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How Long Do Benzo Withdrawal Symptoms Last? - Ascendant New York
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How Long Do Benzo Withdrawal Symptoms Last?

February 27, 2019

Benzodiazepines, or “benzos,” are one of the most highly abused substances in America. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 13 million Americans received a prescription for benzodiazepines during 2013. Not only did the amount of overall prescriptions increase drastically, the amount of the drug being received with each script increased, as well.

Many who develop an addiction or dependency on this substance have done so as a result of being exposed to a prescription medication. Anxiety-related issues are reported as being the leading cause of mental health problems in America. Benzodiazepines are routinely prescribed for conditions ranging from mild anxiety and related insomnia, to treatment for the experience of full-fledged panic attacks. Some concerned medical healthcare providers are even placing the risk of prescription benzodiazepine addiction on par with that of the opiate crisis. Users of the substance may be unaware of the risks associated with such a widely-prescribed medication.

Within the last decade, there have been several accounts of celebrity deaths associated with the presence of benzodiazepines, which highlights the cultural prevalence of the use of this substance. In many of the documented drug overdose cases, opioids are found to be present along with the benzos, highlighting the danger of mixing benzodiazepines with other depressants.

Progression of Dependence

The ease of developing a dependence on benzos lies in the way that this substance affects the brain. Upon ingestion, receptors within the brain are signaled to bind with the chemicals which induce a feeling of relaxation and drowsiness. The result is a sense of calm and well-being for the user. Because the process is induced by an outside substance, however, the brain can learn, over time, that it does not need to react to stress by producing its own relaxation chemical response. This leads the user toward feeling as though it is not possible to function properly without continued exposure to benzodiazepines, as they find that anxiety levels have stopped decreasing naturally. This level of biological dependency can be experienced within just a matter of weeks after the first dosage.

Benzo Withdrawal Symptoms

Initial symptoms of withdrawal from benzodiazepines can include inability to sleep and a general sense of anxiety. As withdrawal progresses, the dependent user can begin to experience severe symptoms, such as nausea; dry heaves; muscle aches and spasms; inability to concentrate; memory lapse; irritation; heart palpitations; excessive sweating; and tremors.

Severe cases of benzodiazepine withdrawal can result in the need for emergency hospitalization. The experience of grand mal seizures can accompany withdrawal, and can lead to coma, or even death. Multiple reports of death as a result of benzodiazepine withdrawal are emerging from recent incarceration studies.

Timeline of Withdrawal

It has been found that certain types of benzodiazepines may be more likely to induce these withdrawal symptoms, as well as to contribute to the severity and length of the experience. In general, withdrawal symptoms from shorter-acting benzodiazepines –  such as Xanax and Ativan – will begin within a few hours. Withdrawal symptoms from longer-acting benzos – such as Valium and Diazepam – can take several days to begin.

The initial symptoms of benzo withdrawal, such as insomnia and nausea, tend to last from one to four days. Following this period, the more distressing symptoms – which can include seizures and psychosis – tend to last anywhere from one to two weeks. The final stages of physical withdrawal occur after this intense period, and resemble the initial symptoms. This tapering off of physical dependence can last from a few weeks, to a couple of months.

Recovery from the psychological and emotional symptoms of benzodiazepine withdrawal can last much longer than the physical symptoms. Studies of the psychological effects of benzo cessation indicate that former users can suffer from bouts of unpredictable and uncharacteristic behavior; will report experiences of depression; and tend to provide an overall lower rating of quality of life. These psychological withdrawal symptoms have been observed as persisting for several months after discontinuing the drug, and the experience of discomfort sometimes prompts patients to resume their habit of using benzodiazepines.

A smaller percentage of former benzodiazepine users will experience what is known as Post-acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS.) With PAWS, the symptoms of withdrawal can last for several years. In these cases, it is believed that multiple factors contribute to the long-term symptoms. The former user may be lacking in the tools necessary to handle stress –  due to depending on the substance for stress maintenance –  which prolongs the experience of anxiety. The effects on the users ability to store and access memories may be negatively impacted by the long-term use of the benzos, which results in an inability to institute learned coping methods. And, in some cases, the benzodiazepines may simply refuse to leave the nervous system in a timely manner.

Reducing the Severity of Withdrawal Symptoms

Substance abuse treatment programs are available to assist a recovering person in reducing the physical discomfort that is experienced while detoxing from benzodiazepines. There are several medical treatment options available, which include benzodiazepine reduction and substitution methods. Treatment medications can be delivered both orally, and intravenously, and can include antidepressants and anticonvulsants.

Robust detox treatment programs will also include components which address the psychological and emotional concerns which tend to arise during the process. Treatment programs which combine psychotherapy with medication assistance have been shown to be the most effective in reducing relapse in benzodiazepine abuse cases. This makes sense, in light of the multitude of psychological factors which are documented as being associated with withdrawal from this drug.

In addition to providing immediate support for withdrawal issues, a detox treatment provider can assist the recovering person in developing a plan for ongoing support. Through the utilization of local resources, the choice of abstaining from benzodiazepines can be solidified with the convenience of outpatient services. Due to the potential for long-lasting, negative, effects of withdrawal from benzodiazepines, a cohesive plan for extended maintenance of sobriety provides the recovering user with the best chance of success.

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