Xanax, also known as alprazolam, is one of the most popular anti-anxiety medications. In 2010, there were 46 million prescriptions written for Xanax, which outnumbered prescriptions for both Ambien and other popular antidepressants, per an article by New York Magazine. Since Xanax is considered a Schedule IV medication – meaning it is available with a prescription, can be prescribed with refills, and is considered to have a low risk for dependence – its rampant prescription comes as no surprise. The American Academy of Family Physicians disagrees with this assessment, stating that Xanax can be addictive when used for long periods of time.
Xanax is usually used for the treatment of anxiety, panic attacks, and sleep disorders, states the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence; however, it can be prescribed for other reasons, such as medical detox from alcohol or other substances, seizure disorders, and sedation before surgery.
A member of the benzodiazepine family, Xanax is also one of the most commonly abused medications of its kind. The drug is known to work quickly; its benefits can appear within 15-20 minutes and can last around six hours. Its sedative effect is one of the main reasons that it is abused. Even if individuals use the medication as prescribed, they are still at risk for developing a tolerance to it.
Street Names for Xanax
On the street, benzodiazepine medications are often called downers or benzos. Xanax specifically is referred to as:
Many times, street or slang names for a drug refer to its shape, color, manufacturer, or other characteristics.
Effects of Xanax
According to NCADD, Xanax can have multiple physical side effects, which include:
- Blurred or double vision
- Difficulty with concentration
- Feelings of elation
- Nausea and vomiting
- Problems with memory
Xanax suppresses the central nervous system, which can cause symptoms such as disorientation, slowed breathing, and lack of coordination. When combined with other central nervous system depressants, such as alcohol, the suppression of the respiratory system caused by Xanax increases the risk of overdose and can be fatal, warns AAFP. Other effects from long-term Xanax abuse include impairment of short-term memory and sedation that can last days at a time.
Xanax has also been shown to slow down psychomotor function in the brain. This is especially common in individuals who have slower metabolisms. This can increase the risk of motor vehicle crashes as it can slow reaction time. Other signs that Xanax is slowing down psychomotor function include poor concentration, confusion, and muscle weakness.
Potential for Overdose
Xanax, when taken in large amounts, can produce serious effects, such as chest pain, depression, hallucinations, seizures, and suicidal thoughts as well as carry the potential for overdose. If an individual has overdosed, the following symptoms may occur:
- Impaired coordination
- Slow reflexes
Individuals can develop a dependence on Xanax after as little as two weeks of daily use. Self magazine states that individuals can experience both a physical and psychological dependence on Xanax. Physical dependence occurs when the brain becomes accustomed to Xanax, and individuals experience withdrawal symptoms even hours after their last dose as a result of the short half-life of the medication, according to CNN.
Psychological dependence, however, is described as emotional withdrawal from Xanax. Individuals may feel as if they cannot feel joy, for example, when they are abstinent from the medication.
When individuals have developed a dependence on Xanax, it will affect almost every aspect of their lives. Marriages and other relationships may be strained, and individuals may experience problems related to their performance at work or time taken off due to Xanax use. They may be spending more than they can afford in attempts to obtain Xanax without a prescription, which can also result in legal trouble. When dependent on Xanax, individuals most likely feel that they are unable to stop using the medication, even though its use has already caused damage in their lives.
In 2008, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the number of admissions for treatment of benzodiazepine dependence was 60,200 – a staggering increase from 22,400 only 10 years prior.
It’s Never Too Late to Get Help
Medical detox is always required for those wishing to withdraw from Xanax. Individuals who have been abusing the medication, or even those using it according to prescription for long periods of time, should not quit taking Xanax abruptly. Doing so can cause severe and dangerous withdrawal symptoms, such as seizures. Individuals who have been taking Xanax at low or infrequent doses may be able to follow a tapered dose pattern prescribed by a physician; however, a physician may choose for individuals to enter a treatment facility to reduce the risk of complications. Other symptoms that have been associated with Xanax withdrawal include:
- Changes in blood pressure
- Nausea and vomiting
- Rapid heartbeat
If a person is addicted to Xanax, treatment will involve medical detox and comprehensive therapy. Detox, in and of itself, does not constitute addiction treatment. Therapy will address the issues that led to substance abuse in the first place and help clients to develop skills to resist relapse after treatment.
Non-Medication-Based Treatment of Anxiety
There are many different forms of anxiety disorders, and over 18 percent of American adults suffer from some form of one, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) publishes. Almost 25 percent of these cases are severe. An anxiety disorder is indicated by high and excessive levels of stress that negatively impact a person’s day-to-day living. Phobias, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) are examples of common anxiety disorders.
Abuse of a drug like Xanax is often the result of attempting to self-medicate stress, anxiety, or even an untreated anxiety disorder. Benzodiazepine drugs help to mitigate the stress reaction in the brain by increasing levels of the natural tranquilizer GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). GABA calms the “fight-or-flight” reaction in the brain, thus lowering anxiety. With repeated use of an artificial GABA stimulant like Xanax, however, the brain can get used to the drug’s interference and stop making GABA at necessary levels by itself. When Xanax then wears off, GABA and dopamine levels drop, and anxiety and depression, along with other withdrawal symptoms, result. In this way, abusing Xanax actually increases levels of anxiety and makes an anxiety disorder worse.
People who suffer from anxiety or mood disorders are twice as likely to also struggle with drug addiction, and the reverse is true as well, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) publishes. When someone suffers from two disorders at the same time, like an anxiety disorder and drug addiction, the disorders are co-occurring. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that around 8 million American adults battled co-occurring disorders in 2014. The presence of co-occurring disorders calls for integrated treatment methods. When a person struggles with abuse of drugs, anxiety may be best treated without medication to avoid relapse to substance abuse or further complications.
- Healthy meal planning and sleep habits: Stress and anxiety can be eased with healthy, balanced meals and the proper amount of sleep. Sticking to structured sleeping and eating times can help with this. Foods that are high in protein, vitamins, and minerals, and low in refined sugars and saturated fats, are viable choices.
Sleep and stress are complexly intertwined, and healthy amounts of sleep can greatly reduce stress. Going to bed at the same time every night, avoiding caffeine and stimulating activities close to bedtime, and avoiding alcohol altogether can promote healthy sleep, which is important for keeping anxiety levels low.
- Yoga and mindfulness meditation: Learning how to improve the relationship between the body, mind, and soul, and how to better understand the connections between the physical being and emotional states, can improve stress and anxiety levels. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to lower anxiety and depression in studies published by JAMA Internal Medicine. Breath control and other relaxation techniques are beneficial in lowering functions of the central nervous system; as these functions slow, anxiety levels often reduce as well.
- Exercise and fitness: Healthy amounts of exercise can increase natural endorphins in the brain, helping to lower stress and improve mood. Improved physical fitness also enhances self-confidence and self-esteem, and promotes healthy body image. It can also help a person to sleep better, which aids in lowering anxiety as well.
- Behavioral therapies and counseling: Behavioral therapies, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), help individuals to spot negative thought patterns and uncover triggers for stress. CBT also teaches new and more effective coping mechanisms and tools for dealing with stress and anxiety. Therapy and counseling sessions are often done in both group and individual settings, giving individuals a chance to practice what they have learned and build healthy habits while further exploring and managing the sources of their anxiety and improving self-esteem and self-reliance.
How to Maintain Long-Term Recovery from Xanax Addiction
Xanax addiction is highly treatable with the help of a comprehensive and professional addiction treatment program. Maintaining recovery after treatment requires diligence and perseverance.
It is important to avoid complacency and to continue working at remaining sober. Attendance at support groups and 12-Step meetings can be helpful for maintaining motivation in recovery. These groups help individuals to build peer networks that are healthy and supportive of recovery and sobriety goals.
In order to keep stress levels down, individuals should continue to ensure that they are eating healthy and getting enough sleep as well as avoiding potential triggers and negative situations whenever possible. It is also important to reach out for help when needed. Don’t be afraid to call a friend, family member, or mentor when things get tough or cravings crop up.
Relapse is common as about 40-60 percent of individuals struggling with drug addiction will relapse at some point, NIDA publishes. Relapse should therefore be seen as part of the journey and not as a failure. Keep moving forward, reassess the recovery plan, and use the resources at hand. Ongoing counseling and therapy sessions can help to minimize relapse and keep stress levels manageable.
Consider engaging in adjunctive therapy methods as a means of sustaining recovery, managing cravings, and reducing anxiety. For example, chiropractic care, art therapy, massage, spa treatments, yoga, fitness training, and acupuncture may all be beneficial for whole-body wellness. Taking on a new hobby, like painting, sculpting, writing, drawing, painting, dancing, singing, or playing a musical instrument, can help to occupy the mind and keep cravings and anxiety at bay. Keeping busy is often key to minimizing instances of relapse.
It is also vital to remain in an addiction treatment program for long enough to allow the brain time to heal and for healthy habits learned in treatment sessions to become more ingrained. NIDA recommends that individuals remain in addiction treatment for at least 90 days. Each person is different, however, and for some people, longer durations in treatment may be needed.
There are also transitional programs that can help people ease back into everyday life after completing a residential treatment program. Oftentimes, individuals reside in these transitional environments, such as sober living homes, for a period of time before returning home. In a sober, supportive environment, they are able to put their newly acquired skills into action before returning to life in the outside world.
Treatment programs often offer ongoing support and alumni services. These services provide continuing encouragement and support for years to come after formal treatment has ended. Taking advantage of as many resources as possible will help to ensure the best chances of sustaining a long and healthy recovery from Xanax addiction.