Xanax is a potent benzodiazepine drug primarily used to treat anxiety, panic attacks, and insomnia. Affecting the central nervous system, Xanax leads to a sense of calmness and relaxation.

However, due to Xanax’s potency and fast-acting effects, it is easy to build up tolerance and addiction to this drug. Therefore, despite being the most prescribed psychiatric drug in the U.S., Xanax is only recommended for short-term use.

Prescriptions for Xanax have skyrocketed in recent years, largely due to the increasing number of mental health conditions such as insomnia and anxiety. However, while Xanax is extremely addictive, there is hope for recovery. With multiple treatment options available, individuals can restore their health and lead new lives free from addiction.

Before going into the available treatment methods for Xanax addiction, this article will provide an outline of what Xanax is, why it is so addictive, and what the long-term effects are.

What Is Xanax?

Xanax is the brand name for alprazolam, a powerful, short-acting benzodiazepine (also known as a “benzo”) that is used to treat anxiety, panic attacks, and insomnia. Xanax can also be used as an anti-nauseant, especially to prevent vomiting during chemotherapy.

Despite being highly addictive, Xanax is the number one prescribed psychiatric drug in the U.S. Patented in 1971, the drug became available for commercial use in 1981 and is considered a Schedule IV Controlled Substance.

Other names for Xanax include:

  • Bars
  • Benzos
  • Bicycle Parts
  • Blue footballs
  • Bricks
  • French Fries
  • Handlebars
  • Ladders
  • Planks
  • School Bus
  • Upjohn
  • White Boys
  • White Girls
  • Xanbars
  • Xannies
  • Yellow Boys
  • Z-Bars

Like most benzos, Xanax works by attaching to the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors in the brain, effectively controlling the neurotransmitters that contribute to anxiety and stress. This generates feelings of calmness, reduced anxiety, and muscle relaxation.

How Does Xanax Compare With Other Benzos?

Xanax is considered to be a “classic benzodiazepine” and shares traits with the following drugs:

  • Ativan
  • Klonopin
  • Valium
  • Ambien
  • Halcion
  • Lunesta
  • Phenibut

While these drugs perform similar actions on the central nervous system, they differ in terms of how fast-acting they are and how long they stay in the body.

For example, while Ativan is most closely related to Xanax, Xanax is more quick-acting, and it leaves the body more quickly. Also, Ativan takes about 2 hours to reach its peak, while Xanax works in half that time. Xanax’s quick effects cause individuals to take the doses more frequently, which is also a contributing factor to dependence.

Why Are Benzo Use Rates so High?

Benzodiazepine first appeared on the commercial market in 1960 with the emergence of modern psychopharmacology. First discovered by Leo Sternbach, a Polish American chemist, benzos were heralded for their sedative, relaxing, and anti-convulsant properties, as well as their tolerability and ease of use. It wasn’t long before benzos were prescribed by psychiatrists for conditions like insomnia, anxiety, and alcohol withdrawal.

Benzos are now widely prescribed due to the rise in sleep problems and anxiety conditions. For instance, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates that 40 million Americans suffer from an anxiety-related condition, which amounts to 18% of the population. In addition, the National Institute of Health reports that 30% of the general U.S. population suffers from some form of sleep disturbance or insomnia.

While other drugs like opioids have been declining over time, benzo prescriptions continue to rise. In fact, between 1996 and 2013 it is estimated that these prescriptions rose by over 67% (from 8.1 million to 13.5 million).

These staggering statistics demonstrate how mental health issues and physical conditions are leading to high rates of prescriptions for benzos like Xanax. The problem with high rates of subscriptions is that it normalizes the behavior, leading individuals to erroneously assume that they’re safe to use on a frequent basis.

What Makes Xanax Addictive?

Xanax is one of the most potent benzos on the market, and it causes addiction in a couple of ways. The first is that the body easily develops a tolerance to the drug which means that the person needs to take higher and higher doses to achieve the desired effect.

The second is that this increased tolerance also results in intense drug cravings if the Xanax is discontinued. This cycle of tolerance and cravings can create an addiction loop that is difficult to break without intervention.

Xanax is also addictive for emotional and psychological reasons. Many people take this drug to ease anxiety and to feel calmer and more relaxed. The idea of re-experiencing anxiety or panic can cause individuals to form a psychological addiction to the drug. This is where intervention and therapy can help individuals wean off the drug while dealing with the underlying causes of their mental health conditions.

Abuse, Dependence, or Addiction?

It’s worth noting that there is a difference between abuse, dependence, and addiction. For example, Xanax is often abused at parties and taken in excess while being mixed with other drugs. Generally, though, those who use the drug infrequently can cease use without any side effects.

Dependence on Xanax can occur when the body is reliant on the chemical interactions caused by the drug. In this case, medical support may be required to help wean the individual off the drug. However, dependence differs from addiction as the individual isn’t mentally attached or obsessed with the drug.

Xanax addiction, on the other hand, occurs when individuals are largely unable to function without the drug. When the brain is addicted to benzos like Xanax, it can go through cycles of insomnia, depression, paranoia, and irritability when going off it. They often develop a physical and psychological addiction that leads them to go to extreme lengths to obtain a prescription.

Xanax Abuse Statistics

Xanax abuse rates have skyrocketed over the years. In 2016, 50 million prescriptions for Xanax were written, up from 38 million in 2006. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the number of overdose deaths related to benzo prescriptions quadrupled between 2002 to 2015.

Other statistics include:

  • Between 1996 and 2013, the number of adults who filled a benzodiazepine prescription increased by 67%, from 8.1 million to 13.5 million
  • According to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, young adults aged 18 to 25 had the highest rates of abuse: (10.3%) versus (5.7%) for adults 26+
  • According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), more than 50% of emergency room visits for benzos also involved the use of alcohol or other drugs

How Xanax Is Taken

Xanax is prescribed in tablets that are usually taken orally. The pills are also sometimes crushed and snorted.

Xanax is prescribed in different strengths, and it is available in 0.25 mg, 0.5 mg, 1 mg and 2 mg formulations. The pills also come in various shapes and colors depending on the strength:

  • 25 mg tablets: white, oval-shaped
  • 5 mg tablets: orange, oval-shaped
  • 1 mg tablets: blue, oval-shaped
  • 2 mg tablets: white, green, or yellow, rectangular-shaped

When taken orally, the effects of Xanax are typically felt within minutes (the peak takes place after 1 to 2 hours) and stays in a person’s system for 12 to 15 hours.

Effects of Xanax

Xanax helps balance the brain chemicals that cause anxiety. If the drug is taken in high doses, it can create a fleeting high that is often followed by a state of calm. Some of the other short-term effects include:

  • Relaxation
  • Calmness
  • Euphoria
  • Drowsiness

Side Effects

Xanax can also cause a range of uncomfortable side effects which will vary according to the individual. They include:

  • Dizziness
  • Dry mouth
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Poor coordination
  • Seizures
  • Shortness of breath
  • Slurred speech
  • Tremors
  • Lack of focus
  • Confusion
  • Memory problems
  • Lack of inhibition

Common Xanax Combinations

Like most drugs, Xanax is used recreationally with other substances to enhance its effects and achieve a more significant high. Some of the most frequent Xanax combinations include:

Alcohol

Alcohol is commonly used with Xanax. What makes the mix so potent is that both alcohol and Xanax are tranquilizers that affect the GABAergic system. Therefore, when the two drugs are mixed, it produces a quick, intense high.

If an individual drinks alcohol in large quantities, the ability to break down each drug is impaired, resulting in more potent effects. The danger of this combination is that it depresses the central nervous system and can lead to respiratory failure, over-sedation, coma, and death.

Stimulants

Another common drug combination withe Xanax are stimulants such as Adderall. However, as these drugs are antagonistic, they can create opposing effects in the body. As Adderall is a stimulant and Xanax a depressant, they cancel each other out which can lead to fatal overdoses when an individual mistakenly thinks they are soberer than they are.

Another danger of mixing these drugs is the effect they each have on the respiratory system. Xanax, for example, slows down breathing while Adderall can demand increased oxygen. This can lead to respiratory complications as the individual struggles to meet their oxygen needs.

Opioids

Opioids are another class of drug commonly combined with Xanax. Drugs like heroin, morphine, or methadone (a painkiller that is also used to wean individuals off heroin) will often be mixed with Xanax to boost the effects, either for pain-relieving reasons or to increase the high.

However, like alcohol, mixing two central nervous system depressants is dangerous because it can lead to respiratory failure, coma, and death.

Signs & Symptoms of Xanax Addiction

Because Xanax is a prescription drug, many individuals may not realize that they are becoming addicted to it.

However, taking more than the prescribed dose, continuing the drug longer than the prescribed timeline, and obtaining the drug without a prescription are all potential signs of addiction.

Physical Signs of Xanax Addiction

Individuals who regularly take Xanax at high doses (or frequently and for long periods) can exhibit physical signs of addiction such as:

  • Drowsiness
  • Light-headedness
  • Sleeping for extended periods of time
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Sluggishness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Headache
  • Dry mouth
  • Delirium
  • Mania
  • Heart palpitations
  • Slurred speech
  • Seizures during withdrawal
  • Vertigo
  • Impaired coordination
  • Weakness

Psychological Signs of Xanax Addiction

Individuals who regularly abuse Xanax will also exhibit psychological signs of addiction and emotional changes the longer they take the drug. This includes:

  • Needing Xanax to function
  • Agitation
  • Poor decision-making
  • Mood changes
  • Irritability
  • Memory loss or reduced memory
  • Impaired cognition
  • Depression
  • Exacerbation of existing mental health conditions
  • Taking Xanax constantly to relieve stress or tension

Behavioral Signs of Xanax Addiction

While some of the behavioral signs of Xanax addiction also apply to other drug dependencies, there are a few abuse indications for this drug. These include:

  • Impulsive behaviors
  • Running out of prescriptions early
  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies
  • Uncooperative attitude
  • Hiding or lying about Xanax use
  • Difficulties controlling Xanax use
  • Frequently taking Xanax pills
  • Isolation from work, family, and social life
  • Continuing to use Xanax despite its negative side-effects
  • Spending a great deal of time using, obtaining, or recovering from Xanax
  • Abusing other substances (poly-substance abuse)
  • Relationship problems

Other Xanax Abuse Signs

Aside from the signs above, there are a few other identifying behaviors to watch out for if you suspect someone has a Xanax addiction.

“Doctor Shopping”

Most doctors will restrict the amount of Xanax a person can obtain and will only prescribe a certain amount. People who are addicted to Xanax will often resort to finding multiple doctors who can give them prescriptions for the drug.

This can be a sign of a more extreme Xanax addiction as the individual is taking desperate measures to acquire more than the prescribed amount. As part of this doctor shopping, individuals will also tend to travel great distances to different pharmacies to remain undetected.

Financial & Legal Problems

While insurance may cover prescriptions for Xanax, the costs can mount up if the individual is buying it frequently or in large quantities at once. With use over time, individuals may begin to steal to finance their addiction and to cover their monthly bills.

Other legal problems can include frequent DUIs (driving while under the influence of alcohol or substances). Individuals who are intoxicated or on high doses of benzos like Xanax can be pulled over and charged for this offense.

Taking Xanax for Months and Years

Xanax is intended for short-term use (an average of six weeks) and should therefore only be extended under special circumstances.

If someone you know has been regularly taking Xanax for longer than a month, they could be dependent or addicted. Some individuals find ways to take Xanax for months or even years by doctor shopping and hiding their actual use.

No Longer Needing Xanax for the Original Issue

If an individual’s original condition is no longer the “loudest voice in the room” and they simply take Xanax for its effects, then this can also signal a problem. For example, if someone started taking Xanax for anxiety but they no longer take it for that issue, then it’s a clear sign that they’re addicted.

Long-Term Health Consequences

Long-term Xanax use can leave lasting and damaging effects on a person’s health, especially when it comes to memory and cognition. The physical consequences of long-term use include, but are not limited to:

  • Memory loss (including an inability to make new memories)
  • Chronically low blood pressure
  • Increased drowsiness or sedation
  • Physical and mental fatigue
  • Increased anxiety
  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Learning difficulties
  • Slow, shallow breathing
  • Pale or bluish skin
  • Mouth sores
  • Bleeding in the digestive tract
  • Kidney problems
  • Sleep cycle disruption
  • Headaches
  • Appetite loss
  • Insomnia
  • Tremors
  • Seizures

The long-term psychological consequences of Xanax use include:

  • Mania
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Psychosis
  • Risk of dementia or Alzheimer’s
  • Violent mood changes
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Suicidal ideation

Another important thing to look out for is a potential Xanax overdose. Key signs and symptoms of an overdose include:

  • Confusion
  • Slowed heart rate
  • Extreme drowsiness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fainting
  • Loss of balance
  • Muscle weakness
  • Coma

Xanax Addiction Resources

At RehabAid.com, we are dedicated to helping people recover from problematic substance use and associated mental health disorders. If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction to drugs or alcohol, you are not alone. Information on treatment and support options is readily available through the National Helpline of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) at 1-800-662-4357. To further assist you along the path to recovery, the treatment center locator on our website allows you to easily find rehabilitation programs and services in your local area.

We provide our readers with factual, evidence-based content concerning the causes and nature of addiction, as well as available treatment options. However, this informative content is intended for educational purposes only. It is by no means a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. With regard to any addiction-related health concerns, you should always seek the guidance of a qualified, registered physician who is licensed to practice medicine in your particular jurisdiction. You should never avoid or delay seeking professional health care advice or services based on information obtained from our website. Our authors, editors, medical reviewers, website developers, and parent company do not assume any liability, obligation, or responsibility for any loss, damage, or adverse consequences alleged to have happened directly or indirectly as a result of the material presented on RehabAid.com

About the Author

Jenn Tomomitsu, PhD

Jenn is a Canadian writer and poet with a background in psychology, sociology, and natural health. She is the founder of The Master in You, a mental wellness site that provides information about the role that thoughts and emotions play in our physical and emotional health. Jenn is passionate about inner growth and the power of the mind-body connection, and this informs her writing and research on addiction treatment. On Rehabaid, Jenn aims to write accessible, informative content and provide resources that can help people make empowered and informed decisions about their recovery.

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