Xanax is a commonly prescribed medication used to treat specific anxiety disorders such as panic disorder. Alprazolam in the generic name for Xanax, and this specific prescription medication belongs to the class of drugs called benzodiazepines, or “benzos.”1
When taken as prescribed, benzodiazepines like Xanax can be effective but this class of medications does carry a high potential for addiction, especially when taken incorrectly or misused.1, 2 Due to its high risk for abuse, it is important to understand how Xanax can affect the brain and body when it’s misused. This article will answer the following questions:
- What is Xanax?
- How does Xanax affect the brain and body?
- What are the signs and symptoms of Xanax addiction?
- What are the signs and symptoms of Xanax withdrawal?
- How do I find treatment for my Xanax addiction?
What is Xanax?
Xanax is a benzodiazepine, a class of drugs that are known as central nervous system depressants because they produce a sedative effect.14 Xanax comes in tablet form and is used to treat seizure disorders and specific anxiety disorders such as panic disorder and agoraphobia (fear of open spaces).3
Benzodiazepines are often prescribed for very short periods of time, such as weeks or months because of their high addiction potential.2 Common street names for Xanax and other benzodiazepines include:4
How Does Xanax Work?
Xanax, like other benzodiazepines, is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant. These types of medications increase gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which slows brain activity. This can result in a sense of calmness and drowsiness, which makes them effective at treating anxiety disorders.5
Since Xanax can cause drowsiness, individuals under the influence of Xanax should avoid activities that could be hazardous, like driving or operating machinery.15
What is Xanax Addiction?
Substance use disorders (SUDs), including Xanax addiction, occurs when a person’s substance use causes changes in the brain’s chemistry, which leads to uncontrolled use, regardless of the harmful consequences.7,16
Xanax abuse can begin when a person is not taking the medication as prescribed, such as:2
- Taking more than their prescribed dose of Xanax.
- Taking Xanax more frequently than prescribed.
- Buying Xanax illicitly.
- Using another person’s Xanax prescription.
As a person uses Xanax over time, their body and brain can develop a dependency on the drug, meaning that when they reduce their use or stop using altogether, they can experience withdrawal symptoms. The desire to avoid withdrawal symptoms may lead some people to keep using Xanax.
It is important to note that dependency is not the same as addiction, however many individuals who develop an addiction, are most likely dependent on the substance of abuse.2
Signs of Xanax Addiction
Substance use disorders are not always easy to identify in oneself or others, so it can be helpful to know the common signs and symptoms associated with SUDs. While it’s best for healthcare professionals to make a formal diagnosis, the following criteria can be helpful in identifying a SUD. If you or a loved one has experienced 2 or more of the following criteria in the past 12 months, it may be time to seek addiction treatment:6
- Taking Xanax in larger amounts or for a longer time period than originally intended.
- Persistent desire to decrease Xanax use without success.
- Significant time spent obtaining, using, or recovering from Xanax use and its effects.
- Most or all daily activities revolve around the substance.
- Cravings or an intense desire to use Xanax.
- Recurrent Xanax use resulting in a failure to fulfill major obligations at work, school, or home.
- Continued Xanax use even when social or interpersonal consequences arise.
- Giving up or less involved in important social, occupational, or recreational activities because of Xanax use.
- Recurrent Xanax use even in situations where it is physically hazardous, like driving.
- Continued Xanax use despite knowing that physical or psychological problems are being caused by or intensified by Xanax.
- Tolerance that leads to needing more Xanax to achieve desired effect.
Central nervous system depressants such as Xanax initially cause drowsiness or a sedative effect. With continued misuse, a person may experience:1,5
- Slurred speech.
- Poor focus.
- Dry mouth.
- Issues with movement and memory.
- Lowered blood pressure.
- Slowed breathing.
- Skin rash.
It is important to seek medical attention immediately if any of the above symptoms are present.
If Xanax is used for a longer period than indicated and a person suddenly stops taking it, or reduces their use, they may experience acute withdrawal symptoms, some of which may be life threatening.2
Withdrawal symptoms can begin within a few hours after a person’s last use of Xanax and may include:5, 10
- Intense cravings.
- Increased heart rate
- Muscle cramps.
A medically supervised detoxification program is often necessary for someone who is trying to stop Xanax misuse, as withdrawing from Xanax can be dangerous. A professional medical treatment setting provides a safe environment with 24-hour supervision where a person can detox with doctors and nurses on-site.11
Mixing Xanax with Alcohol and Other Drugs
Since Xanax can cause serious side effects and has a high potential for addiction on its own, it is extremely dangerous to mix Xanax with alcohol or other drugs, particularly opioids.
A U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) review from 2020 found that benzodiazepines are widely misused along with alcohol, prescription opioids, and other illicit drugs. This combination can increase the risk of serious consequences when using Xanax.8 Mixing Xanax and other benzodiazepines with opioids is dangerous because both medications cause sedation and suppress breathing, which is often the cause of overdose fatalities.14
If you or a loved one has been prescribed Xanax, it is vital to alert your physician to what medications you are already taking before using Xanax to prevent any potentially adverse combinations.
Xanax Addiction Treatment
Addiction is a complex condition, but it is treatable. If you or a loved one is struggling with Xanax use, you are not alone, and help is available. Treatment for Xanax addiction occurs on a continuum and can involve different types of services with varying degrees of intensity.17 It’s important that treatment for Xanax addiction is tailored to the individual to address the whole person, including psychological, physical, social, and vocational needs.12
Detoxification is an important first step in the recovery process. It can take place in both inpatient and outpatient facilities and should include these 3 essential components:11
- Evaluation and assessment
- Promoting patient readiness for treatment
It’s important for people detoxing from CNS depressants to do so under medical supervision so they can taper gradually.5 There are currently no FDA-approved medications that treat addiction to sedatives like Xanax.9
Inpatient treatment takes place in a facility that provides a safe environment for treatment that provides around the clock care.17 Inpatient treatment can last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months depending on the needs of each person. Types of inpatient care can include:13
- Residential inpatient services, with 24-hour care by trained counselors and medical providers.
- Medically managed intensive inpatient services, with 24-hour nursing care and daily physician care, as well as counseling that is available 16 hours a day.
Outpatient treatment options provide maximum flexibility by allowing people to maintain their obligations at work, school, and home while in a treatment and recovery program. It typically involves 5-20 hours of treatment per week, depending on the type of outpatient treatment.
Intensive outpatient treatment (IOP) is for those who need multiple medical or psychological services while residing at home. It requires 10-20 hours of treatment a week, often involving several evening or weekend group sessions.13
Partial hospitalization programs (PHP) require 4-8 hours of treatment each day and can also be completed while the person lives at home.13
Outpatient services are often available in the evenings or on weekends so as not to interfere with typical work or school hours.13
Behavioral therapy is another important aspect of addiction treatment and may be useful in treating Xanax addiction. Therapies can include individual, family, and group counseling in both inpatient and outpatient settings.12
There are numerous types of behavioral therapies including cognitive behavioral therapy, contingency management, motivational enhancement, and 12-step facilitation. These therapies work to address the following:18
- Internal motivation for change.
- Negative thought patterns and self-talk.
- Coping strategies to manage stress and resist substances.
If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, finding the right treatment is an important first step to making positive changes in your life. American Addiction Centers (AAC) is here to help. Our caring admissions navigators are available 24/7 at 1-888-744-0069 to discuss treatment options, help you verify your benefits so you can get the help you need.