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How Long Does It Take to Get Addicted to Xanax?

Patricia Williams By Patricia Williams, PhD on March 18, 2017

Xanax is a serious issue that affects far too many people. The problem has grown organically for a number of factors. First of all, our nation is afflicted with widespread anxiety these days. The world is filled with horrors like mass shootings and natural disasters, which we can experience in surround sound, on an endless loop, thanks to 24-hour news stations and the internet. When confronted with such undeniable evidence of the bad things that happen in this world, it’s easy to lose track of the good, and start existing in a state of low-key panic.

In addition, Americans also live in a high-achieving, high-pressure culture that has always struggled with anxiety. Our puritanical heritage, our rags to riches mythos, and our tendency to work long hours without breaks for a weekend, much less a vacation, all combine to make us an intensely anxious population.

Approximately 18% of adults in the United States suffer from anxiety disorders, making it the most common mental health issue in the country. That percentage means that 40 million adults struggle with general anxiety disorders, social anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and panic disorder. These people need quality mental health treatment, but far too few of them are actually getting it.

Xanax, a short-acting benzodiazepine, is an incredibly effective pharmacological treatment for anxiety, but it is only meant to be taken in small doses for a short period of time—when people continue to take it as if it is an answer to their deeply rooted issues of anxiety or take it recreationally, they quickly start to suffer the consequences of addiction. When people can no longer obtain Xanax from a doctor’s prescription, they turn to illicit sources, making alprazolam (Xanax), one of the most prevalent benzodiazepines on the illicit market.

Too many people fall into Xanax addiction by accident, assuming that it isn’t dangerous because it’s such a widely prescribed drug, commonly found in households everywhere. This is the same misapprehension that people believed for years about prescription painkillers. Over time, misuse of prescription opiates led to the current opiate crisis, a dramatic increase in heroin use, and a drastic surge in overdose fatalities.

Increased Access and Increased Accidents

In 2012, over 49 million prescriptions were written for alprazolam, the drug behind the brand name Xanax. This made Xanax the 2nd most often prescribed psychoactive medication, after the opiate narcotic hydrocodone. Some of these prescriptions were used by individuals with anxiety disorders, but many were sold for illicit use.

Increased use led to increased addiction and increased health risks. Between 2005 and 2011, emergency room visits related to Xanax use more than doubled. When these emergency room visits involved the combination of Xanax and alcohol, a fatal overdose was too often the end result.

Young adults age 18 to 25 are the most vulnerable to Xanax addiction, simply because approximately twice as many individuals in this age group use the drug than individuals age 26 and older—and Xanax is so highly addictive that any use, illicit or by prescription, will almost always lead to dependence. Because Xanax is a controlled substance, even individuals with a doctor willing to prescribe the drug will eventually be forced to turn to illicit sources after they have reached the legal limit of how many scripts can be written for a single patient.

Not only is Xanax quite widely prescribed, people can also easily order it through “the dark web,” the illegal online marketplace where people who have disguised their IP addresses go to buy dangerous items that they can have delivered anywhere they want. Xanax itself is dangerous, but taking drugs from illicit dealers presents additional dangers, such as the possibility of ingesting a counterfeit drug.

Some dealers take incredibly potent synthetic opiates like fentanyl and mix them with other substances that they then press into pills that look like Xanax, or other popular drugs. Because it is difficult to evenly distribute the fentanyl through these diluting substances, there is no way to know how much fentanyl is actually in each pill, which is particularly dangerous for unknowing Xanax users who may have zero tolerance to opiate drugs. Low or no tolerance combined with irregular distribution of a very high potency drug means that at any time, someone with counterfeit Xanax could end up taking a fatal dose in just one pill.

What does Xanax use do to your body and mind?

Xanax very quickly produces a feeling of calm and wellbeing, like everything is right with the world. It can also make you drowsy, leading many people to start depending upon it for sleep.

In addition to these sought-after effects, Xanax can cause a range of unpleasant side effects:

  • Joint pain
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Constipation
  • Weight changes
  • Changes in appetite
  • Nausea
  • Changes in sex drive or ability
  • Increased salivation or dry mouth
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Dizziness and light-headedness
  • Fatigue
  • Headache

Some possible side effects are more serious, and require immediate medical attention:

  • Problems with balance or coordination
  • Unusual behavior or mood swings
  • Speech problems
  • Memory problems
  • Confusion
  • Depression
  • Yellowed skin or eyes
  • Severe skin rash
  • Shortness of breath
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures
  • Suicidal thoughts and actions

As the drug begins to wear off, people suffering from Xanax addiction will feel their anxiety return, possibly stronger than before, pushing them to use again. Because tolerance to benzodiazepines like Xanax develops quickly, they will have to take more and more of the drug to find relief. If they don’t, they may experience withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, depression, difficulty concentrating, serious fatigue, joint pain, and headaches. If you have been taking Xanax for a long time, you could continue to experience shortness of breath, strange mood swings, speech difficulty, memory loss, and bouts of depression for years after giving up the drug. This is one of the many reasons why Xanax addiction necessitates professional treatment.

How long does it take to get addicted to Xanax?

Physicians prescribe Xanax in very small initial doses, both due to its potency, and because tolerance develops rapidly, decreasing the drug’s effectiveness within weeks. When Xanax is metabolized, it increases GABA activity in the brain, which produces a calming effect. Over time, using Xanax will cause your brain to start producing less GABA overall, leading to tolerance. In three weeks or less, you will have to increase your dosage to get the same benefits.

Xanax has a short half-life, which causes it to quickly reach peak concentration in the bloodstream, meaning you feel the effects quite rapidly—a factor in how highly addictive the drug is to users. Even taking the drug by prescription, for a legitimately diagnosed anxiety or panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or social anxiety disorder, can easily lead to addiction. When individuals who have been struggling every day to function with these debilitating disorders feel the sudden and complete relief that Xanax delivers, they can instantly become psychologically addicted. With continued use, they can become physically addicted in just one to two weeks.

This is why Xanax is only meant to be prescribed on a short-term basis. Anyone who takes the medication for longer than a week is very likely to become physically and psychologically addicted, suffering withdrawal if they try to stop taking or reduce their dosage. In addition, any problems that may have been resolved or masked with Xanax use—such as anxiety, insomnia, and depression—will resurface stronger than before due to changes in brain chemistry.

Why is Xanax addiction a problem?

Most people do not see Xanax as a dangerous drug. Even people who know that they are physically and psychologically dependent upon the drug may not see this as a problem. They mistakenly think that because Xanax is a prescription drug, Xanax addiction is no big deal. This is not even close to true.

In addition to all the symptoms and side effects described above, regular use or misuse of benzodiazepines has been linked to vivid and disturbing dreams, hostility, and amnesia. In fact, blackouts are relatively common among Xanax users. Countless individuals lose chunks of time, only to find out the next day that they did something terrible—or that something terrible was done to them. People drive recklessly and have accidents, they commit crimes and get in fights, and they find themselves the victims of violent crimes such as rape. Furthermore, this effect is possible anytime you take the drug—you don’t have to have a Xanax addiction to experience a blackout when you take it.

Xanax is particularly risky when combined with alcohol. This combination amplifies the sedating and relaxing effects of the drug, as well as the risk of accidents, dangerous behavior, and side effects. Both alcohol and Xanax work as central nervous system depressants. When the central nervous system is overly sedated, you could experience heart trouble, respiratory depression, and loss of consciousness. Your heartbeat and breathing rate could slow to the point where you slip into a coma and die.

Withdrawal from benzodiazepines like Xanax can be extremely dangerous, especially if you have taken the drug in conjunction with other substances. Like alcohol, benzodiazepines can cause a dangerous withdrawal syndrome that necessitates emergency medical care. Symptoms include tremors, extreme agitation, hallucinations, and seizures. For this reason, among many others, you should never attempt to detox from Xanax on your own.

What kind of Xanax addiction treatment is available?

Xanax addiction treatment should begin with a medically-monitored detox at a qualified addiction rehab facility that provides 24/7 medical care. This is both to protect you from risky withdrawal symptoms and health complications, and to keep you as comfortable as possible throughout the process. You shouldn’t start off your recovery with unnecessary suffering and risk.

Medical detox at an inpatient Xanax addiction treatment program will begin with a slow, gradual tapering of your dosage. This will minimize withdrawal symptoms and health risks. You will also receive care for any co-occurring mental or physical health issues that may have been masked by or caused by your Xanax use.

Checking into a rehabilitation facility for detox will also keep you from turning to Xanax again because you know it will rapidly bring you relief from your untreated detox symptoms. In addition, most treatment facilities will have you begin to undergo counseling and attend group therapy sessions, even before your detox is complete, allowing you to start healing the psychological side of your addiction.

Group, individual, and family counseling will be important components of any Xanax addiction treatment plan, and some form of counseling or peer support should continue even after you are discharged from a treatment program. You have to address all of the underlying issues—mental, behavioral, physical, etc.—that led you to misuse Xanax in the first place. If you have any undiagnosed or improperly treated mental health conditions like an anxiety disorder, you need to start the right kind of counseling and medication to help you improve your health and grow in recovery. You also need to experience behavioral therapy, which can teach you how to think, act, and react differently to situations that would have triggered you to use drugs in the past.

Counseling and other therapies that are incorporated into your Xanax addiction treatment plan can teach you practical tools and techniques for handling stress, conflict, and negative emotions in a healthy way. Through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and other behavioral therapies, you can retrain yourself to choose healthy coping mechanisms such as deep breathing and physical exercise instead of drug use when you are confronted with triggering situations. These lessons will get you safely through withdrawal and intensive treatment, then continue to support your abstinence as you go out and live the new, exciting life you have built for yourself.

Don’t put your health and happiness at risk by suffering in silence, or trying to recover from Xanax addiction on your own. There are effective, affordable treatment options to turn to, no matter what your circumstances may be.

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