generally require more and higher doses of the drug as they develop a tolerance to benzos. While benzodiazepine abuse is a frightening addiction, it is one that can be managed through a proper rehabilitation facility for medically-monitored detox and therapies.


Statistics of Benzodiazepine Abuse

Each year 11 to 15% of the adult population has used a benzodiazepine one or more times during the year prior, while only 1 to 2% report taking benzodiazepines every day for over 12 months.


What are the Causes of Benzodiazepine Abuse

The precise causes for the development of an addiction to benzodiazepines is unknown, however, it is believed that there are a number of factors that work together that can lead someone down the pathway to addiction. These include:

Genetic: It’s now known that addiction does run in families. People who have a first-degree relative, such as a sibling or parent, who struggled with addiction are at a higher rate of developing addiction themselves.

Physical: Benzodiazepines weaken the influence of a group of cells called the inhibitory interneurons that normally help to prevent surges of dopamine levels. This leads to the dopamine-producing neurons producing more dopamine.

Environmental: People who begin using drugs at an earlier age are more likely to develop an addiction later in life. In addition, individuals who are raised in an environment in which addiction runs rampant grow to learn that the proper coping mechanism for extreme stresses is to abuse drugs like benzodiazepines. People who have a lower level of education are also more prone to develop an addiction to benzodiazepines.

Risk Factors:

  • Duration of benzodiazepine use longer than 4 weeks
  • Being of younger age
  • Having non-native cultural origins
  • Being in an outpatient treatment for drug or alcohol addiction

Signs and Symptoms

Learn More About the Signs and Symptoms of Benzodiazepine Abuse

The symptoms of benzodiazepine abuse will vary from person to person based upon individual makeup, length of abuse, and frequency of use. Some of the more common symptoms of benzodiazepine addiction may include:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Slowed reaction times
  • Speaking more slowly
  • Inability to meet personal obligations
  • Usage of benzos in unsafe situations
  • Hiding bottles of the pills around the house
  • Increased fights about benzo use
  • Decreased performance at work or school
  • Reduced inhibitions

Physical symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Tolerance
  • Dependence
  • Unsteady gait
  • Difficulty retaining memories
  • Blurred vision

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Short-term memory impairment
  • Amnesia
  • Impaired judgment
  • Confusion
  • Slowed-down thought processes

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Depression
  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • Decreased concentration
  • Hostility
  • Disturbing dreams


Understanding the Effects of Benzodiazepine Abuse

The long-term effects of chronic benzo abuse can impact nearly every facet of an individual’s life. The effects will vary based upon genetic makeup, length and severity of use, and frequency of use. Most common effects of benzo abuse include:

  • Addiction
  • Psychomotor retardation
  • Decreased efficacy of benzos
  • Increased memory impairment
  • Worsening of overall mental health
  • Worsening of emotional well-being
  • Job loss
  • Interpersonal problems
  • Addiction to other substances of abuse
  • Emotional numbness
  • Depression
  • Paradoxical disinhibition – emergence of violence, aggression, and hostility
  • Self-harm behaviors
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors

Withdrawal and Overdose

Learn More About the Effects of Benzodiazepine Withdrawal and Overdose

The effects of overdose and withdrawal from benzo abuse can range from mild to life-threatening.

Withdrawal effects:

Benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome is a well-known phenomenon unique to those who abuse benzodiazepines and can be mild and relatively short-lived or severe and long-lasting. These effects may include:

  • Upsurge of anxiety, panic attacks, and agoraphobia
  • Insomnia and nightmares
  • Depression
  • Excitability, restlessness
  • Decreased memory and concentration
  • Syncope
  • Tremors
  • Muscle pain and stiffness
  • Night sweats, effusive sweating
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Heart palpitations


Oral overdoses on benzodiazepines, when used alone, rarely cause death or serious illness. Some of the symptoms of benzodiazepine overdose may include:

  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Drowsiness
  • Blurred vision
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Anxiety
  • Paradoxical agitation
  • Hallucinations
  • Slurred speech
  • Nystagmus
  • Ataxia
  • Coma
  • Weakness
  • Altered mental status
  • Hypotension
  • Respiratory depression

Co-Occurring Disorders

Benzodiazepine Addiction and Co-Occurring Disorders

Many people who struggle with addiction and abuse of benzodiazepines will find that they are struggling with a co-occurring mental disorder. Some of the most frequent co-occurring disorders include:

  • Depressive disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Other substance abuse
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Alcoholism

I couldn't stop. After hurting everyone around me, I finally admitted to myself that I needed help. North Tampa took me in at a time when I hit rock bottom and they helped me crawl my way back out of the pit. Seriously, best choice of my life.

– Anonymous Patient
Marks of Quality Care
  • Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS)
  • Florida Agency for Health Care Administration
  • Florida Department of Children and Families
  • The Joint Commission (JCAHO) Gold Seal of Approval