Benzodiazepines are a group of drugs sometimes prescribed to treat anxiety, insomnia and other mood disorders. Unfortunately, they are also highly addictive, and psychological as well as physical dependence can develop in as little as a few weeks, which is why the benefit of using them has to be carefully weighed against the risk.
Once dependence has settled in, physical addiction and withdrawal symptoms are the most common problems users have to battle with. Patients report being aware that the benzodiazepines aren’t helping them anymore, but they simply can’t stop taking them because of the increased anxiety and sensorial disturbances that they experience when they do. In some rare cases, those symptoms can be as severe as epileptic seizures and psychosis.
The symptoms of benzodiazepine dependence are no different from those of any other type of substance addiction, i.e. that people feel psychologically unable to cope without the drug, partly induced by the unpleasant withdrawal effects when they try to cut down or discontinue its use.
In addition to the symptoms mentioned above, derealisation, i.e. feeling that they are disconnected from reality, and tremors are common, as well as gastrointestinal problems, muscular aches, headaches, sometimes strong enough to produce self-harming behaviours in individuals, including suicide.
Chemical dependence is a never a desirable situation, but even less so when it comes to benzodiazepines as, in a perverse logic, they can, in the end, increase the mental health problems they were used to treat in the first place.
Furthermore, addiction to this class of drugs can cause patients to develop, unknowingly, a predisposition to becoming dependent to other sedative compounds which share the same mechanism of action, and cause them to relapse if they use them.
To manage the severe withdrawal symptoms that benzodiazepines produce, the reduction of their intake needs to be very gradual, although even so, they can still occur. It is recognised that a one-size-fits-all treatment doesn’t work and that withdrawal rates need to be customised to each patient, as the strength of the dependence will depend on how often and how long they had been using the drug for, the dosage, the lifestyle and social and environmental factors which could contribute to increased stress levels. As a consequence, the duration of the treatment can vary considerably, from a few months to a year or more.
However, a trial found that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) was significantly more effective than sedative hypnotics at improving sleep-related issues such as poor sleep quality, delayed sleep onset and waking up too early, and can therefore reduce the need for using benzodiazepines at all, and make coping with withdrawal symptoms easier.
Addictions Treatment in Auckland at the Robert Street Clinic
The Robert Street Clinic is an outpatient centre specialised in addiction counselling, and consisting of a group of highly experienced mental health professionals. If you have developed benzodiazepine dependence and are looking for help, email the Robert Street Clinic or call us on 09 973 5950.