by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
A lady explained:
“About 15 years ago I started having panic attacks and began taking Xanax (Alprazolam) at 1.5 mg/day and have been on it ever since. Two years ago I had some really bad panic attacks so my doctor doubled my Xanax medication to 3 mg/day.
Now everything is out of control for some reason. In the past year or two, in spite of the increased dose, things have been getting much worse to the point I don’t feel normal any more.
My hearing is a lot worse, I have vertigo and balance problems. I feel unsteady on my feet. My ears are ringing. They are also supersensitive to sounds. As a result, I can’t wear a hearing aid in one ear any more.
I feel like I am only 50% here—kind of like a bad head cold feeling, or living in a dream state. I feel shaky and out of sorts and panicky. I feel weird and feel like I am going to pass out. I can be fine one minute, then BAM—all of a sudden I feel this odd feeling coming on as if my hearing gets very quiet. I feel as if I am chilled. I get a tingly feeling in my head, and then I feel a sort of darkness and closed-in feeling about to happen. I start to shake and sweat, and I just feel as if I am drifting away.
I have always thought that my medications could be hurting me more than helping me. Why did the doctor do this to me? My neurologist feels I won’t be able to stop taking the Xanax as my body is now dependent on it. If I would go off this drug, he feels I would spin out of control—but I’m already out of control!
For some time I have wanted to try to taper down or get off the Xanax, but I am scared I will feel worse. How am I going to live my life without the Xanax? I want to be able to get through the day, but not like this! I would love to be free and be me again! What should I do?”—D. M.
Unfortunately, you are not alone. I have heard a number of similar stories from people who have been taking drugs of the Benzodiazepine (pronounced ben-zoe-die-AZ-eh-peen) class for a number of months or years. Eventually, like you, they realize the drugs are not really helping them, yet when they try to go off them, the nasty time bomb hidden in these drugs not only ambushes their ears, but also flips their lives upside down and leaves them worried about their ability to function in the future.
What are Benzodiazepines?
Benzodiazepines are a class of drugs commonly known as tranquilizers and sleeping pills. They are predominantly prescribed for anything associated with anxiety or sleeping problems.
In case you don’t know which drugs belong to the Benzodiazepine class, some of the more common Benzodiazepines include Xanax (Alprazolam), Valium (Diazepam), Ativan (Lorazepam), Rivotril & Klonopin (Clonazepam) and Halcion (Triazolam). (Brand names are in italics while generic names are in bold.) There are at least 20 different Benzodiazepines. The generic names as you can see above (with few exceptions) either end in “lam” or “pam.”
In addition to the Benzodiazepines, there are three other drugs that although not Benzodiazepines, have similar effects including the same horrible withdrawal problems. They are Sonata (Zaleplon), Ambien (Zolpidem) and Imovane (Zopiclone).
Here’s How It All Begins
When people go to their doctors and are prescribed one of the Benzodiazepines, the last thing on their minds is that years later they will be “hooked” on a horror drug. Here’s how it all begins.
Benzodiazepines are only meant to be taken for short periods of time. They are temporary solutions to problems such as anxiety and sleeplessness. In fact, safe and appropriate use of Benzodiazepines is for no longer that 2 to 3 weeks if taken daily. They were never meant to be the long-term solution to these problems. Unfortunately, doctors allow multitudes of people to stay on these drugs for months, and in many cases, years.
When you stay on a Benzodiazepine for too long, bad things begin to happen. First, the longer you take a Benzodiazepine, the less effective it becomes. For example, for problems sleeping, Benzodiazepines are only effective for about 1 to 2 weeks. When your symptoms begin to get worse, doctors typically increase your dose. This works for a few more weeks, then you begin to feel even worse.
This is because if you take Benzodiazepines for inappropriately long periods of time, not only does the drug become ineffective, it also induces drug dependency. What happens is that your body comes to depend on the drug to function. Thus you are “hooked” much as a person becomes addicted to certain drugs. (Note: technically, Benzodiazepines cause dependency, not addiction.) As a result, you will experience withdrawal symptoms when you reduce the dose, or stop taking it altogether.
“The biggest drug-addiction problem in the world doesn’t involve heroin, cocaine or marijuana. In fact, it doesn’t involve an illegal drug at all. The world’s biggest drug-addiction problem is posed by a group of drugs, the Benzodiazepines, which are widely prescribed by doctors and taken by countless millions of perfectly ordinary people around the world.”
“Drug-addiction experts claim that getting people off the Benzodiazepines is more difficult than getting addicts off heroin. The only genuine long-term solution is to be aware of these drugs and to avoid them like the plague.”
“It is more difficult to withdraw people from Benzodiazepines than it is from heroin. It just seems that the dependency is so ingrained and the withdrawal symptoms you get are so intolerable that people have a great deal of problem coming off. The other aspect is that with heroin, usually the withdrawal is over within a week or so. With Benzodiazepines, a proportion of patients go on to long term withdrawal and they have very unpleasant symptoms for month after month, and can go on for two years or more. Some of the tranquilizer groups document people who still have symptoms ten years after stopping.”
The above quotes were taken from the home page of benzo.org.uk, a web site dedicated to Benzodiazepine addiction, withdrawal and recovery.
At the same time, the result of this dependency actually makes your original symptoms worse. For example, Benzodiazepines eventually make your sleep problems even worse than they were before you began taking these drugs.
The same thing happens with anxiety. Initially, the Benzodiazepines help, but if you continue to take them for extended periods of time, the resulting physical dependency can actually cause an increase in anxiety—even while taking the same low dose!
Second, myriads of side effects begin to emerge. Taking Benzodiazepines can have several negative side effects on your ears. For example, those side effects that act on the cochlea include hearing loss, auditory hallucinations, hyperacusis (hypersensitivity to sound) and tinnitus (ringing or buzzing in the ears).
Those side effects that act on the vestibular system and affect your balance in one way or another include dizziness, ataxia (lack of coordination/staggering gait), loss of balance, vertigo (sensation of movement–usually a spinning sensation) and nystagmus (eyes jerking horizontally).
In addition to messing up your ears, taking Benzodiazepines can cause a number of other scary side effects such as anxiety, fears, feelings of unreality, hypersensitivity to light, insomnia, lack of concentration, loss of memory, nightmares, panic attacks, rapid mood changes, shaking, sweating, depersonalization (a feeling of not knowing who you are), outbursts of rage or aggression, paranoia, persistent unpleasant memories, feeling of pins and needles, rapid changes in body temperature, blackouts and a host of other symptoms.
When I mentioned to the lady in the above story that she likely would be shocked to learn that almost all of her symptoms, both ear-related and otherwise, were known side effects of taking Benzodiazepines, she replied, “I’m scared. Everything you have said about the drugs I take really hit home.”
Third, when you finally decide the Benzodiazepines aren’t doing you any good any more, and indeed are causing you much more harm than good, you try to go off them. That is when you discover to your horror that when you try to go off them, your existing symptoms intensify and still others appear.
For example, some people get hyperacusis (super-sensitivity to normal everyday sounds) when they try to go off Benzodiazepines. In one study of 22 people, 4 (18%) had hyperacusis. Fortunately, by 3 months, only one person of the 4 still had hyperacusis.
Other people end up with protracted tinnitus when they try to go off a Benzodiazepine. For example, one man who had taken Diazepam for 8 years for anxiety, got obnoxious tinnitus just 4 days after discontinuing Diazepam. His tinnitus persisted for 3 months. Fortunately, after 6 months, his tinnitus was only occasional and of short duration, and by 1 year it had completely disappeared.
Another man began to hear high-pitched ringing tinnitus in both his ears for the first time in his life as he reduced his Diazepam dose to a low level. Unfortunately, in his case, he still had tinnitus 1 year later but was learning to cope with it.
The withdrawal side effects can be so incapacitating that some people choose to stay on these drugs because they cannot cope with these horrible side effects when they try to stop taking Benzodiazepines. By doing so, they condemn themselves to a miserable existence for the rest of their lives.
For example, one man, after taking Diazepam for 12 years for anxiety had severe tinnitus upon discontinuing Diazepam. In his case, he discovered he couldn’t stop taking the Diazepam because of his incapacitating high-pitched intense tinnitus in both his ears which began each time he reduced his dose of Diazepam.
What’s the Risk?
Used responsibly and taken in the short term to tide you over a rough spot, Benzodiazepines can do some good. However, so often these drugs are abused. For example, according to one estimate, 1 person in every 50 people has been taking a Benzodiazepine for longer than 6 months!
Furthermore, research indicates that 30% to 50% of regular Benzodiazepine users will develop a dependency to these drugs. In addition, the longer you take a Benzodiazepine, the greater your risk of becoming dependent on that drug.
This makes it very difficult to get off Benzodiazepines. In fact, researchers estimate that between 50% and 80% of people who have taken Benzodiazepines continually for 6 months or longer will experience withdrawal symptoms when reducing the dose or stopping completely.
Getting Off Benzodiazepines
Getting on Benzodiazepines is easy, but getting off them once you have built up a dependence to them is very hard, and for some people almost impossible. You see, dependence to the Benzodiazepines is insidious and sneaks up on you without your even being aware of it—often until it is too late.
Therefore, your first line of defense is knowledge. You now know that Benzodiazepines are only supposed to be used for short periods of time—2 to 3 weeks at the most! Any doctor that prescribes these drugs for longer periods than that is doing you a disservice, and may be harming you. Thus, refuse to take any Benzodiazepine for longer than 3 weeks. By doing so, you will avoid all these withdrawal problems.
Once you finally decide to stop taking a Benzodiazepine, the range and severity of the withdrawal symptoms will likely take you by surprise. For many people, the intensity of Benzodiazepine withdrawal is overwhelming. Unfortunately, there are no predictors for who will likely suffer severe withdrawal, and who will likely have a mild withdrawal experience.
In order to go off any Benzodiazepine, you will have to taper off very gradually—under your doctor’s guidance, of course. Reducing the dose of the drug slowly minimizes the severity of the withdrawal symptoms.
However, overcoming the withdrawal side effects of Benzodiazepines can take many weeks or months, or, for some people, even years. Usually the length of time someone has been taking a Benzodiazepine and the amount they have been taking will have the most impact on how long it takes for their withdrawal symptoms to pass.
If you want to stop taking Benzodiazepines, read the excellent manual by Dr. Heather Ashton, one of the foremost authorities in the world on how to break free from these drugs.
Read her excellent manual “Benzodiazepines: How They Work and How To Withdraw”. Not only is it free, it’s easy to read and packed with the information you need to help you.
The good news is that if you persist through the agonies of the withdrawal stage—no matter how long it takes—in the end, as the lady in the above story expressed it, you will be free and be “me” again!
About Benzodiazepines. 2005. TRANX—Tranquillizer Recovery and New Existence. http://www.tranx.org.au/benzodiaz.html.
Ashton, Heather. 2002. Benzodiazepines: How They Work and How To Withdraw. http://www.benzo.org.uk/manual/contents.htm.
Bauman, Neil. 2010. Ototoxic Drugs Exposed. https://hearinglosshelp.com/shop/ototoxic-drugs-exposed/.
Busto, Usoa, et. al. 1988. Protracted Tinnitus after Discontinuation of Long-Term Therapeutic use of Benzodiazepines. New England Journal of Medicine 315:854-859. http://www.benzo.org.uk/busto.htm.