Xanax is the brand name of alprazolam, a popular anti-anxiety drug and belongs to a family of prescription drugs referred to as benzodiazepines. These drugs act as depressants or sedatives, relaxing the mind in the same way alcohol does by boosting the GABA neurotransmitter.
Neurotransmitters are chemicals that the brain uses to communicate from cell to cell, sending impulses from one cell to the next, allowing the brain to regulate things like sweating, breathing, heart beat and other autonomous activities, as well as things like thinking, movement, and mood. Everything we do consciously and subconsciously relies on neurotransmitters – which is why psychiatric medication tries to affect these neurotransmitters to relieve the symptoms of conditions like anxiety and depression.
What Does Xanax Do?
As a benzodiazepine, Xanax enters the bloodstream through the stomach and small intestine and makes its way towards the brain. Once in the brain, benzodiazepines enhance the effects of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (known as GABA), which is an inhibitory neurotransmitter. That means it slows things down, in every fashion. In high dosages, benzodiazepines are used as sleeping pills and tranquilizers. In moderate or low dosages, benzodiazepines like Xanax help combat panic attacks and reduce feelings of anxiety.
Alcohol works in a similar albeit different fashion, which is why anti-anxiety medication and alcohol have similar withdrawal symptoms and addictive risks, however, they work different on a therapeutic level. While alcohol mimics GABA and boosts the presence of dopamine in the bloodstream, Xanax (and other benzodiazepines) increases the action of GABA. Taking both is disastrous.
GABA’s function is to slow the mind down, leading to relaxation, slowed movement, a lower heartrate and slower breathing. In controlled dosages, Xanax can effectively treat panic attacks and help in the treatment of anxiety, reducing its severity enough for other treatments to take effect. However, Xanax is also the most prescribed drug in the country and its abundance means it’s also at risk for being one of the most commonly abused drugs in the country, taken recreationally rather than therapeutically.
Most adults with Xanax prescriptions are 40-years-old or older, and predominantly female. However, Xanax abuse is an issue among all ages. Teens sometimes steal excess meds from family members, to experiment with the drug or to self-medicate in times of stress. Xanax and its fellow benzos are not as dangerous or addictive as barbiturates but are still deadly when combined with sedatives and analgesics such as alcohol and opioids.
How Addictive is Xanax?
Despite functioning differently from alcohol, Xanax is also an addictive drug. Its status as prescription medication doubles as a warning to all people, both those who are and are not diagnosed with anxiety or insomnia. According to experts in law enforcement, psychiatry, and medicine, benzodiazepine is less addictive than alcohol, tobacco, cocaine, and opioids, but more addictive than cannabis, hallucinogens, amphetamines, and ketamine.
A person’s chances of getting addicted to Xanax are highly variable, however. While generalized charts help understand the dangers that each drug poses, the truth is that addiction is a very individual matter, with unique risk factors being the most reliable way to tell if a drug is dangerous or not. A family history of alcoholism and addiction to sedatives, sleeping pills or tranquilizers points towards a greater risk of developing an addiction to Xanax. Taking the drug without a prescription or without a diagnosis for anxiety or taking more than is prescribed and going against a doctor or therapist’s orders is also a sign of addiction, or drug misuse.
Aside from genetics, other risk factors include stress levels and indicators of stress. Any environmental factors that contribute to a stressful environment – a dysfunctional family, trouble at work, tough time at school, bullying, problems in close relationships and poverty – make an individual more susceptible to developing an emotional dependence on a drug.
No one is immune to addiction – but there’s also no way of knowing for sure if you’re going to develop an addiction until it’s too late. It’s always better to err on the side of caution and treat the use of addictive medication – including Xanax – with great care.
Long-term misuse of Xanax can lead to physical health issues because of progressive overdosing. Some symptoms of taking too much of the drug include:
- Lack of coordination
- Slurred speech
- Slowed breathing
- Constant drowsiness
Taken alone, Xanax doesn’t usually cause an overdose. It can, but it’s difficult to achieve a high enough dosage. However, when coupled with an opioid, another benzodiazepine drug, or alcohol, the risk of overdose more than doubles, making it a very dangerous drug to take with other drugs.
The Dangers of Xanax Withdrawal
Like other addictive drugs, quitting Xanax use after developing a dependence to the drug leads to withdrawal symptoms. Unlike the relatively mild withdrawal symptoms of opioids and stimulants, sedatives and depressants like alcohol and Xanax possess much more dangerous withdrawal symptoms, including:
- Delirium (cognitive distortions, confusion)
- Depressed and anxious thoughts
- Muscle pain
- Tremors and spasms
- Memory loss
Withdrawal symptoms occur when a drug has been used long enough to develop a dependence. Typically, this occurs alongside tolerance. If you need to take higher doses of the drug to achieve an effect like what you used to feel, your brain has already begun adapting to the substance, triggering the beginning stages of physical dependence. As drug use persists, dependence causes stronger and stronger cravings.
Eventually, long-term drug users often struggle with PAWS after going sober due to physical dependence. PAWS, or post-acute withdrawal symptom, causes withdrawal symptoms to reoccur or occur later after being sober for a certain amount of time. These symptoms are often coupled with a strong craving for the drug, partially because of the dependence, and partially out of a desire to alleviate the symptoms of the withdrawal.
Recovering from Xanax Addiction
Like other drugs, recovery begins with sobriety, and continues onward into abstinence. It takes time for the drug to wash out of the system, and it takes even longer for cravings and withdrawal symptoms to completely subside. Residential treatment is usually the best place to go to treat a severe addiction, however lesser addictions or for relapses, sober living homes make for a perfect alternative.
These facilities focus on creating a normal community, with a unique set of rules prohibiting the use or distribution of drugs, utilizing random tests and strict curfews to keep tenants safe from the temptation of a relapse. Sober living communities and treatment clinics alike recommend and utilize the services of doctors and therapists to provide treatment, from talk therapy to regular group meetings.
It will take time for cravings to subside, and they may return in times of stress, particularly when the mind is under a lot of pressure and remembers how much easier things were while under the influence. Taking on big lifestyle changes – such as new hobbies, new friendships, or a new job – can take the mind off the addiction and can give you a shot to use your sobriety to reshape your life.