Benzodiazepines are a class of medicine that are used to treat a variety of health conditions. While they are primarily used as a short-term solution to severe anxiety, depression or mania, they can also be used for sleep problems and other conditions.
They provide rapid relief (typically within hours of administration), however they are known for their high addiction liability. Benzodiazepines have helped many people control their symptoms, but have also become a popular recreational drug in recent times.
Benzodiazepines have largely replaced Barbiturates, which, along with Z-Drugs and other medicines, are covered in our sedative, hypnotic and anxiolytic section of medications. To clarify, Benzodiazepines do fit into the category of sedative, hypnotic and anxiolytic, but have their own section.
Information on Benzodiazepines
Benzodiazepines have a rapid course of action. Depending on the characteristics of the medication, they are either short or long acting.
Short acting Benzodiazepines are mainly used as sleeping tablets/hypnotics, while long acting Benzodiazepines are used for severe mental health episodes.
It is important to take a benzodiazepine how and when a Doctor has advised. This involves taking the correct dose at the right time, and taking the medication on a consistent basis.
A benzodiazepine shouldn’t be taken for longer than three weeks. Ideally, an individual should only use them for around a week. Otherwise, addiction is highly likely.
The lowest dose possible that is thought to improve symptoms will initially be prescribed. Once a person has seen an improvement in their symptoms, it is likely they will stop taking the benzodiazepine as soon as possible. Taking a benzodiazepine should only ever be a short-term measure.
What conditions are Benzodiazepines used for?
Benzodiazepines are only prescribed for treatment in the short-term. But they can feasibly be used in the treatment of a wide array of conditions, such as:
- Depression (Severe Depressive episode)
- Anxiety (Severe anxiety)
- Psychosis (Acute psychotic episode)
- Bipolar Disorder (For mania)
- Catatonic Schizophrenia
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Sleep problems
What are the different types of Benzodiazepines?
There are currently 13 benzodiazepines currently licensed for use in the United Kingdom. These can be prescribed for many different conditions, as seen above. But importantly, they should only ever be prescribed on a short-term basis.
- Alprazolam (Xanax)
- Chlordiazepoxide (Librium)
- Clobazam (Frisium)
- Clonazepam (Klonopin)
- Diazepam (Valium)
- Flurazepam (Dalmane)
- Loprazolam (Dormonoct)
- Lorazepam (Ativan)
- Lormetazepam (Dormagen)
- Nitrazepam (Mogadon)
- Temazepam (Restoril)
- Midazolam (Buccolam)
How do Benzodiazepines work?
Benzodiazepines work by increasing the levels of a neurotransmitter in the brain called Gabba Amino Butyric Acid. This is better known as GABA. GABA has a calming effect on the brain.
Therefore, when the levels of GABA is raised, its effect is enhanced – resulting in a person feeling more relaxed, drowsy and in general, more comfortable. Other effects include reduced anxiety, relaxed muscles, and sedation.
The effects generally lasts for a few hours. They have a high addiction liability, meaning those taking this class of medicines should only do so in the short-term.
Side Effects of Benzodiazepines
Side effects are common with benzodiazepines. However, the side effects associated with each medicine differs from medication to medication. With any benzodiazepine, a Patient Information Leaflet will be included in the box. This leaflet provides an exhaustive list of side effects.
Side effects from benzodiazepines can cause some discomfort. As benzodiazepines are normally only taken on a short-term basis, these side effects should disappear once the medication is withdrawn from.
Common side effects of benzodiazepines include drowsiness, sedation, dizziness, nausea, poor concentration reduced alertness, aggression, amnesia, low mood, lack of coordination, low sex drive and sexual dysfunction.
Serious side effects include suicidal thoughts, seizures, chest pain, psychosis or any abnormal behaviour. An overdose should always be avoided.
In the long-term, benzodiazepine use can cause impaired cognition, behavioural problems, loss of sex drive, low mood and anhedonia . They can also worsen the very symptoms they were meant to address, if not taken properly.
Tolerance and addiction/dependence are the obvious long-term risks. Withdrawal can be difficult, and cause severe discomfort.
Cautions of Benzodiazepines
It is important to thoroughly read the Patient Information Leaflet that comes with your medication. The leaflet will include specific cautions that should be taken into consideration when taking an antidepressant.
General considerations when taking benzodizaepines include:
- Benzodiazepines are addictive, and should not be taken for any longer than they need to be. Failure to stop taking the medication will in the vast majority of cases cause withdrawal symptoms.
- Withdrawal symptoms from Benzodiazepines include sleep problems, tremors, agitation, muscle spasms, anxiety and in severe cases – suicidal ideation and psychosis .
- Benzodiazepines are safer than barbiturates in overdose when taken alone. However, they can be toxic when combined with other substances. When combined with alcohol, opioids or some antidepressants, the combination can be fatal.
- Further to the above point, it is important to tell a Doctor or other medical professional if the individual is taking any other medication. Benzodiazepines should not be routinely prescribed alongside other medications.
- Alcohol should not be consumed during benzodiazepine treatment.
- It is important to not combine benzodiazepines with any recreational drugs.
- Because benzodiazepines cause poor concentration, a patient should not drive while taking a medication.
- A patient should speak to their Doctor regarding taking a benzodiazepine while pregnant or during the breastfeeding stage.
Benzodiazepines can have a very positive effect on an individual. However, it is important to only take these medicines on a short-term basis.
If they are not taken properly, a whole host of problems can develop. But when used as intended, they can be very effective.
This website should be used purely for informational purposes, and does not intend to, nor should it ever, be used as a replacement for professional medical advice.
We strive to keep all of our pages updated, and ensure that our website is full of factual and in-depth information. However, we encourage you to browse this website with care.
As a reminder, this website and all content within it cannot and should not replace the advice of a trained medical professional. You can read our full disclaimer at this link.
If you are struggling with your mental health, help is available. With the right support and treatment, you can make a recovery. For information on helplines, or if you are in a state of crisis, please visit our crisis page by clicking on the relevant link for your geographical location (United Kingdom), (United States), (International). You can also see how to get mental health treatment and the process involved by clicking this link.
 Ashton, H. (2004). Benzodiazepine dependence. In: Haddad, P., Dursun, S., & Deakin, B. (Eds). Adverse Syndromes and Psychiatric Drugs: A clinical guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp.239-260.