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Teen Tranquilizer Abuse Trends

Millions of us experience some form of anxiety, stress, or fear in our daily lives.

In fact, anxiety disorders are the most common form of psychiatric illness in the US, affecting 18 percent of the country, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Among teens aged 13-18, anxiety disorders are even more common, with over 25 percent of people in this age group suffering from some form of anxiety, notes the National Institute of Mental Health. Along with talk therapy, behavioral modification techniques, and stress management training, medication is one of the most common ways to help people cope with the symptoms of anxiety.

Tranquilizers are not always used for medical reasons, however. Drugs in this category are often abused for their soothing, sedative effects. They may also be used to help balance the effects of cocaine, meth, amphetamines, or other stimulants.

What Do Tranquilizers Do?

Tranquilizers help to slow down brain activity and relieve overactive nerves. Most medications in this category are central nervous system depressants, which slow down all of the body’s vital functions, including breathing and heart rate. Taking these medications can help people with anxiety disorders feel more relaxed and in control of their lives. Anti-anxiety drugs can help prevent debilitating panic attacks, which can make it difficult for people with panic disorder to lead productive, happy lives.

Why Are Tranquilizers Prescribed?

When taken under a doctor’s supervision, tranquilizers can be an effective way to help control the symptoms of anxiety disorders. Anxiety takes many forms, including the following psychiatric conditions:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): This common disorder causes persistent sense of fear or dread that is unrelated to the real conditions of the individual’s life.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): People with OCD have an overwhelming compulsion to pursue rituals and repetitive behaviors, such as counting, picking at the skin, washing their hands, or checking the locks on their doors.
  • Panic disorder: Intense anxiety attacks are the hallmark of this disorder, which causes episodes of extreme and irrational fear, especially in public settings.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): This disorder originates in an intensely disturbing but unresolved experience, such as childhood abuse, sexual assault, witnessing a violent crime, or participating in military combat.
  • Social anxiety disorder (SAD): People with social anxiety disorder have a debilitating fear of interacting with others or participating in public events that could cause embarrassment or humiliation.
  • Specific phobias: A phobia is an overwhelming, irrational fear of a situation, object, or creature. Examples of specific phobias are claustrophobia (the fear of enclosed spaces), acrophobia (the fear of heights), and ophidiophobia (the fear of snakes).

Tranquilizers may also be prescribed to help people with insomnia get to sleep, to ease muscle spasms, or to prevent seizures in patients who suffer from epilepsy and other seizure disorders.

What Are the Most Common Tranquilizer Brands?

Today, the most widely prescribed tranquilizers are benzodiazepines. Drugs in this family help to slow down the abnormal brain activity that can lead to panic attacks, intense anxiety, agitation, or seizures. The most popular drugs in the benzodiazepine group include:

  • Alprazolam (sold as Xanax)
  • Lorazepam (sold as Ativan)
  • Diazepam (sold as Valium)
  • Clonazepam (sold as Klonopin)
  • Temazepam (sold as Restoril)

Forbes Magazine estimates that over 50 million prescriptions are written each year for Xanax, making it not only the most widely prescribed drug in the benzodiazepine family, but also one of the most frequently prescribed psychiatric drugs in the US. With prescription tranquilizers so readily available, these medications can easily fall into the hands of teenagers who are curious about experimenting with psychoactive drugs.

Drugs in the barbiturate family are more difficult to obtain today because of their adverse side effects. Barbiturates like secobarbital (Seconal) and pentobarbital (Nembutal) are powerful sedatives that can cause extreme drowsiness and unconsciousness. These drugs can be fatal when taken in excessively large doses, especially when taken with alcohol. These days, Nembutal is sometimes prescribed to treat insomnia, but only on a short-term basis. Barbiturates are also used to stop seizure activity and as a surgical anesthetic.

Methaqualone, known as Quaalude, is an anti-anxiety drug that was once widely prescribed as a sedative and sleep aid. Originally developed as a less addictive alternative to drugs in the barbiturate family, Quaalude was found to have similar habit-forming properties, and its euphoric effects made it a popular drug of abuse. When taken in excess, methaqualone can cause seizures, hypotension, coma, or sudden death. As a result, Quaalude is no longer legally available in the US, although it may be obtained through illegal suppliers on the Internet.

The 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports that 5.2 percent of Americans aged 12 and above who abused prescription drugs for the first time started with tranquilizers. Out of those who used tranquilizers and other prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons, the majority (four out of five) reported that they had obtained the drugs at no cost from friends, and that most of these friends had a legitimate prescription for the medication.

How Are Tranquilizers Abused by Teens?

Known in street slang as “tranks,” “downers,” or “benzos,” tranquilizers have a high potential for abuse and addiction. Once the brain grows accustomed to the effects of these medications, the typical user needs higher doses to get the same effects. Tolerance to the effects of a tranquilizing medication can lead to addiction, or the compulsive need to seek and use a drug in spite of the destructive consequences.

With more health care providers writing prescriptions for tranquilizers like Ativan and Xanax, these drugs have become increasingly available to nonmedical users. Many teens begin experimenting with tranquilizers they find in their household medicine cabinets or with medications they obtain from friends or acquaintances. These drugs are sold most commonly in tablet form and intended for oral consumption, but they can be crushed into a fine powder and snorted or diluted with liquids to intensify their effects. When taken in high doses, tranquilizers can produce feelings of euphoria, extreme sedation, and mental disorientation.

The 2013 Monitoring the Future survey reports that 3.7 percent of teenagers in the 10th grade and 4.6 percent of teens in the 12th grade had used tranquilizers for nonmedical reasons. Although tranquilizer abuse is not as prevalent as the misuse of prescription pain relievers like oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet) or hydrocodone (Norco, Vicodin), tranquilizer abuse is nevertheless a problem among teens. When taken casually in large doses or combined with other drugs or alcohol, these drugs can cause extreme sedation and even death.

What Are the Risks of Teen Tranquilizer Abuse?

Tranquilizers can cause dangerous, even fatal, side effects. According to the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) report for 2011, there were nearly 150,000 visits to emergency rooms around the country as a result of tranquilizer abuse. Benzodiazepines were involved in close to 125,000 of these cases, and most of the cases involving benzodiazepines were related to the abuse of alprazolam, or Xanax. Tranquilizer abuse poses the following risks:

  • Excessive sedation or unconsciousness
  • Dizziness
  • Disorientation and confusion
  • Double vision
  • Dry mouth
  • Headaches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Tremors or convulsions
  • Slow reflexes
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of muscle coordination
  • Physical and psychological dependence
  • Addiction

Long-term abuse of tranquilizers can cause problems with learning and memory. Tranquilizers may also cause irritability, depression, social isolation, and suicidal thoughts. Teens who take tranquilizers may have trouble retaining information in school, performing well in jobs or extracurricular activities, or maintaining relationships with teens who don’t abuse drugs. They may become increasingly distant from the family and may start sleeping more than usual. Parents may notice a decline in grooming and personal hygiene, changes in appetite and weight, and an increase in accidental injuries.

Combining a benzodiazepine or barbiturate with other drugs increases the risk of a life-threatening overdose. Many teens who are experimenting with tranquilizers take these drugs in combination with alcohol, another central nervous system depressant. When taken together, alcohol and tranquilizers can cause fatal suppression of breathing, a low heart rate, a drop in blood pressure, unconsciousness, and death.

How Is Tranquilizer Abuse Treated in Teens?

Tranquilizer abuse can change the course of a teenager’s life. A happy, successful teen may become depressed, angry, sullen, or isolated. Treating tranquilizer addiction requires an intensive period of rehabilitation, in which the patient engages in a combination of progressive therapies, such as:

  • Medically managed detox, including a gradual drug taper to remove drugs from the system
  • Individual psychotherapy
  • Group therapy with other teens
  • Family counseling
  • Behavioral modification therapy to build coping skills
  • Recreational therapy
  • Nutritional counseling
  • 12-step programs

Teens with an underlying mental health disorder, such as depression or anxiety, need a specialized program that integrates psychiatric care with substance abuse treatment. Next Generation Village provides a full spectrum of recovery services, beginning with detoxification and continuing through residential rehab and aftercare. Teenagers at Next Generation Village can continue their studies with the help of our Education Specialists so they are not behind when they return to school.

To learn more about the evidence-based treatment options at Next Generation Village, contact our admissions coordinators today.

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.

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