Sedatives are a class of drugs typically taken for anxiety and sleep issues. They include benzodiazepines, selective benzodiazepine receptor subtype agonists (z-drugs), and barbiturates. Sedatives are classified as “controlled substances” because of their potential for misuse and abuse and their euphoric effects—meaning, that while many people will use sedatives as prescribed, many others will struggle with sedative abuse and addiction.
When someone begins to misuse a sedative in an effort to self-medicate, they are more prone to escalated misuse. Over time, this habit can develop into a full-fledged addiction. But, what exactly is sedative addiction, how do you recognize it, and how do you get help? This article will answer these questions and more to provide you with everything you need to know about sedative addiction.
What Is an Addiction to Sedatives?
Addiction is a disease characterized by the chronic, compulsive use of a substance or compulsive behaviors that lead to negative consequences. For example, people suffering from addiction may feel an uncontrollable need to gamble or they may take street drugs in quantities that cause them physical, mental and emotional harm. Addiction is complex and stems from and is exacerbated by a wide range of factors such as genetics, mental illness, environmental influences and life experiences.
Sedatives are depressants that work by acting on a naturally occurring brain chemical called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). This neurotransmitter helps you feel calm and sleepy by preventing your certain neurons from firing. It typically kicks in when you’re feeling scared or anxious, but sedatives can mimic or increase those same effects by binding to the same receptors as GABA and further slowing down brain activity. The result is an increased sensation of relaxation, but taken too far, sedatives can depress the central nervous system to the point of coma or even death.
Sedative addiction can sneak up on you before you even realize you have a problem, especially if your sedative use started as a legal prescription for a diagnosed medical condition. Taking commonly abused sedatives like lorazepam, zolpidem, diazepam and alprazolam for a long period of time raises the risk of addiction because it increases the likelihood you could become tolerant to the drugs’ effects. As you need higher and higher dosages to achieve the same sense of calm, you become dependent on the drug to sleep, relax or curb your anxiety.
Dependency and addiction sound a lot alike, but they work slightly differently — sedative dependency means that your brain has become reliant on sedatives and needs them to function while sedative addiction refers to the compulsive consumption of sedatives and resulting negative consequences.
When Does Sedative Use Become an Addiction?
Sedative use turns into an addiction when your brain and body can no longer function normally without it. Not only do you crave the drug, but your body also goes into withdrawal if you don’t take it. If you’re unable to maintain your typical level of use, you may experience powerful, even painful feelings as your system struggles to regain its equilibrium and deal with the sudden absence of sedatives. Someone could be addicted to sedatives and not even be aware they have a serious problem.
If you suspect you or someone you know could be abusing sedatives, look for these signs of addiction:
- Slurred speech
- Mood swings
Sedative and sleep aid abuse also comes with behavioral red flags as users try to maintain their drug supply. Doctor shopping (going to several different doctors to get one or more sedative prescriptions), stealing money to buy drugs, performance issues at school or work, a sudden increase in risky behaviors and dropping out of favorite hobbies and activities could all indicate a serious problem.
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It’s important to understand the difference between tolerance and sleeping pill addiction. People who take sedatives for months or even years may notice that their original dosage no longer has the same effect. What once made you feel drowsy and relaxed now seems to have little if any effect. As users seek to self-medicate and reach the desired level of relaxation and/or sleepiness, they start taking sedatives at higher dosages or more frequently than prescribed.
It’s possible to be tolerant to sedatives and not be addicted, though the first sometimes leads to the second. Tolerance is mostly physiological, meaning your body craves the drug but you aren’t necessarily dependent on it to function. Still, sedative tolerance can increase the risk of dependency and addiction as dosages spiral out of control
What Are Sedative Addicts Chasing?
Sedative use often starts as a way to cope with insomnia or anxiety, and both issues are legitimate reasons to take CNS depressants. However, the same drugs that help people cope with sleeplessness or panic attacks could become a coping mechanism for people who just want to “tune out.” Some may like the woozy feeling that accompanies slowed brain activity, and others just want to sleep and can’t because they’ve grown tolerant to their prescribed sedative dosage.
There are many reasons people might become addicted to sedatives, all of which should be addressed as part of rehabilitation and addiction treatment.
Long-Term Health Effects of Sedative Addiction
People who use and abuse sleeping pills could develop a sedative chemical addiction, more commonly referred to as a chemical dependency. The constant influx of pills changes our brain chemistry. Your body becomes more resistant to the drug’s effects, but even though you may not feel the drug working, your system continues to react. After all that time and so many handfuls of pills, your body no longer knows what to do without the presence of sedatives.
Long-term sedative use could have the opposite of the drug’s intended effect, with users experiencing rising levels of depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances and mania. Some people report sexual dysfunction, psychosis, delirium and irritability.
What Happens When Sedatives Are Stopped Cold Turkey?
If you have been misusing or abusing sedatives and you stop suddenly, you’ll likely experience withdrawal symptoms such as:
- Excessive sweating
- Muscle tremors
- Nausea and/or vomiting
Symptoms often run the gamut from mildly uncomfortable to downright painful, and in cases of long-term abuse or where the patient has taken particularly high doses, withdrawal could lead to hallucinations, delirium and even life-threatening seizures.
Medically managed detox ensures you are able to get sober and flush any remaining sedatives from your body in the safest, most comfortable way possible. While you can’t end sleeping pill abuse overnight, you can get free from sedatives with the help of seasoned professionals.
Why Sedative Addiction Needs Treatment
Left untreated, sedative addiction can seriously impact your quality of life. Sedatives and other drugs that depress the central nervous system may seem relatively harmless simply because they’re available via prescription and easily accessed at any neighborhood pharmacy, but the more available a drug is the harder it can be to quit.
Addiction isn’t a choice; it’s a disease. With relapse rates in the United States as high as 60%, it’s difficult if not almost impossible to recover on your own. Your best chance at managing sedative addiction is to commit to a comprehensive treatment approach that includes the full continuum of care from detox to post-rehab job placement and sober living skills.
If you suspect that you or someone you love is struggling with sedative addiction, the first step toward healing is reaching out for help. To explore your options for treatment and counseling, reach out to FHE Health today at (844) 299-0618. Our caring, experienced team is on call 24/7 to explain your options.