SummaryRead the full fact sheet
- Benzodiazepines are nervous system depressants commonly prescribed to treat a few conditions including anxiety, stress, insomnia, epilepsy and to sedate people before certain medical procedures.
- Benzodiazepines are available on prescription in Australia and should only be used on advice from your doctor.
- They can be highly addictive and should only be used for a short term. Withdrawal from use should be gradual and under medical supervision.
- Overdose can occur if benzodiazepines are mixed with alcohol or other drugs.
Benzodiazepines (or benzos) are a group of nervous system depressants commonly prescribed to treat stress, anxiety or insomnia. They are also known as ‘minor tranquillisers’ and sedatives (or sleeping pills).
Benzodiazepines are available on prescription in Australia and should only be used under a doctor’s supervision. They can be highly addictive.
Although they are classified as minor tranquillisers, this is not a reference to the effect that benzodiazepines have on the body.
What are benzodiazepines?
- treat the symptoms of
- relieve insomnia
- help with treatment of symptoms experienced by cancer patients
- help relax muscles during certain medical procedures (such as )
- treat withdrawal.
Types of benzodiazepines
There are three types of benzodiazepines – long-acting, intermediate and short-acting. Short-acting medications tend to be more addictive and have a stronger withdrawal and ‘come down’ effect. They are made by different companies and sold under various brand names.
Some common benzodiazepines include:
- long-acting – diazepam (Valium)
- intermediate-acting – nitrazepam (Mogadon)
- short-acting – oxazepam (Serapax), temazepam (Normison) and alprazolam (Xanax).
How benzodiazepines work
Benzodiazepines are central nervous system depressants, which means they slow down the workings of the brain. They only treat symptoms of anxiety or insomnia, and do not solve the underlying causes of these conditions.
Benzodiazepines can be highly addictive, whether they are taken under medical supervision or used recreationally.
Benzodiazepines are a small part of treatment
It is generally recommended that benzodiazepines only be used for a short term – just days or weeks at a time.
They are a small part of overall treatment for stress, anxiety or insomnia and used with other treatments that provide longer term solutions such as:
- - such as
- techniques to (such as relaxation or breathing exercises)
- techniques to build
- lifestyle changes (such as or incorporating into your day)
- structured problem solving.
Recreational use of benzodiazepines
In Victoria, it is against the law to use benzodiazepines without a prescription or to give or sell them to someone else.
How benzodiazepines affect the body
The effects of benzodiazepines depend on the strength of the dose, the physical make-up of the person taking them and their state of mind.
Common effects of benzodiazepines include:
- relief from anxiety
- muscle relaxation
- a sense of being disconnected or detached from reality
- loss of inhibitions.
Long-term effects of benzodiazepines
Using benzodiazepines on a regular basis can lead to significant health problems, including:
- impaired thinking or memory loss
- anxiety and
- irritability, and aggression
- personality change
- weakness, lethargy and lack of motivation
- drowsiness, sleepiness and fatigue
- difficulty sleeping or disturbing dreams
- skin rashes and weight gain
- withdrawal symptoms.
Benzodiazepines and pregnancy
Store benzodiazepines securely
As benzodiazepines can be highly addictive, they should only be used under medical supervision.
In larger doses, benzodiazepines produce a similar effect to drunkenness. People may:
- lose coordination
- slur their speech
- have problems with thinking, concentration and memory
- have severe mood swings and aggression
- be jittery and excitable
- experience nausea
- have sleeping problems.
Overdoses are usually characterised by slow, shallow breathing which may lead to unconsciousness, coma and potentially death.
If you suspect an overdose, call triple zero (000) for an ambulance immediately.
Benzodiazepine dependence and tolerance
Taking benzodiazepines regularly may not only lead to physical dependence (addiction), but can also lead to psychological dependence where people may feel they need the drug to cope with daily life.
After only a short amount of time, a person can develop a tolerance, which means they need to take larger and larger doses to achieve the same effect. Some people may begin to experience tolerance after only a few days. Over time, the body comes to depend on benzodiazepines to function at its best.
Withdrawal from benzodiazepines
Withdrawal symptoms vary from person to person and are different depending on the type of benzodiazepine being taken. Symptoms can last from a few weeks to a year and may include:
- aching or twitching muscles
- dizziness and tremors
- nausea, vomiting and stomach pains
- bizarre dreams, difficulty sleeping and fatigue
- poor concentration
- anxiety and irritability
- altered perception and heightening of senses
- delusions, hallucinations and paranoia
It is recommended to withdraw from benzodiazepines slowly, over a period of months, under medical supervision.
Someone who suddenly stops taking benzodiazepines after a prolonged period of use can put themselves at risk of serious withdrawal symptoms, such as seizures.
Treating benzodiazepine dependence
Treatment options for drug dependence may include detoxification, individual counselling and group therapy.
Where to get help
- If an overdose is suspected, call triple zero (000) for an ambulance immediately
- Alcohol and other drug services
- – support and information for tranquilliser dependency Tel. or Mon to Fri 9 am to 5 pm
- Tel. –information and referral services for anyone seeking help for alcohol or drug use
- Tel. – for 24-hour confidential drug and alcohol telephone counselling, information and referral
- – for online counselling and referral
- Your community health service
- (YoDAA), Victoria Tel. (9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday)
- Tel. – for information and support for people concerned about a relative or friend using drugs