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How Do Benzodiazepines Affect the Brain?

How Do Benzodiazepines Affect the Brain?

Benzodiazepines work on GABA receptors in the brain and increase their levels to slow nerve stimulation. They are used to treat anxiety and sleep disorders but are also very addictive.

Benzodiazepines are a drug commonly used to treat anxiety and sleeping problems. They belong to a class of drugs known as sedative-hypnotics. Benzodiazepines work on a receptor in the central nervous system known as GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). These drugs attach to the GABA receptors and increase their levels of it to slow down nerve stimulation. This reduced stimulation has a depressive effect on the brain, producing a drowsy and calming effect. However, GABA also reduces brain activity in the areas of the brain responsible for rational thought, memory, emotions, sleep, and breathing.

There Are Three Categories of Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines come in 3 different categories: short-acting, intermediate-acting, and long-acting. Here is a list, by category, of some of the different benzodiazepines:

  • Short-acting – temazepam (Restoril), oxazepam, and alprazolam (Xanax)
  • Intermediate-acting – clonazepam (Klonopin), flunitrazepam, and lorazepam (Ativan)
  • Long-acting – diazepam (Valium)

Some of the most prescribed benzodiazepines include Xanax, Klonopin, Ativan, Restoril, and Valium. These are also the most abused and likely to cause dependence and addiction issues.

It is stated in an article published by the Drug Enforcement Administration:

Benzodiazepines are widely prescribed drugs. According to IQVIA, there were 45 million alprazolam, 26.4 million lorazepam, 29.2 million clonazepam, 12.6 million diazepams, and 7.0 million temazepam prescriptions dispensed in the United States in 2017. In the United States, benzodiazepines are prescribed for their sedative-hypnotic, anti-anxiety, muscle relaxant, and anticonvulsant effects. They are also used as an adjunct to anesthesia and for treatment of alcohol withdrawal and panic disorders. (DEA)

Negative Side Effects of Benzodiazepine Use

The calming effect of benzodiazepines causes many people to develop an addiction to the drug. Benzodiazepines also have numerous side effects, some of which are severe. Here is a list of some of the side effects:

  • Irritability
  • Retrograde amnesia (loss of memory/access to events that occurred in the past)
  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Impaired coordination
  • Grogginess
  • Dizziness
  • Trembling
  • Vision problems
  • Depression of the respiratory system, which can lead to death ( this usually occurs when the drug is mixed with other CNS depressants or taken in high doses)

Long-Term Effects of Benzodiazepines on the Brain

Something very common in addiction and one of the most dangerous side effects of benzodiazepines is mixing the drug with other CNS depressants such as alcohol, opioids, or barbiturates. This is called poly- or multiple-substance abuse. For example, a lot of addicts who take Methadone, which is an opioid, will take diazepam (Valium) or alprazolam (Xanax) to increase Methadone’s euphoric effect. Unfortunately, taking benzodiazepines in high doses or mixing them with any other CNS depressant causes depression in the respiratory system, which can lead to death.

According to the National Institutes of Health:

Long-term treatment with benzodiazepines has been described as causing impairments in several cognitive domains, such as visuospatial ability, speed of processing, and verbal learning. Although cognitive function improved after benzodiazepines were withdrawn, patients did not return to levels of functioning that matched benzodiazepine-free controls. (NIH)

Benzodiazepine Addiction and Withdrawal

As stated above, benzodiazepines are highly addictive and habit-forming, and benzodiazepine addiction is probably one of the toughest addictions to beat. In addition, the withdrawal from long-term use makes coming off the medication difficult. Consequently, many people will continue using benzodiazepines due to terrible withdrawal symptoms. Some of these symptoms include trouble sleeping, feelings of depression, and sweating.

If someone has become addicted or dependent on benzodiazepines, they must not just stop taking the medication cold turkey. Stopping cold turkey is dangerous and can result in tremors, muscle cramps, and even life-threatening seizures. Also, it is important to note that some withdrawal symptoms can last for months, even after an individual has successfully detoxed off the medication.

If you or someone you love needs help with an addiction, our addiction specialists can speak with you around the clock. Absolute Awakenings provides individualized treatment and follows an evidence-based approach to get you to lasting recovery. So don’t wait any longer. We are here to help you today!


  1. Bounds CG, Nelson VL. Benzodiazepines. In: StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing; 2022. Accessed January 18, 2023. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470159/
  2. Ogbru A. Benzodiazepines: Uses, Side Effects, Types, Interactions, Addition, Withdrawal. RxList. Published December 29, 2022. Accessed January 18, 2023. https://www.rxlist.com/benzodiazepines/drug-class.htm
  3. Drug Enforcement Administration. BENZODIAZEPINES (Street Names: Benzos, Downers, Nerve Pills, Tranks). Published online December 2019.
  4. Stewart SA. The effects of benzodiazepines on cognition. J Clin Psychiatry. 2005;66 Suppl 2:9-13.
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At Absolute Awakenings, we take information integrity seriously. We have dedicated our resources to ensure that all content published to our blog is medically sound. As such, all content on our blog has been thoroughly reviewed by a doctorate level clinician such as a Medical Doctor, or Psy.D, so that you can trust all of the data we publish.

About the Author

Picture of Amanda Stevens, B.S.

Amanda Stevens, B.S.

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