Benzodiazepines such as Xanax, Klonopin, Valium, and Ativan are typically prescribed for anxiety, insomnia, panic attacks, muscle tension, and seizures. Benzos are mainly intended for short-term, occasional use. If you use benzos daily, you can develop a dependence in a matter of weeks. Every time you up your dosage to feel the effects, you make quitting more difficult. Benzos work by raising levels of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA. GABA’s main job is to keep your neurons from getting too excited. That’s why benzos are often prescribed for tension and anxiety--they actually make you less capable of tension. It’s also why they are prescribed for seizures--they tone down the activity that overwhelms your central nervous system. Alcohol has a similar effect, which is why both make you drowsy. The problem is that if you abruptly quit taking benzodiazepines, those levels of GABA, the neurotransmitter that keeps your nervous system under control, are dangerously low. This puts you at a higher risk of seizures, which is the primary danger of benzo withdrawal as the seizures can be fatal. In addition to seizure risk, quitting abruptly will make the original symptoms return, often worse than before. For example, if you were taking Xanax for anxiety, quitting abruptly may allow that anxiety to return with a vengeance. In addition to low GABA levels, you will also have lower dopamine levels, which can lead to emotional numbness, lack of motivation, inability to feel pleasure--in short, depression. The severity of withdrawal symptoms, when they start, and how long they last depend on what you take and how much. Shorter acting drugs such as Xanax and Ativan will leave your system faster, resulting in worse symptoms. Withdrawal symptoms can include anxiety, irritability, muscle pain and stiffness, panic attacks, insomnia, headaches nausea, and heart palpitations. Bad withdrawal can result in seizures and psychosis. Benzos may have lingering effects, lasting for months after acute withdrawal. These symptoms include anxiety, depression, memory problems, cognitive impairments, and coordination problems. People often feel like they’re out of it for a year or more after quitting. The lingering effects are generally worse when you try to quit cold turkey.The only safe way to quit benzodiazepines is through a gradual taper. It’s best to do it under medical supervision, and ideally in a clinical detox. When you are carefully supervised, it prevents you from giving up. And if you do have a serious complication like seizures or psychosis, there will be people on hand to treat you.
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