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Benzodiazepines, also known as “benzos,” work well at treating conditions like anxiety and insomnia but only for so long. When it comes time to stop taking benzos, serious problems can arise, especially if you’ve been taking them for months or years. In addition, Benzo withdrawal can be an excruciating experience that makes it difficult to stay off these drugs. The good news is benzo withdrawal does come to an end. However, your comfort level will depend on whether you have certain supports in place.

 

The Benzo Effect  

Benzodiazepines, such as Xanax, Ativan, Valium, Librium, and Klonopin, have a wide range of uses. Their ability to slow activities in the central nervous system, coupled with how benzos go about doing this, makes them effective at treating various conditions, including anxiety, insomnia, seizures, panic attacks, and muscle spasms. While highly effective, benzos should only be used short-term, or a substance use disorder may form.

Benzodiazepines work by stimulating the cells in the brain that secrete GABA. GABA, the brain’s primary inhibitory neurotransmitter, plays a central role in keeping chemical and electrical activities balanced throughout the central nervous system. GABA slows brain activity and works with glutamate (the brain’s primary excitatory neurotransmitter) to keep things running smoothly. These interactions directly affect your mood state, energy levels, thinking, and even your coordination, which are most affected when you go through benzo withdrawal.

Benzo Withdrawal Symptoms

Benzo withdrawal symptoms can take many forms depending on how your body responds and why you are taking the drug. If you take Xanax or Ativan to relieve anxiety, not only will anxiety be a withdrawal symptom, but it may be more severe than it was before. This is known as the rebound effect, where symptoms experienced during withdrawal become more intense or severe than before starting the drug. The same goes for benzos that treat insomnia, seizures, panic attacks, and muscle spasms.

 

Common symptoms of benzo withdrawal include:

  • Profuse sweating
  • Memory problems
  • Loss of coordination and balance
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Aches and pains
  • Blurred vision
  • Muscle spasms
  • Feeling nervous
  • Moderate to severe drug cravings

The overall degree of discomfort experienced, coupled with rebound symptoms, makes it extremely difficult to stay off benzos once you stop taking them. For these reasons, it’s best to undergo a medical detox rather than trying to stop on your own. With medical detox, medication treatments relieve uncomfortable symptoms, which greatly increases your chances of making it through the benzo withdrawal period and staying off benzos for good.

Different Types of Benzos & Their Effects

While the symptoms you can expect from withdrawal tend to be similar, benzos differ in terms of how long their effects last. Short-acting benzos, such as Halcion, produce effects for up to three to eight hours, depending on the speed of your metabolism. Intermediate-acting benzos, such as Xanax and Ativan, produce effects within 11 to 20 hours. With long-acting benzos, such as Valium and Librium, you may feel their effects for as long as two days. These differences affect how the benzo withdrawal timeline plays out. As a general rule, the longer the effects, the longer it will take for withdrawal symptoms to begin. If you’re coming off Xanax or Ativan (short-acting), the withdrawal will likely start within 10 to 12 hours after your last drug dose. With Valium or Librium (long-acting), it may take a few days before you start to experience benzo withdrawal symptoms.

 

Factors That Affect the Benzo Withdrawal Timeline     

A range of factors can affect how long benzo withdrawal will last, one of which is whether you’re coming off a short-acting or long-acting benzo. Short-acting benzos can stay in your body for up to two days, whereas long-acting forms can take as long as 10 days to leave the body.

 

Other factors that affect the benzo withdrawal timeline include:

 

  • How large a dose you take regularly
  • How long you were on benzos
  • If you developed a physical dependence on the drug
  • If you became addicted
  • If you abused other substances, such as alcohol or opiates, along with benzos

Stages of Benzo Withdrawal

Early or Immediate Withdrawal

Early withdrawal typically starts within a few hours or a few days after stopping the drug, depending on whether you were taking a short-acting or long-acting benzo. It’s at this initial stage where rebound symptoms tend to develop. In effect, if you were taking benzos to relieve anxiety, insomnia, or any other known treatment purpose, the initial symptoms will come back in full force, if not stronger.

Acute Withdrawal

Acute benzo withdrawal symptoms typically develop within three to five days after your last dose, lasting anywhere from five to 28 days. Acute withdrawal is when the most severe of symptoms occur. This symptom severity reflects the state of imbalance present in the brain and body. The brain, especially, has to re-learn how to regulate GABA secretions without the help of benzos, which accounts for why symptoms can be so severe at this stage.

Protracted Withdrawal

Protracted withdrawal, also known as post-acute withdrawal symptoms or PAWS, doesn’t affect everyone coming off benzos. You’re more likely to experience PAWS if you used benzos for longer than prescribed, abused them, or developed an addiction. In effect, the longer you take benzos, the more your brain and body come to depend on them. When you stop taking the drug, it takes longer for your body to return to normal. For these reasons, protracted withdrawal symptoms can last up to 12 months or longer.

Symptoms to expect during protracted withdrawal include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Problems concentrating
  • Decrease in sex drive
  • Problems sleeping

Ultimately, stopping benzo use can bring on severe physical and emotional symptoms. If you’ve become physically dependent or addicted to benzos, it’s impossible to stop taking them without some form of treatment support.

If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction to benzos or another substance and are seeking detox in New Jersey or New York, Ascendant is here to help. Benzo detox at Ascendant New York provides the medical and emotional support needed to make it through the benzo withdrawal process. This includes medication treatments, behavioral therapies, and relapse prevention training. Our outpatient rehab in New York also provides ongoing support and accountability for those newly sober. Not having the necessary treatment supports leaves you highly susceptible to relapse, which will only worsen the situation.

Take the first step by calling Ascendant for detox right now.

Sources:

  1. Drugfree.org. What Are Benzodiazepines | What parents need to know. Partnership to End Addiction. Accessed August 30, 2022. https://drugfree.org/drugs/what-are-benzodiazepines/
  2. Patterson E. Valium Abuse Symptoms, Signs and Addiction Treatment. DrugAbuse.com. Published February 19, 2021. Accessed August 30, 2022. https://drugabuse.com/benzodiazepines/valium/abuse/

 

Medical Content Writer

Amanda Stevens, B.S.

Amanda is a prolific medical content writer specializing in eating disorders and addiction treatment. She graduated Magnum Cum Laude from Purdue University with a B.S. in Social Work. As a person in recovery from disordered eating, she is passionate about seeing people heal and transform. She writes for popular treatment centers such as Ocean Recovery, Epiphany Wellness, The Heights Treatment, Infinite Recovery, New Waters Recovery and adolescent mental health treatment center BasePoint Academy. In her spare time she loves learning about health, nutrition, meditation, spiritual practices, and enjoys being the a mother of a beautiful daughter.

Last medically reviewed August 30, 2022