People have been using mind-altering substances recreationally for thousands of years. One of the first substances to be used recreationally was alcohol, which was being created as much as 9,000 years ago. Of course, alcohol is far from the only substance that’s currently available.
There are dozens — if not hundreds — of other addictive intoxicants that are in widespread use, most of which are divided into one of three categories:
The latter group has become particularly problematic in recent years as rates of alcohol, opioid, and benzodiazepine addiction have skyrocketed. With regard to benzodiazepines, there’s one particular drug that’s become extremely popular among recreational drug users and that drug is called Xanax.
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WHAT EXACTLY IS XANAX?
While stimulant drugs “stimulate” the central nervous system, depressants “depress” the central nervous system. In other words, depressants cause an individual to experience a major decrease in his or her energy level. Over the course of human history, there have been a number of depressant substances to become popular, with the first being alcohol.
While some would say that alcohol is the most dangerous depressant due to its legal status, the many prescription depressants that have been developed were spread liberally throughout the U.S. and abroad, resulting in a number of pharmaceutical drugs reaching epidemic-like levels of abuse. Xanax, in particular, is one of those pharmaceutical drugs that became and remains a major issue to this day.
By the mid-twentieth century, people were realizing the dangers of the class of drugs known as barbiturates, which could be considered a predecessor to benzodiazepines. Among their many other drawbacks, barbiturates had a much stronger potential for dependency. Therefore, a number of chemists and pharmaceutical researchers were attempting to develop substances that could be used to treat similar things as barbiturates while minimizing the amount of danger that they’d put patients in.
Likewise, the psychological community was noticing a great need for medications that were relatively mild but could assist with symptoms of mental disorders. The benzodiazepine, alprazolam — most familiar by its trade name Xanax — was created in the late 1960s. However, it wasn’t until 1981 that it was actually made available to the public.
Initially, the purpose of Xanax was to treat insomnia and depression, as well as to have similar properties as muscle relaxants. Since then, we’ve come to realize that the drug has a number of different applications. In addition to being an anxiolytic (treatment for anxiety), Xanax is also an:
- Muscular and skeletal relaxer
- Amnestic (It has a negative impact on memory while actively in a user’s system)
Perhaps not surprisingly, Xanax had a difficult time getting approved, which is why it took over a decade for the drug to be made available. While the drug had been partly intended to be an antidepressant, it ended up being approved as an anti-anxiety medication. This is largely how Xanax is used today.
After its approval, Xanax grew rapidly in popularity over the next several decades. In fact, Xanax was the 12th-most-prescribed pharmaceutical drug in the United States in 2010. Somewhat ironically, it has been favored by medical professionals because Xanax isn’t as harsh on the body as barbiturates and even other benzodiazepines, but it has also quickly become one of the preferred pharmaceutical drugs of substance abusers.
Understanding the Effects of Xanax Dependence
How Xanax Affects the Brain
As is the case with virtually any mind-altering chemical substance, anyone who takes Xanax frequently for an extended period of time becomes physically dependent on the drug. The reason this happens is attributed to how Xanax affects the brain. Xanax increases GABA activation in the brain, which induces feelings of calm and relaxation.
GABA is a natural chemical messenger in your brain. It reduces the brain activity in the areas responsible for:
- Essential functions, such as breathing
The brain is overstimulated when a person feels anxious. Then, when Xanax is taken, the brain sends signals to counteract the stimulation. This is how the symptoms of anxiety are reduced.
Since the Xanax causes excess GABA activity, the brain decides that it’s getting enough GABA from the Xanax and either stops producing or cuts back its production of GABA.
This means that the brain is relying almost solely on Xanax for the GABA, which is a very dangerous situation. Eventually, the continuous use of Xanax causes the brain to become reliant on the Xanax to maintain a minimum GABA level.
When a person addicted to Xanax goes for a period of time without it, the brain experiences a major GABA deficit with potentially catastrophic consequences. At best, the individual will experience Xanax withdrawal with some of the most common symptoms being blurred vision, slurred speech, difficulty/irregular breathing, weakness, seizures, and/or coma.
Common Uses of Xanax
Currently, the most common (legitimate) uses for Xanax include:
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Panic disorder
- Social anxiety disorder
- Various phobias
The reason Xanax is so effective for anxiety-related conditions is because of how it affects the brain. In fact, Xanax has a similar effect on the brain as alcohol. When a user takes Xanax, the drug acts as the neurochemical GABA in the brain, causing feelings of relaxation and calm.
Side Effects of Xanax
When a person takes Xanax, some of the most widely experienced effects include:
If the individual has taken an excessively large dose — likely for the purposes of abuse — Xanax is known to cause:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Shortness of breath
- Skin rashes
- Dry mouth
Information About Xanax Abuse and Addiction
Xanax Addiction Symptoms
When taken as prescribed, Xanax and other benzodiazepines are valuable, effective treatments to help relieve anxiety, insomnia, and other disorders. However, once tolerance has built up and it takes more of the drug to achieve the initial effects, the individual becomes dependent. This then becomes a physical and psychological addiction. Signs of an addiction to Xanax include:
- Sleep difficulties
- Nausea and vomiting
- Uncontrollable leg movements
More serious symptoms include:
- Problems with memory
- Behavior changes (like increased risk-taking)
- Delirium (mostly in older individuals)
Each person may experience withdrawal differently. There is no definitive guide to the symptoms, timeline, or severity of withdrawal. It is dependent on these factors:
- Length of time using Xanax
- Dosage used
- Misuse of a prescription
- Using without a prescription
- Underlying mental health conditions
- Using other drugs at the same time
- Misusing alcohol or other drugs
Possible Xanax Withdrawal Symptoms
- Anxiety and panic
- Shortness of breath
- Muscle cramps
- Sleep problems
- Feelings of unreality
- Headaches and muscle pain
- Agitation and restlessness
Overcoming Xanax Abuse Through Detox and Treatment
Being addicted to Xanax is scary. Of course, not everyone who uses Xanax becomes addicted. Experts recommend that those who receive Xanax for legitimate medical conditions only receive the drug for brief periods of time. However, for those who have become addicted to Xanax, there are a wide variety of recovery resources available.
Currently, there aren’t any medications specifically approved to treat benzodiazepine use disorders. However, medical supervision is important to treat symptoms of withdrawal, such as antidepressants for depression and sleep issues, as well as mood stabilizers and other medication as needed for any medical emergency that might occur.
Xanax Addiction Treatment
After detoxing, the individual is often encouraged to enroll in an actual treatment program, which consists of:
Psychotherapy is sometimes called “talk therapy.” Problems that are helped by psychotherapy include:
- Coping with daily life
- Medical illness
- Loss like the death of a loved one
- Mental disorders like depression and anxiety
These are all issues that may be underlying causes of substance abuse.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the most commonly used therapy for benzodiazepine dependence. Evidence shows that it actually produces change in the short-term, unlike many other forms of psychological treatment which may take years. CBT involves training to change thinking patterns and efforts to change behavior patterns.
Group therapy is generally preferred over individual therapy because in a group, the individual is likely to be challenged and receive support from people who are also going through treatment.
During individual therapy, the therapist and counselor develop a trusting relationship and work together to identify the deep-rooted causes of the person’s drug abuse.
Life Skills Training
The idea is to help individuals accumulate the tools and strategies they need to overcome Xanax addiction and remain sober indefinitely.
To overcome Xanax addiction, most experts recommend beginning with a detox program, which will ensure that the patient detoxes in a safe, supervised setting. This is crucial because it ensures the individual’s safety during the process. During detox, withdrawal symptoms are severely uncomfortable and may become life-threatening. A medically assisted detox is necessary for a safe and complete detoxification.
There should be no one-size-fits-all program for any addiction, including Xanax addiction. That’s why different treatment programs are developed. As usual, the treatment program an individual needs depends on:
- The severity of their addiction
- The duration of the addiction
- Their support system at home
Common treatment programs include:
- Residential: In a residential program, the individual receives all treatment and lives at the treatment facility.
- Outpatient Programs: There are several levels of outpatient programs. They differ in intensity and amount of time required at the treatment facility.