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How Do Benzos Affect Your Brain Chemistry?

How Do Benzos Affect Your Brain Chemistry?

All drugs ranging from benzos to OxyContin to alcohol to Adderall affect brain chemistry, and they do so in different ways and to different effects. Prescription drugs can affect brain chemistry to medical benefit, but this benefit rarely comes without risk. Changes in brain chemistry can lead to the development of tolerance, dependence or addiction even when the primary effects of the substances are desired or even needed. Other drugs create changes in brain chemistry without having a prescribed medical role, and because of this substances “with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse” are deemed the most dangerous by the Drug Enforcement Adminstration[1]. Benzos do not fall into this class of drugs as they can play an important role in moderating feelings of panic and anxiety, but even when benzos are taken as directed by a medical professional, the potential for abuse, whether intentional or not, is high. When they are taken without a prescription or outside of the guidelines of a prescription, they no longer have an accepted medical use and become among those most risky to use substances because of their effects on the brain.

Immediate Effects of Benzos on the Brain

Benzodiazepine drugs are prescribed to treat panic attacks and anxiety disorders. This is because they have a sedative, calming effect on users, and they work almost immediately. These effects occur because of the brain changes benzos create. GABA is the neurotransmitter involved in these changes. GABA is found throughout the central nervous system, the brain and the spine. As the British Journal of Psychiatry explains, the GABA receptor is a channel that is permeable to chloride. When more chloride is allowed through, the neuron becomes less responsive and less excitable. Benzos like Xanax, Ativan and Klonopin do not directly influence neurotransmitter channels, or the amount of GABA present or produced. Instead they influence GABA’s ability to work. Benzos, “do not act directly to open the channel, but rather modulate the capacity of GABA to do so, resulting in augmentation or diminution of its inhibitory effects.”[2] When benzos are present, they inhibit the function of GABA. This slows the firing of neurons and reduces feelings of anxiety or panic. When GABA is not limited in function, it, “results in arousal, anxiety, restlessness, insomnia and exaggerated reactivity.” Individuals struggling with panic or anxiety disorders often experience this “exaggerated reactivity,” and the effects can disrupt their ability to function on a daily basis. The immediate, inhibitory, as-needed effects of benzos can help them regain control and balance, but when these drugs become over-relied upon or are used when anxiety or panic is not present, the brain changes they cause can create trouble.

Long-Term Effects of Benzos on the Brain

The long-term effects of benzos on brain chemistry often result in the return of anxiety or panic symptoms. Although benzos do not increase production of GABA, they may decrease its production. When these drugs are taken regularly, explains, “benzodiazepines can, over time, decrease the synthesis of GABA in certain areas of the brain. This is one of numerous theories attempting to explain the occurrence of ‘paradoxical’ symptoms.”[3] Paradoxical symptoms are those which mimic the symptoms the drug originally suppresses. So when benzos are regularly present and used, they may become less effective due to changes in brain chemistry.

When benzos are regularly present and then become absent, these same paradoxical symptoms may arise. An abrupt cessation of or reduction in benzo use can cause the effects of GABA to be augmented. Brain chemistry adapts to the presence of benzos, so when these drugs are regularly used but then abruptly not present, the brain, as explains, can, “overshoot normal.”[4] This is the cause of withdrawal symptoms that can be mild to severe and often include the very things for which benzos are prescribed — anxiety and panic. A recurrence of panic and anxiety symptoms can reinforce a belief in the need for benzos when it is really these drugs and their effects on brain chemistry that are causing the problems. Luckily withdrawal is temporary, and, “Withdrawal-type symptoms typically resolve in a week or two depending on the half-life of the specific benzodiazepine involved, which suggests that at a gross level, the brain returns to normal fairly quickly.” Changes to brain chemistry are not permanent, and natural balance can be restored in a relatively short period of time, but this requires professional support to ensure safe withdrawal, management of original anxiety and panic symptoms and addressing of any dependence or addiction issues that have arisen as a result of changes to brain chemistry.

End the Effects of Benzos

You can find addiction recovery and mental health, and you can do so with our help and support. Call our helpline to learn more about ending the effects of benzos on brain chemistry. We are here 24 hours a day, and all calls and phone services are free and confidential.


[1] Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). “Drug Scheduling.” Web. 26 Oct 2015.

[2] The British Journal of Psychiatry. “New insights into the role of the GABAA—benzodiazepine receptor in psychiatric disorder.” Nov 2001. Web. 26 Oct 2015.

[3] “Benzodiazepine Dependency and Withdrawal.” 7 Sep 2002. Web. 26 Oct 2015.

[4] “Expert Q&A: What Are the Long-Term Brain Effects of Xanax?” Mar 23 2010. Web. 26 Oct 2015.