Can Benzos cause Depression?

Dr. Ximena Sanchez-Samper

Ximena Sanchez-Samper, MD is a Board- Certified Addiction Psychiatrist who obtained her degree as a psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN and completed her Addictions Fellowship through the combined Massachusetts General Hospital, McLean Hospital / Brigham and Women’s Hospital Addictions Fellowship program in 2004.

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Benzodiazepines for Depression

Benzodiazepines have been used to treat a variety of conditions for many years. Healthcare providers have prescribed this type of psychoactive drug to people with anxiety, insomnia, and muscle spasms, among other conditions, because of its ability to affect the central nervous system. It can make people feel calmer, which is useful in certain situations. However, the use of benzodiazepines, “benzos” for short, has been associated with depression

What Are Benzos?

Before examining whether benzos cause depression, it’s important to develop an understanding of what this type of drug is. Benzodiazepine is a depressant. Note that this word isn’t the same as depression, but obviously, the two terms are strongly associated with one another. When healthcare professionals say that it’s a depressant, they mean that it can slow down the central nervous system. It can reduce activity in the brain and body, and as a result, it can cause sleepiness and help people feel relaxed. 

The way in which benzos work has to do with neurotransmitters. Your body uses neurotransmitters to signal messages to specific areas. Neurotransmitters can attach to cells with certain receptors, and when they do so, they activate various processes. Benzodiazepines encourage your body to release more of a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). When GABA links up with its receptors, it can decrease the responsiveness of nerve cells. This may help people feel more relaxed and at ease.

Benzos can be effective for someone who has issues with anxiety or muscle spasms. They can also be effective in reducing symptoms related to seizures or insomnia. Benzos are sometimes also called “downers.” This makes sense, given what they can do to the body. Keep in mind that benzos are controlled substances. This means that they can only be legally used by someone with a prescription.

Many prescription drugs are categorized as benzodiazepines. For example, Valium, Xanax, Halcion, Klonopin, and Ativan are all benzos. Midazolam, a benzodiazepine that goes by the commercial name of Versed, is sometimes used in a healthcare setting before a provider administers anesthesia. There are other short-acting benzos as well, such as estazolam, flurazepam, and temazepam. Aside from lasting different amounts of time, different benzos have varying strengths.

Potential Misuse and Abuse

Like with any medication, there can be drawbacks to using benzos. First of all, benzodiazepines can be abused or misused. Some people with prescriptions take the wrong dosage and experience significant impairment as a result. Sometimes, they’ll need to be hospitalized because they’ve taken too much medicine. The problem can be much more pronounced if someone has mixed another medication or alcohol with benzos. Researchers have found that opioid overdoses are associated with benzodiazepine use. Both kinds of drugs can have sedative effects, so when they are taken together, the situation can be quite dangerous.

If someone who doesn’t have a prescription takes a benzodiazepine, this is considered abuse. Taking a benzodiazepine could cause drowsiness, confusion, weakness, or problems with speech or vision. It could also result in a lack of coordination, which could result in injury. In more severe cases, a person could have trouble breathing or even fall into a coma.

Side effects of benzos can be severe in some cases, but for many people, they’re mild. They can include impaired thinking, balance problems, and slow reaction time. For this reason, people who plan on driving or operating machinery need to be very careful with their use of benzos.

If someone has taken too much of a benzodiazepine and needs to receive urgent treatment, a medical professional can give them flumazenil. Flumazenil works against benzodiazepine, and it can be very effective in counteracting its effects. It usually only takes a few minutes for flumazenil to work on the body, so it’s a valuable tool in emergency settings.

An Unfortunate Cycle

Benzos can be beneficial if taken in the appropriate dosage and in the proper manner under the care of a professional. Unfortunately, if someone misuses benzodiazepines for too long, they may start to develop depression in some cases.

There is the potential for people to get physically and psychologically dependent on benzodiazepine. When this happens, people may feel that they cannot function well without the drug, and they’ll have a hard time reducing their dosage. Risk factors for benzodiazepine addiction include long-term use of the drug, increasing dosages, using barbiturates and alcohol at the same time as benzos, and long-term anxiety disorders.

If someone is addicted to benzodiazepine, stopping the use of the drug can lead to serious withdrawal symptoms that could include seizures. In many cases, these symptoms could also include feeling anxious and unwell for anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.

Benzos and Depression

Some feel that there may be a link between benzos and depression. It makes sense, given the drug’s ability to make people feel more sedated. After all, depression is a mood disorder that can make people lose interest in activities. People with depression might feel sad or hopeless, get frustrated about a variety of matters, and have a hard time getting pleasure out of activities that they used to enjoy. Further, depression is linked with a lack of energy, abnormal sleeping habits, and subdued body movement. In addition, people with a depression disorder might experience back pain, headaches, and trouble concentrating, and they might have suicidal thoughts. 

Many of the symptoms of depression are associated with the use of benzodiazepine. In other words, benzos are prescribed to make people feel more calm, but if they feel too calm or sedated, they might show signs of depression. Therefore, it might not be too much of a stretch to presume that using benzos can cause depression. 

While there could be some concerns about any potential causal relationship, it’s important to highlight that it’s not exactly clear if benzos directly cause depression. If anything, stopping the use of benzos like Xanax may lead to depression, but it might not be the case that the medication itself causes depression. Regardless of any question regarding causal links, people need to be careful when taking benzos. Taking too much of this kind of drug can lead to a dependency issue, and when benzos are no longer taken, a number of significant problems could arise.

For instance, if you take a close look at a Valium bottle, you’ll see that there’s a danger of respiratory depression if it’s used along with an opioid. Respiratory depression is different than depression, and it refers to slow or shallow breathing rather than feelings of sadness or loss of interest in activities.

Using Benzos With Care

Long-term usage of benzodiazepine can be dangerous. It’s generally thought that it’s safer to refrain from taking benzos for long periods of time, such as more than a few weeks. This is because benzos can be addictive. Unfortunately, many people use this type of medication for longer than that. Over time, the effectiveness of the medication may decrease, so people will have to take higher and higher dosages to feel better.

The Importance of Tapering

When a person no longer wants or needs to take a benzodiazepine, quitting all of a sudden can be a recipe for disaster. Instead, a gradual withdrawal is recommended. Tapering off of benzos can hopefully prevent issues related to withdrawal like headaches, seizures, and anxiety. 

The industry has come up with many guidelines for tapering from benzos. It’s recommended that a taper occur whenever a drug in this class has been taken for two weeks. In some situations, a gradual reduction under medical supervision may be the method that works best.

Getting Help for Benzodiazepine Addiction

To combat the issues of benzodiazepine abuse and misuse, people may need to get different types of treatment rather than just depending on tapering, especially if they use it in conjunction with alcohol or other drugs. Counseling can sometimes play a role in helping people get better, and different types of lifestyle changes can potentially make a difference, too. Of course, the treatment will depend on the condition and the person’s background. 

If your addiction to benzos is keeping you from living a healthy, functional life, Charles River Recovery can help. At our recovery center, a multi-faceted treatment approach is taken with the goal of helping you improve your overall quality of life. The initial part of your treatment plan will involve medical detox to rid your body of benzodiazepine and any other substances you may be using. While in the detox stage of your treatment, you will be supervised around the clock to ensure that your withdrawal symptoms do not result in serious medical issues. The goal of detox is to keep you safe and make you as comfortable as possible during withdrawal. 

After detox, we offer both inpatient and outpatient substance use disorder treatment. In an outpatient program, you continue to live at home. This type of treatment may be suitable for clients who have not taken benzos for long and have a strong support network outside of the recovery center. Alternatively, during an inpatient program, clients live at our facility. Residential treatment is often appropriate for clients who need more structure or have substance use issues with alcohol or other drugs in addition to benzos.

Whether you enter a residential or outpatient program, you will be involved in individual and group therapy. Therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you cope with anxiety or related conditions that may have been the reason you started using benzodiazepine in the first place. In addition, CBT has been found to be effective in treating clients facing dependency and addiction problems. This type of therapy can help you better understand your behavior and how your thinking affects your actions. It is also effective because, during sessions, you learn coping skills and how to handle situations that may trigger a relapse. You will also be involved in group therapy with other clients during your treatment. These sessions can help you feel less isolated, develop interpersonal skills, and brainstorm coping strategies.

As you near the completion of your program, our professionals will talk with you about your next steps. Aftercare will include ongoing therapy sessions and may also involve joining support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.