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Ativan and Other Benzos: How They Work and Why They are Abused

What are Benzodiazepines?

Benzodiazepines are a family of prescription sedatives. They are a Schedule IV in the Controlled Substances Act. Ativan is one of the brand name drug prescriptions that falls in the Benzodiazepine family. It’s mainly prescribed to manage anxiety. The generic name for Ativan is lorazepam which affects the central nervous system, producing a calming effect. Benzodiazepines like Ativan are also used for seizures or any disease that causes nerves in the brain to experience excessive activity. Lorazepam enhances the GABA neurotransmitters which are natural chemicals that reduce activity of the nerves in the brain. Taking benzodiazepines reduces brain activity because it promotes the GABA to calm activity in the brain. This calms down the whole body. While it is helpful medication for a vast array of medical issues, there are many benzo addiction stories. Benzo abuse is highly prevalent in the US and is the most recreationally used prescription drug. Studies have found that benzos are habit forming and can leave you at risk of forming an addiction.

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Types of Benzos

Ativan is just one of the brands of benzodiazepines used and this is because it has so many uses for patients. Benzodiazepines are an anticonvulsant used as a skeletal muscle relaxant, anti-anxiety agents, and anxiolytics. The following is a list of other benzos and what they’re used for:

  • Lorazepam (Ativan) – Slows activity in the central nervous system resulting in a feeling of calm. It is approved for short anxiety disorder or anxiety that’s associated with depression.
  • Alprazolam (Xanax, Xanax XR) – A widely used prescription for anxiety disorders. It offers fast relief within a week and maintains its effectiveness even when taken for many years. It can cause a feeling of euphoria when taken in larger doses or abused.
  • Clobazam (Onfi) – Affects chemicals in the brain that aren’t balanced as a result of anxiety. Onfi is also combined with other medication to treat seizures known as Lennox-Gastaut syndrome.
  • Clonazepam (Klonopin) – Affects unbalanced chemicals in the brain, can be used as an anti-epileptic drug. It is used to treat specific kinds of seizure disorders and is also prescribed to treat panic disorders.
  • Clorazepate (Tranxene) – Used to treat acute alcohol withdrawal, seizures, and anxiety.
  • Chlordiazepoxide (Librium) – May be used before surgery to relieve anxiousness. It treats anxiety a well as acute alcohol withdrawal.
  • Diazepam (Valium, Diastat Acudial, Diastat) – Affects GABA neurotransmitters in the brain that make have become unbalanced from anxiety. It is used to manage alcohol withdrawal symptoms and muscles spasms. Is used in conjunction with other medications to treat seizures.

What Benzodiazepines Treat

Part of the reason that the lorazepam addiction potential is so great is due to how often it is prescribed. This is the same for the other medications in the benzo family. As it is useful for so many medical issues, there is a high level of prescriptions written for any given benzodiazepine. Here is the list of what benzos treat:

  • Anxiety (Generalized, Social anxiety disorder, panic disorders).
  • Nervousness
  • Insomnia
  • Muscle spasms
  • Seizures
  • Acute alcohol withdrawal
  • A disorder in the brain known as Status epilepticus.
  • Premenstrual syndrome
  • Pre-surgery sedation.

How Benzos Affect the Brain

Any of the benzodiazepines will affect the brain in the same way. Regardless of what they are supposed to treat, they interact with the GABA (Gamma Amino Butyric Acid). Whether using low dose Ativan for addiction or to prevent seizures, benzos all tap into the mind in the same way to alleviate medical issues. Benzodiazepines affect how you’ll react emotionally, the thinking process, your control of consciousness, muscle tone, memory, and coordination. They have a deep effect on the brain which is what alleviates problems like anxiety. The feeling that they give however is also what has made benzo abuse so prevalent. Prescriptions such as lorazepam cause the GABA neurotransmitters in the brain to become enhanced. These chemicals are what allow the brain cells to send and receive messages from one another. The messages are released from the brain cells by electrical signals. Once they’ve released, the neurotransmitters work on signaling the neighbouring brain cells on whether to invoke excitement or inhibition. The GABA is specifically an inhibitory neurotransmitter designed to slow things down in the brain. Benzodiazepines promote GABA to work harder which is where the calming feeling comes from. When you stop taking Benzos, the activity of the GABA will decrease which can cause the onset of anxiety. This is part of the reason that benzo addiction is so prevalent.

Risks of Abusing Benzos

There is a risk of overusing benzos which are: dependency, overdose, and possibility of death. Part of the risk as well is mixing other medications or alcohol when abusing benzos. Taking CNS depressants like lorazepam and Xanax with other CNS depressants can slow your respiratory system. This effect can be deadly. In 2010 alone, there were 6,507 drug overdose deaths in the US involving benzos.

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Why Benzodiazepine Addiction is so Common

Benzodiazepines chemical composition and action in the body make them particularly risky for abuse, tolerance, and addiction. While people know they should follow the instructions when taking benzos, many don’t realize how dangerous it can be to abuse Ativan or Valium. Studies have determined that when you take a benzo, your dopamine levels rise quickly. This causes the feel-good neurotransmitters to flood the brain. One might call it a euphoric feeling. It feels good enough that it can become irresistible. Not only is the feeling of anxiety reduced but you’ll feel a surge of happiness. All of these factors, combined with how widely they are prescribed has created a recipe for high benzo abuse statistics.

Benzos Addiction is Similar to Opioids

Research has revealed that benzo addiction is a lot like opioid addiction. It is similar to the addictive nature of cannabinoids and GHB also. The reason for this is how benzodiazepines accumulate in your body. It has been found that benzo abuse in particular alters the structure and function of specific receptors in the brain. These receptors are then more prone to surges from excitement that come from other neurotransmitters. This causes an even more intense dopamine rush which in turn makes you want to continue use.

Benzo Abuse Causes Dependency Quickly

Benzo abuse quickly becomes addiction. Tolerance will often develop after 6 months of using Ativan, Valium, Xanax and the other benzos. There is a risk of physical dependence much sooner. Of the users who are prescribed any form of benzo, at least 44% will eventually become dependent. It’s not just the person who abuses benzos that will become addicted. People can have a .5 mg lorazepam withdrawal problem. Ativan is addictive in small doses. This is what makes it challenging for people to stop using benzos. Tolerance is when the standard dose starts to be less effective so you have to take a higher dosage to feel an effect. This is when it becomes Xanax abuse or Ativan abuse for example. Physical and psychological addiction then onset.

Symptoms of Benzodiazepine Addiction

Some common symptoms with a benzo addiction are:

  • Headaches.
  • Nausea.
  • Muscular stiffness.
  • Inability to concentrate.
  • Perceptual changes.
  • Disturbances in sleep.
  • Lack of strength.
  • Feeling of irritability.
  • A feeling of tension or anxiety.
  • Onset of panic attacks.
  • Heart palpitations.
  • Tremors or seizures.
  • Problems remembering things.
  • Swelling of the hands and feet.
  • Difficulty with coordination.
  • Intense sweating even while at a standstill.
  • Some people may experience psychosis if they were taking high doses of benzos.

Behavioral Changes that Indicate Benzo Dependency

When the physical and psychological dependencies for benzos like Ativan or Valium have developed, you’ll spend your time trying to avoid withdrawal symptoms. It will likely be all consuming and you may find yourself taking part in these behaviors:

  • Violent mood swings.
  • Visiting multiple doctors in hopes of getting as many prescriptions as possible.
  • Benzo abuse such as chewing, crushing, or snorting pills.
  • Ignoring responsibilities.
  • Spending your time obtaining, using, or recovering from taking benzos.
  • Failed attempts at stopping benzos.
  • Using benzos despite the fact they’re ruining your life.

Stats on Benzodiazepines Addiction

  • In a study conducted by SAMSHA, it was found that benzos in the US were the most frequently used medication recreationally. This is largely due to how widely available they are.
  • The report found that benzos made up 35% of the drug-related visits to emergency rooms.
  • Xanax is the most widely used benzo for recreational reasons. This is followed by clonazepam, lorazepam, and diazepam.
  • Benzo abuse has increased from 5,032 admissions in 2000 to 33,701 in 2010. The number of admissions have decreased however.

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Long Term Ativan Abuse Risks

Ativan addiction and any other benzo has been found to cause cognitive impairment. Namely, for those who stay on benzos long-term may have a difficult time remembering things they once knew. They may forget how to do tasks they used to do. The more a person took benzos, the higher the risk for developing the neurodegenerative disease. The same SAMSHA study found that as benzos have spiked in usage by seniors, so has Alzheimer’s in equal measure. The study concluded that long-term use of benzos should be considered a public health concern due to how harmful it is to the mind. People who use abuse drugs like Ativan and Xanax for more than 6 months are 84% more likely to develop a neurodegenerative disease.

Ativan Addiction Requires Medical Detox

If you’ve developed a benzo addiction, you may want to quietly try to abstain on your own. Going cold turkey with a benzodiazepine can be deadly due to the possibility of a seizure. The withdrawal process should be conducted under medical supervision. The best option is to enter into a rehab program. If an inpatient program isn’t possible due to family or work obligations, there is always outpatient rehab. Your time away from your life will be minimal but you are still able to get the support you need. The benzo withdrawal process needs to be done in managed steps with a supervised detox being the first of those steps. They will slowly reduce the dosage and amount of benzos going into your system. Benzodiazepine drugs like Ativan have their place in helping people with a variety of medical issues. They are meant to be used for a short amount of time because they are habit forming. Long-term benzo abuse leads to tolerance. Low doses stop working and so you’ll take more. Quitting on your own comes with risk of death.