Xanax, One of America’s Most Addictive Drugs

Dizzy woman, Xanax effect

Xanax is one of the most commonly prescribed pharmaceutical sedatives, used by millions of patients for its purported abilities to relieve anxiety, panic, and insomnia. However, data show that Xanax can produce harmful side effects, including addiction and overdose.

Xanax, A Benzodiazepine with Mind-Altering Effects

What is Xanax? Xanax is a benzodiazepine, a classification of pharmaceutical drugs that work to depress the central nervous system and produce varying degrees of sedation. Benzodiazepines are used for a variety of reasons, including relieving anxiety, reducing stress, assuaging insomnia, and preventing seizures and muscle spasms. While there are several types of benzodiazepines (Valium, Halcion, Ativan, Klonopin, ProSom, Dalmane, Restori, and Versed, to name a few), Xanax is by far the most common.

Sadly, the abuse potential for Xanax is quite high. Users frequently take the drug orally or crush it into a powder and snort it. Increasingly, opioid addicts have begun using the drug alongside opioids to enhance their opioid high. Any form of recreational Xanax use is dangerous, as the drug slows down the central nervous system and may cause sleepiness, respiratory depression, and overdose. Xanax experimentation has also been associated with amnesia, hostility, irritability, and vivid, disturbing dreams that can be recurring.

Xanax Addiction

Dependence on Xanax can develop very quickly. One study found that people who use Xanax can become dependent on the drug within days of using it. Tolerance sets in shortly after, meaning users will have to take more and more of the drug to experience the same effects from it.

Xanax produces both physical and psychological dependence, meaning users will crave it on a mental level, and they’ll also experience physical cravings. Those physical cravings will shift to uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms if they don’t keep taking the drug.

Xanax causes addiction much in the same way as opioids. Users take the drug, and it produces changes in the brain that decrease fear neurotransmitters while increasing dopamine release. The dopamine release in the brain leads to the euphoric sensations that users seek. The Xanax high reinforces the desire for repeated use. As people with an addiction continue to use the drug, their bodies build up a tolerance to the drug, meaning people with an addiction have to use more of it, thus increasing their risk of a Xanax overdose.

Xanax and Young People

Xanax is estimated to be the most commonly used drug by young people over the age of 14, after marijuana and alcohol. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, at least one in ten young Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 have abused Xanax at least once, more than double the rate of abuse for adults 25 and older.

Xanax Side Effects

Dizzy stairs

The list of side effects produced by Xanax varies depending on how much one uses and what other drugs one uses it with. Extreme drowsiness, confusion, impaired coordination, decreased reflexes, respiratory depression, coma, and death are the most concerning side effects, and it is impossible for a Xanax user to fully protect themselves from potentially experiencing these effects.

Some of the other side effects of using Xanax include:

  • Dizziness
  • Drowsiness
  • Muscle weakness
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Gastrointestinal complications
  • Confusion, trouble concentrating
  • Slurred speech, slowed reaction time
  • Lack of coordination and impaired judgment
  • Difficulty breathing from respiratory depression
  • Stupor, coma, unconsciousness, and potentially fatal overdoses

Xanax abuse also produces a range of behavioral effects and unwanted circumstances in one’s life, including:

  • Inability to control Xanax use
  • Behavioral changes, mood shifts
  • Disruption of family relationships
  • Loss of close friends and loved ones
  • Absences from work leading to firing
  • Difficulty in school leading to failing classes
  • Increased risk of injury and a higher likelihood of accidents
  • Continued use of the drug despite its negative effects on one’s life
  • Avoiding family or social functions in favor of time spent using Xanax
  • Worrying about where and when one will get Xanax next and thinking obsessively about it
  • Experiencing legal problems, financial problems, and even criminal consequences as a result of Xanax

Sadly, once one is hooked on Xanax, they will have to go through withdrawal to get off of it, something they must only do with professional help. The symptoms of Xanax withdrawal are often the same symptoms that one started taking Xanax to treat, like:

  • Anxiety
  • Seizures
  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Hand tremors
  • Hallucinations
  • Excessive sweating
  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure

The above are only the most common side effects of Xanax abuse. The side effects that people experience will often depend on how much Xanax they take, how long they’ve been taking it, and potential complications caused by other drugs they might be using.

Overdoses Connected to Xanax

Sadly, fatal Xanax overdoses are on the rise. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 12,499 people in the U.S. died from benzodiazepine-related overdoses (mostly from Xanax) in 2021, the most recent year for which information is available. Drug overdose deaths involving benzodiazepines steadily increased from 1,135 in 1999 to 11,537 in 2017 and declined to 9,711 in 2019. Between 2019 and 2021, deaths rose again to 12,499, the highest-ever number of benzodiazepine overdoses in any year since recording began.

Drug overdose death rate
Image Courtesy of nida.nih.gov

NIDA also reported a concerning trend occurring with Xanax abuse. People are increasingly taking Xanax and opioid drugs at the same time, which increases their risks of an overdose. In 2021, nearly 14% of all opioid overdose deaths involved a benzodiazepine, usually Xanax. Law enforcement has also found Xanax chemicals mixed into the illicit opioid supply in some areas, suggesting some users may be taking the drug in combination with opioids whether they know it or not.

People who mix opioids and Xanax put their lives at risk. Each drug is dangerous by itself, but combining opioids and Xanax increases the risk of overdose because both types of drugs can cause sedation and suppress breathing in addition to impairing critical cognitive functions. People who use Xanax and opioids are at higher risk of experiencing an overdose and dying as a result, with one study suggesting they are ten times more likely to overdose and die.

Xanax Addiction Treatment

Xanax addict

Just because a drug is legal does not mean it is safe. Xanax is widely prescribed for its properties as an anti-anxiety and anti-seizure medication, but its potential to be habit-forming and to produce mind-altering effects makes it a dangerous substance that is risky to use, even if one has a prescription for it, and even if one uses it as prescribed. Anyone can become dependent on Xanax, and when that happens, one must seek treatment at a qualified residential drug addiction treatment center as soon as possible.

Xanax addiction does not go away on its own, and those who are hooked on the substance can rarely get off the drug without professional help, even if they want very badly to be free of the drug. If you know someone who is addicted to Xanax, whether they have a legitimate prescription for it or not, please help them find and enter a qualified addiction treatment center as soon as possible. Please do not wait until it is too late.

Sources Cited:

  • DEA. “Benzodiazepines.” Drug Enforcement Administration, 2023. dea.gov
  • AFP. “Addiction: Part I. Benzodiazepines—Side Effects, Abuse Risk and Alternatives.” American Family Physician, 2000. aafp.org
  • SAMHSA. “Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2021. samhsa.gov
  • NIDA. “Drug Overdose Death Rates.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2023. nida.nih.gov
  • NIDA. “Benzodiazepines and Opioids.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2023. nida.nih.gov
  • OA. “Cohort Study of the Impact of High-Dose Opioid Analgesics on Overdose Mortality.” Oxford Academic, 2016. academic.oup.com


Editorial Staff