Data from the past 20 years shows that benzo use is rising. Of course, some of these people have legitimate prescriptions for the anxiety medication and benefit from its intended effects. However, there are also growing numbers of people who are using benzodiazepines recreationally. You don’t need to look far to see how recreational benzo use is often glorified in popular culture. We recently saw a pillow for sale with the phrase “Xanax® and Chill” written on it. This cavalier attitude toward recreational drug use is frightening because benzo use has some pretty scary consequences.
The first frightening fact about benzodiazepines is that you can overdose when taking them. It is most common to have a Xanax overdose when taking it with alcohol or opiates. It is pretty unlikely that someone will overdose from taking benzos alone. But, when someone does combine them with other drugs or alcohol there is a risk of death. This means that the risk of overdose for people using benzos, like Xanax or Klonopin®, is low for people who are using them as prescribed. But for others who might be using them as party drugs there is a serious risk of overdosing.
Benzos flood your brain with neurotransmitters like dopamine that make you feel good. The result is that you want more and more of that good feeling. The problem is that each time you use, your brain releases less and less dopamine in response to the drug. The result is that you use more in order to get the same good feeling as before. There is even evidence to suggest that after only four months of benzo use it no longer has the same anti-anxiety effects it used to. This is the point where many people find themselves addicted. They start feeling anxious whenever they don’t take benzos, so they need to take them just to feel normal.
There are very few drugs that have such dangerous detoxes that they can actually cause death. Benzodiazepines are one of the rare few that can actually cause death just from withdrawal. Other drug withdrawals might feel incredibly unpleasant. When people think of withdrawal they usually think of the images of people vomiting and shaking as they detox from heroin. But for comparison, you cannot die from heroin withdrawal. Many people don’t realize how dangerous it can be to try to stop using benzos on your own. If you have been using these drugs long term, you need to get medical help when detoxing.
Research shows the using benzos long-term can cause serious cognition problems. One study found that long-term use was associated with impairments in visuospatial ability, processing speed, and verbal learning. This means that using benzos for a long time might mean you will have difficulties learning and processing information. If you value your ability to think clearly and learn quickly, you should probably stay away from recreational benzo use.
In addition to the risk of death from overdose or withdrawal, people who use benzos are also at an increased risk of death by suicide. Research shows that people who take benzodiazepines are more likely to complete or attempt suicide than those who do not. The authors of the study linked above offer some conjecture about why this may be the case. A few reasons they cite are impulsivity, aggression, and depression from withdrawal. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that people who take benzos regularly are at risk of suicide.