Benzos like Valium, Ativan and Klonopin have been around for decades and have become household names. When characters mention these drugs on television, viewers know just what the drugs do. When crooners sing about “mother’s little helper,” listeners can visualize little blue pills. Benzodiazepine drugs are a part of modern culture.
Researchers at Oregon State University suggest that teens might be provided with benzos for medical conditions, such as:
- Sleep disorders
- Dental concerns
These drugs are not always recommended for routine use in adolescents. If a teen is given this drug for a very short period of time, addiction risks might be low. That’s because experts quoted in the Psychiatric Times say that most people need to take these drugs for about six months before addiction troubles develop. As a result, a teen given a few pills for an upcoming dental appointment may get only relief and not addiction, but those who continue to take benzos could face long-term risks of addiction and even benzodiazepine overdose.
How Addictions Develop
In addition to slowing down brain activity, benzodiazepines tinker with the chemical signals in the brain. Many of the signals targeted by benzos have to do with feelings of happiness and reward.
The brain cells work with a series of on/off signals. When an outside stimulus comes in, a signal is turned on. When that stimulus is removed, the signal turns off. When that cycle is complete, other cells come in to clean up the leftovers. Every day, this cycle is repeated hundreds and hundreds of times. When something pleasant happens, brain cells release chemicals associated with happiness and joy. That burst lasts for only a minute or two, until it’s turned back off, and the leftover signals are recycled.
Researchers have long known that drugs like heroin can amend this cycle. When a teen takes heroin, that original pleasure signal is simply huge and it lasts and lasts. The brain’s ability to turn that signal off, and the cells’ ability to clean up the extra, is impaired. As a result, a teen on heroin feels good for a long period of time, and that’s what makes heroin addictive.
Benzos work on that same pathway, according to research from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. They work on slightly different switches, but they cause the same surges seen in people who take heroin. That means teens who take benzos get high just like people who take heroin, and a benzo addiction can develop just as easily.
A Slow Slide
Since benzos can cause chemical reactions that lead to pleasure surges, it’s not surprising that some people who take them over the long-term for a medical condition end up developing an addiction to the medications.
In a study of the issue, published in the journal Psychiatric Services, researchers found that about 25% of those taking benzodiazepines were either accelerating their use or were chronic users after five years. These people probably intended to take their medications as directed, but in time, they moved into a different pattern of use.
It’s possible that teens who abuse these drugs have a speedier addiction process. That’s because teens tend to take a lot of pills at once when they’re looking for a high. Instead of taking just one, they might take five. Instead of waiting hours between doses, they may wait only minutes. These little decisions can simply flood the brain with pleasure signals, and all of that data could make the addiction process move just a little faster.
In addition, many teens who develop these benzo addictions don’t come to the addiction as a result of a medical problem. Instead, they find medications in the family home or they buy medications from friends at school and they abuse those medications. They’re not correcting existing imbalances with these drugs. They’re amending healthy brain tissue, and the damage they do could move the use from voluntary to compulsive.
In time, with continued distorted pleasure signals, a teen’s brain may be unable to function without the presence of these benzos. Teens might feel flat or sad without the drugs, able to experience pleasure only when the drugs are available. They may feel ill when the drugs aren’t active. They may be beset with cravings for the drugs that keep them from concentrating and making good decisions. Teens may not want these changes, but addictions can bring them about.
Signs of Benzo Addiction
Even though teens may believe that their benzo habits are benign, and even though addicted teens might not be aware that their emotions may be hijacked by drug use, they may not be willing to simply discuss their drugs with family members and friends. They may work hard to hide their habits from the people they love.
In time, addiction habits may begin to impact a teen’s day-to-day habits and behaviors. According to the Mayo Clinic, these changes are common in people who have an addiction issue:
- Neglected Appearance – Teens once interested in clothing may be willing to wear the same outfits, day after day, and they may neglect to wash up.
- Academic Difficulties – Teens may skip school altogether, or they may sit in class without doing any of the required work. These decisions could have a detrimental impact on a teen’s grades and test scores.
- Listlessness – Teens who were once bundles of energy, filled with excitement and vigor, might seem sedated and slow.
- Reclusiveness – Hiding an addiction means hiding away pills. As a result, teens with addictions might become terribly upset when parents enter their rooms or attempt to take items to the laundry. The protests may be completely out of proportion to the task the adult is trying to complete.
These same signs might be present in a teen who is using any kind of drug, not just a benzodiazepine. But benzo users have some very specific habits parents can watch for. Since benzos are sedatives, they tend to slow down a teen’s body, in addition to slowing down a teen’s mind. Bezodiazepine addiction statistics from Medscape suggest that teens who take a great deal of benzos at one time might be drowsy and confused, as though they are unaware of what has happened and willing to talk about it only after they have had a chance to sleep. Conversely, some teens who take too much become intensely agitated – pacing, yelling and shaking – and they may not be able to explain what is upsetting them.
Teens who take benzos may, at times, take doses that are so high that they impede the brain’s ability to keep the body functioning at a normal rate. Teens like this might seem asleep and peaceful, but they could be headed into a coma. Benziodiazepine overdose is a real threat. Parents should use their best judgment when they encounter a teen high on benzos. If the teen is simply intoxicated but breathing well, a parent might need to do little more than monitor that teen until sobriety returns. But teens who seem dangerous, to themselves or to others, or teens who are extremely sedated might need the help of a hospital. There’s no shame in calling in the authorities when this happens, and it’s often necessary for teens who abuse benzos.
Overcoming Benzo Addiction
Benzo withdrawal can be quite serious, according to the Journal of the Oklahoma State Medical Association. In some cases, people who attempt to withdraw from benzos develop seizures as their brain cells react to a drug-free life. Parents should take caution when trying to help their teens overcome a benzodiazepine addiction.
Instead, parents should determine when the child is most likely to be at least somewhat sober. Is it first thing in the morning, when the drugs haven’t yet kicked in? Is it in the middle of the day, when the child is at school? These are the perfect moments to pull the child aside and discuss their benzo addiction. Parents can outline what they’ve seen, what they’d like to do and how treatment works. At the end of an intervention like this, teens might be willing to enter treatment.
When teens are ready to get better, there are a number of treatment programs that can help. The program might start with a controlled detox and withdrawal, according to an article in the journal Addiction, in which the benzo dose the teen has been taking gets smaller and smaller over a period of days. Then, teens begin to participate in intensive therapy sessions in which they develop powerful relapse prevention skills, stronger social connections and a healthier life.
At Next Generation Village, we’d like to make that process easier for your family. We can discuss your child’s addiction over the phone, and we can help you to find a professional to help you discuss the addiction with your child, if you’d like that help. We can also help you to understand how enrollment works, and while you talk with your child, we can work with your insurance company to get the treatment covered. Your child can improve under our care, and we’d like to get started. Call today to begin your teen’s journey to recovery.
Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.