PTSD and Benzos

Commonly referred to as benzos, these medicines fight panic disorders, seizures, and PTSD. Primary care physicians make up more than half of all professionals who recommend benzos for PTSD, suggesting a more long term perceived need for the drugs. These medications are considered federally controlled substances due to a serious risk for addiction or dependence. Benzodiazepines are a schedule 4 drug because of low risk of dependency, but for those who do fall prey to benzo addiction, the consequences can be deadly.

The term benzodiazepine covers a list of sedative drugs including, alprazolam (Xanax), lorazepam (Ativan), temazepam (Restoril), clonazepam (Klonopin), diazepam (Valium), and more. Prescription benzos treat short-term insomnia, anxiety, and depression. Therefore, many doctors find benzos useful for treating the symptoms of PTSD.

However, because of the highly addictive nature of benzos, they should not be used for the long term treatment of PTSD. Not only are they ineffective, but they can also be harmful to recovery efforts. But since they are legally dispensed by a doctor, it can be more difficult for patients to accept that they may have a problem. Nevertheless, when you receive a benzo prescription for PTSD, addiction can take hold quickly. But there is hope and we can help you explore recovery options that may be right for you. When you call, you’ll be set up with an addiction specialist who can guide you on your recovery journey. If you, a friend, or a family member need help with addressing benzo abuse, please call 405-583-4390.

Anyone can Suddenly Develop PTSD


Post-traumatic stress disorder is a condition that can occur after a dangerous or terrifying event. People who experience a serious car accident, the death of someone they loved, a natural disaster, physical or sexual assault, or terrorism may develop PTSD. However, post-traumatic stress disorder is most commonly associated with soldiers who have lived through combat.

It’s normal to experience a range of emotions during and after a harrowing incident. Most of the time, fear and stress drive the body to perform life-saving, “fight or flight” actions. Though the majority of people recover relatively quickly after such events, others will continue to feel the original trauma. If a person is still dealing with the aftermath of a particularly painful situation three months later, they may have PTSD.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is classified and diagnosed with a set of four different criteria including re-experiencing, arousal, and reactive systems, avoidance, and cognitive and mood symptoms that last for more than 30 days. Each of these criteria has symptoms of their own. An individual needs to experience one symptom from each of these categories to be diagnosed with PTSD. Sometimes symptoms do not appear until months or years after traumatic events have unfolded.

PTSD Criteria

  • Re-experience symptoms such as scary thoughts, nightmares, and flashbacks that cause the repeated replaying of the first traumatizing event. This constant rehashing of events can begin to affect daily routines and can be triggered by objects or reminders of the original episode.
  • Avoidance symptoms like keeping away from reminders of the trauma like places and events, or the deflection of feelings and thoughts connected to the ordeal. 
  • Arousal and reactivity symptoms include sleeping problems, becoming easily scared, anger management issues, and a feeling of anxiousness or constantly being “on edge”. This chronic state of stress can cause a person to feel angry to the point of it interfering with sleep patterns, daily tasks, and eating.
  • Mood and cognition symptoms involve a decrease in interest in things you like previously liked, pessimistic thoughts about yourself and those around you, difficulty recalling the catalyst event, and feelings like blame and guilt.

Benzo Use becomes Benzo Abuse


Benzodiazepines are psychoactive sedative drugs that work by heightening the effects of the naturally occurring chemical compound, gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, on neurotransmitters. GABA slows down the brain activity that controls emotions, memories, logical thought, and necessary functions like breathing. Users report that benzos make them feel tranquil, drowsy, and lethargic. However, the effectiveness of each drug affects each person in a different way. A Valium high is similar to the feeling of being drunk but a Klonopin high may cause an extreme state of sedation.  Doctors prescribe drugs like Klonopin and Xanax for PTSD because they act quickly to relieve anxiety, irritability, and insomnia. But evidence shows a disturbing connection between benzodiazepines and PTSD in that many patients experienced either no significant long-term progress in treatment with Xanax or, more worryingly, saw their conditions worsen.

Over-Reliance

Over time, benzodiazepines and PTSD cause a user to become both mentally and physically dependent on the drug. If you become overly reliant on benzos to deal with anxiety, you will never learn to deal with your original trauma and may come to feel that you cannot face a stressful day without it. The side effects of benzo use include dizziness, confusion, slurred speech, shakiness, and more. Though less common, benzos can also cause slow physical reaction times, breathing difficulties, and problems with thinking and attention. Additionally, the prescribing of benzos for PTSD has also been linked to Alzheimer’s disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Benzos have even been shown to cause opposite reactions in users over time such as aggression, hostility, irritability, and distressing dreams.

 “Benzodiazepines might be effective if they selectively inhibited the stress and anxiety centers of the brain that are often hyperactive in PTSD,” researcher Jeffrey Guina, MD, Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio, said in a statement. “Instead, they indiscriminately target the entire brain – including areas that are already hypoactive in PTSD, such as the cognitive and memory centers.”

Signs to Look Out For


Because benzos can be effective for short-term relief of the distressing symptoms of PTSD such as nightmares, flashbacks, and insomnia, the gradual increase in dosage and subsequent addiction can sometimes go unnoticed. Though the duration of the use of most benzos should not exceed four weeks, oftentimes users continue to abuse benzos long after they are initially prescribed by doctor shopping (visiting multiple doctors for the express purpose of obtaining more prescriptions) or finding the drug in the “streets”. For example, the prescribing of Klonopin for PTSD should not exceed two weeks as addiction can set in by this short timeframe. Benzo addiction involves both a powerful physical connection and a strong psychological attachment. Both aspects need to be approached differently in order to successfully end benzo addiction.

If you are wondering if yourself or a loved may have an addiction to benzodiazepines, look for the following signs:

  • Being unable to decrease or stop benzo abuse. 
  • A built-up tolerance to the effects of benzos and the requiring of higher dosages to get the same effect.
  • A feeling of being unable to get through the day without benzos.
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms such as depression, tremors, depersonalization, and trouble sleeping.

When a person decides to discontinue benzo abuse, often the first hurdle to overcome is withdrawal. As with any extended drug abuse, the body becomes used to and then dependent on that drug to continue functioning normally. A sudden stoppage of these sedatives can cause the development of benzo withdrawal symptoms. Users may experience muscle tension, blurry vision, nightmares, tremors, nausea, and more. More severe cases of withdrawal can include suicidal ideation and acts of self-harm such as cutting or pulling out hair, especially in young patients. The worst instances of withdrawal sickness can involve seizures, hallucinations, delusions, and death. Because benzo withdrawal can be life-threatening, doctors usually prescribe weaning off of the drugs to lessen the severity of symptoms.

Teen Benzo Use Explodes


Benzos for PTSD and benzo abuse are not adult problems anymore. In fact, many young people are also suffering from benzo addiction. Consider this example:

“I found some Xanax in my bed, I took that shit, went back to sleep. They gon’ miss me when I’m dead, I lay my head and rest in peace. I’m praying to the sky and I don’t even know why.”

This lyric from the late rapper Lil’ Peep, who died of a Xanax and fentanyl overdose in 2017 at 21 years old, highlights the sudden rise in popularity of Xanax use in modern music. The normalization of benzo drug abuse on social media through stylized pictures and video happens with a quick click for teens. Additionally, benzo use is portrayed as an easy way to take the edge off of teenage stress, which is at an all-time high, due to ease of access through medicine cabinets. Teenagers who have grown up in homes with parents who take benzodiazepines are more likely to think such drugs are for self-medication.  

Many Names

There are many names for benzos including downers, chill pills, bars, planks, and tranks. Teens often use benzos in combination with other drugs like alcohol, marijuana, opioids, cocaine, or other benzos. These mixes of drugs can result in blackouts that increase the risk of sexual assault or driving under the influence. Risk factors for benzo abuse in teens include the existence of mental health disorders such as low self-esteem, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and depression. For these teens, the chances of benzo abuse increase because they are more vulnerable to mental health disorders but less likely than adults to receive an official diagnosis. Peer pressure and stress from obligations at school or college can also influence teen benzo abuse. PTSD in teens manifests differently than in adults. Though benzodiazepines are rarely prescribed for teens with PTSD, any legal or suspected illegal use of benzos by teens should be closely monitored.  

Reach Out for Addiction Help


PTSD requires trauma-focused therapy to successfully treat it. This can be difficult if benzos were first prescribed to deal with the disorder. Patients may need to take part in multiple types of therapy to address both addiction and any underlying psychological conditions. Therapies for PTSD include prolonged exposure (PE), cognitive processing therapy (CPT), eye movement desensitization, and reprocessing (EMDR). Substance abuse disorder treatment with cognitive-behavioral therapy and drug relapse deterrent also works. Moreover, COPE is a therapy that combines both treatment for PTSD and substance abuse disorder. 

Overcoming a co-occurring disorder like PTSD and benzo addiction can be very difficult, but it is not impossible! Though you may be experiencing feelings of shame or remorse over drug abuse, don’t let it stop you. We are here to help guide you to the first step to getting sober. Please call us for more information. 

Written By: Dani Horn

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