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Benzos aka benzodiazepines, are a class of medications that are often prescribed for anxiety, insomnia, and seizures. Unfortunately, while benzos can be quite helpful at reducing these symptoms, benzos are also one of the most habit-forming pharmaceuticals prescribed. In this article we are going to discuss the question: How long does it take to become dependent on benzos?
Today you are going to learn that and much more. Topics included in this article:
To best understand how benzo addiction happens, who is at risk, how quickly benzo dependence happens and how long it lasts, we first need to understand how benzos work.
The exact mechanism of benzos is not clearly understood, but what we do know is that benzos enhance a neurotransmitter in the brain called Gamma Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) (RX List, 2021).
GABA is known as the calming and relaxing neurotransmitter. It works by decreasing activity in your nervous system. When GABA levels rise, you will experience feelings of physical and emotional relaxation and sedation.
There are many different types of benzos and they all work a bit differently. For today’s purposes, we are going to focus on the four most commonly prescribed benzos.
Long-acting benzos: These tend to take a little longer to take effect but will stay in your system much longer. The effect is a smoother longer sedation instead of spikes and drops of GABA levels. Examples of long-acting benzos are diazepam (Valium), and clonazepam (Klonopin).
Short-acting benzos: This category of benzos tend to kick in fairly quickly and metabolize out of your system in a shorter amount of time. Often people who take these drugs feel a noticeable drop in their symptoms and may take the drugs more frequently. Examples of short-acting benzos are lorazepam (Ativan), and alprazolam (Xanax) (RX List, 2021).
Generally speaking, the shorter-acting benzos are more habit-forming than the longer-acting ones. This is because the shorter-acting benzos have a quicker and stronger sedative onset, and a more intense withdrawal or ‘come-down.’
Studies have shown that you can become tolerant to the benzo in just a few days of use and dependent on the drug after a few weeks of use (Alcohol and Drug Foundation, 2021).
Tolerance means that your body is no longer responding the same way to the drug and that you might need a higher dosage in order to experience the same effect. I have seen in my clinical practice that after a few days of use, a benzo should be tapered and not discontinued ‘cold-turkey’ in order to combat symptoms of withdrawal.
Dependence means that your neurochemistry and your body has changed so that it requires the drug (or substance) in order to maintain homeostasis/ balance/ equilibrium. With benzos in particular, after receiving an outside source of GABA stimulation, it downregulates it’s own internal GABA production to compensate. When you cut off that external source, you will experience withdrawal (Crownview co-occuring institute, 2021).
The short answer is that everyone is different. The longer answer is that there are many variables that go into how quickly you will become dependent on benzodiazepines, some of these include:
Variables related to taking the benzo itself:
Variables related to your personal and family history:
Word of thumb: Always taper your benzos unless you are unable to due to your own unique medical situation.
As discussed, you can become dependent on benzos after just a few days, even if your doctor is prescribing them and says otherwise.
Many clients have called me with severe withdrawal symptoms after their doctors have told them they can stop their benzos cold turkey. For most people (not everyone), this is simply not true.
Unfortunately, because benzos are so habit-forming, it is almost always better to taper.
If you are looking for support with benzo medication tapering, check out these two resources:
If you do not slowly reduce the dosage of your benzo, you are at a greater risk of withdrawal and some patients develop a condition called ‘Post-Acute Benzodiazepine Withdrawal Syndrome’ (otherwise known as PAWS).
PAWS is diagnosed when someone experiences protracted (longer than usual) symptoms of withdrawal from benzos.
Dr. Ashton has broken benzo withdrawal into several phases which you can learn more about by clicking HERE.
The first step is to be aware of your risk factors for tolerance and benzo dependence. By being aware of the risks and benefits of taking any medication or supplement, you should be informed.
Do your research, talk with your doctor, and make sure you are comfortable and confident with the recommended treatment.
Here are some tips you might consider before taking benzos:
Here are some tips you might consider if you are currently taking benzos:
There are many natural treatments for anxiety, stress, overwhelm, panic and insomnia that work. There is an abundance of research on all sorts of integrative therapies demonstrating that they are effective.
Oftentimes doctors turn to benzos because they do not have other tools in their toolbox, which leaves the pressure on you to not only get through the day, but be your own integrative practitioner, and that can be totally overwhelming. I get it, and so I have consolidated it all in one place for you, check out the video below to learn more: