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Xanax and the Brain

Xanax pills in the shape of a teenagers brain

Alprazolam, or Xanax, is a benzodiazepine used to treat anxiety and panic disorders in teenagers and adults. Xanax works by dampening abnormal electrical signaling in the brain that is associated with these disorders and creates feelings of sedation and relaxation. Additionally, Xanax and other benzodiazepines can produce a high or euphoria, which can become addictive. Eventually, long-term use can lead to physical and psychological dependence as a result of structural changes in the brain. The teenage brain is very susceptible to these changes since it is still in development, and abusing Xanax or taking too much for an extended period of time can eventually lead to brain damage.

Xanax abuse by teenagers is on the rise in America and it is important to understand how Xanax affects the teenage brain, the side effects of its use and signs of abuse to be aware of.

Why Do Teens Take Xanax?

Life today as a teenager can be very stressful and it is estimated that over 30% of teens meet the diagnostic criteria for an anxiety disorder. For teens who have anxiety, Xanax and other medications are available to provide relief from their symptoms. Xanax is intended to treat panic disorders with or without agoraphobia (fear of situations or places that can cause panic, helplessness or embarrassment), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and anxiety resulting from depression.

The market for benzodiazepines such as Xanax is expected to reach $3.8 billion in the United States this year, making them one of the most prescribed drugs. The availability of Xanax has led to it becoming a popular drug that is misused by teenagers who are not using it to treat anxiety or panic disorders. It is often used to calm nerves, promote sleep or to experience a euphoria or high.

Additionally, there is a common misconception that Xanax is safer compared to illegal opioids like heroin. While it is legal and prescribed by a doctor, Xanax still has the potential for abuse and dependence. It is dangerous to use drugs outside of their intended use and Xanax and other benzodiazepines should only be taken when prescribed to you by a doctor.

Xanax and the Developing Teen Brain

While the brain reaches its largest physical size around age 14, development of the teenage brain continues well into the mid- to late- 20s. This means that throughout the teenage years, there are parts of the brain that are not fully mature. The prefrontal cortex, found in the front of the brain, is the last part to mature; this region is involved in prioritizing, planning and controlling impulses.

During this time, many mental disorders will also begin to develop as a result of the drastic changes occurring in the brain; anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and more will begin to surface during the teenage years. With all of these changes, teens may turn to drugs like Xanax to help self-treat their conditions. In this case, it is safest to contact a medical professional to discuss obtaining a prescription to correctly treat a mental health condition.

The effects of drugs on the teenage brain can last years past their use. In 2016, the United States Surgeon General released a report stating “nearly 70% of adolescents who try an illicit drug before age 13 will develop an addiction within seven years, compared with 27% for those who first try an illicit drug after age 17.”

Xanax Effects on the Teen Brain

Xanax affects the brain through enhancing the effects of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). This chemical helps to calm electrical signaling in the brain and produces a sedative effect that is helpful in treating anxiety and panic disorders. Over time, the brain loses the ability to create its own GABA without Xanax. Additionally, Xanax can trigger the release of dopamine, which is the neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of pleasure. When teens take Xanax for a long period of time, the brain will require the drug in order to produce the same response; the neurons that produce dopamine may become damaged and can lead to irreversible side effects and cognitive deficits.

Xanax and Memory Loss

Long-term use of Xanax has been linked to memory loss. Most often the memory loss is in the form of amnesia after the drug is taken. When Xanax used is stopped, the memory loss can last for months or longer, depending on the length of use. Xanax use is one of the causes of memory loss in teens, with some reporting losing days or weeks of their memory.

Xanax and Concentration

The attention span of teenagers can vary and Xanax may negatively contribute to their ability to focus. A common sign of Xanax addiction and abuse is having difficulty concentrating or focusing on the task at hand; in school, teens may find it hard to pay attention in classes or other activities.

Xanax and Sleep

Since Xanax is a sedative, it makes those who take it drowsy and sleepy. It should not be combined with other drugs or alcohol, as the effects can be amplified and become dangerous. When comparing Xanax to a placebo, fewer patients experienced insomnia when taking Xanax compared to a placebo. In rare cases, Xanax can produce paradoxical reactions (the opposite of how it should work) and sleep disturbances and hallucinations can occur. Some causes of insomnia in teens may be related to anxiety and Xanax can help treat these; teens require around nine hours of sleep per night to help the brain properly develop and function.

Xanax and Mood

Teens often experience mood swings as a result of hormonal changes, pressure in school and more. Xanax can cause or enhance these mood swings in teens. Additionally, Xanax can induce mania, which is an increase in activity and talking in people with depression. In some rare cases, paradoxical reactions can occur and a person can become make irritable, agitated, aggressive or hostile.

Xanax and Nerve Damage

Xanax comes with a warning to not operate heavy machinery or drive while taking it; this is due to the delay in motor skills that results from use. When GABA is released in the brain, it dampens the signaling involved in movement and coordination as well, making some tasks difficult. When Xanax is used for an extended period of time, the brain will only release GABA when the drug is taken, as a result of damage to the neurons. In teens, this damage can become long-lasting and result in deficits well into adulthood.

Signs Xanax Abuse in Teens

Recognizing the signs and symptoms of Xanax abuse in teens can be the first step in the journey to recovery.

Common physical and psychological signs of Xanax addiction and abuse in teens are:

  • Dizziness
  • Dry mouth
  • Heart palpitations
  • Hyperactivity or mania
  • Slurred speech
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

Behavioral signs to be aware of in Xanax addiction in teens are:

  • Skipping school, poor academic performance
  • Missing work or other commitments
  • Sudden loss of interest in daily activities
  • Changes in friend groups to people who support or drive their addiction

If you or a loved one is seeking treatment for teen Xanax addiction and withdrawal, Next Generation Village can help. Contact us today to speak with a representative about plans and programs that can help treat substance use disorders as well as co-occurring mental health conditions.

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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