Welcome back, people! Last week we continued our foray into all things Xanax and talked about dependence and use disorder. The next step in the chain- withdrawal- can be a special kind of beastie, definitely deserving of its own blog, so this week will be all about Xanax withdrawal.
As I mentioned last week, some folks can take their bit of Xanax a couple of times a day as directed for umpteen years, and never develop a tolerance or pathological dependence. Others start out taking it as directed, but develop a tolerance and maybe start to abuse it- take too much too often- and then begin to develop a more pathological dependency. Others may abuse it recreationally on occasion, to netflix and chill, find they really like it, then develop a severe addiction. It may not sound like these people have much in common, but they do. When they stop taking it, they’re all going to go through withdrawal.
They won’t do so alone, though. In 2017, doctors wrote nearly 45 million prescriptions for Xanax, so it’s no surprise that these prescribing practices have contributed to thousands of cases of abuse and dependence. With those numbers, there has been all sorts of research and stats examined on benzos, and I read that in 2018, an estimated 5.4 million people over the age of 12 misused prescription benzodiazepines like Xanax. That’s a lot of people, people.
To many patients that take their Xanax exactly as prescribed, it seems to come as a surprise that they’re facing a withdrawal experience, but Xanax doesn’t discriminate- so anyone taking enough of it for more than a few weeks will develop a physical dependence. Once you have become physiologically dependent on a drug, you will experience withdrawal symptoms when you stop or reduce your dose. Simple as that.
Withdrawal is different for everyone. Depending on the dose and how often you’ve been using it, the withdrawal experience typically ranges from uncomfortable to very unpleasant, but it can also be medically dangerous. The only safe way to quit is to slowly taper down the dose under the direction of a physician, or in an in-patient treatment center setting, depending on the situation. If you’ve been taking high doses of Xanax several times a day, then quitting is going to take a great deal of time, patience, and determination. Please note that quitting cold turkey can cause extremely dangerous withdrawal symptoms. This can include delirium, which is a state characterized by abrupt, temporary cognitive changes that affect behavior; so you can be irrational, agitated, and disoriented- not a good combo. Sudden withdrawal can also cause potentially lethal grand mal (aka tonic-clonic) seizures. These are like electrical storms in the brain, where you lose consciousness and have violent muscular contractions throughout the body. It’s not a risk you want to take, people- so don’t do this on your own! Even if you’ve been taking Xanax illicitly, that doesn’t mean you have to go it alone. Just fess up to a physician and tell them exactly how much you’ve been taking so they can design a taper schedule for you, or help you find a treatment center. There is a lot of help available if you make the effort.
Tapering your dose is the best course of action for managing withdrawal symptoms, but that doesn’t mean it’s a picnic in the shade. While you taper down the dose, you’ll likely experience varying degrees of physical and mental discomfort. You may feel surges of anxiety, agitation, and restlessness, along with some unusual physical sensations, like feeling as though your skin is tingling or you’re crawling out of your skin. But keep in mind that these are all temporary.
Signs and Symptoms
The major signs and symptoms of Xanax withdrawal vary from person to person. Research indicates that roughly 40% of people taking benzodiazepines for more than six months will experience moderate to severe withdrawal symptoms, while the remaining 60% can expect milder symptoms. It’s very common to feel nervous, jumpy, and on edge during your taper. And because Xanax induces a sedative effect, when the dose is reduced, most people will experience a brief increase in their anxiety levels. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, you may experience a level of anxiety that’s actually worse than your pre-treatment level. Support from mental health professionals can be very beneficial during and after withdrawal, as therapy and counseling may help you control and manage the emotional symptoms of benzo withdrawal.
Physical Withdrawal Symptoms
As a central nervous system depressant, Xanax serves to slow down heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature in the body- in addition to minimizing anxiety, stress, and panic. Xanax may also help to reduce the risk of epileptic seizures. Once the brain becomes used to this drug slowing all of these functions down on a regular basis, when it is suddenly removed, these CNS functions generally rebound quickly, and that is the basis for most withdrawal symptoms. Symptoms can start within hours of the last dose, and they can peak in severity within 1 to 4 days. The physical signs of Xanax withdrawal can include: headache, blurred vision, muscle aches, tension in the jaw and/ or teeth pain, tremors, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, numbness of fingers, tingling in arms and legs, sensitivity to light and sound, alteration in sense of smell, loss of appetite, insomnia, cramps, heart palpitations, hypertension, sweating, fever, delirium, and seizures.
Psychological Withdrawal Symptoms
Xanax, as a benzodiazepine, acts on the reward and motivation regions of the brain, and when a dependency is formed, these parts of the brain will be affected as well. When an individual dependent on Xanax then tries to quit taking the drug, the brain needs some time to return to normal levels of functioning. Captain Obvious says that whenever you stop a benzo, because it acts as an anxiolytic, you’re going to experience a sudden increase in anxiety levels. While there are degrees of everything, the psychological symptoms of Xanax withdrawal can be significant, as the lack of Xanax during withdrawal causes the opposite of a Xanax calm, which is to say something akin to panic. At the very least, that can make you overly sensitive, and less able to deal with any adverse or undesired feelings. Withdrawal can leave people feeling generally out of sorts, irritable, and jumpy, while some individuals have also reported feeling deeply depressed. Unpredictable shifts in mood have been reported as well, such as quickly going from elation to being depressed. Feelings of paranoia can also be associated with Xanax withdrawal.
Nightmares are often reported as a side effect of withdrawal. I included insomnia in physical symptoms, but trouble sleeping can also be a psychological symptom, as it is both mentally and physically taxing. People can be overtaken by anxiety and stress during withdrawal, and that may cause this trouble sleeping at night, which then contributes to feelings of anxiety and agitation, so it’s a cycle that can be tough to break free of. Difficulty concentrating is also reported, and research has found that people can have cognitive problems for weeks after stopping Xanax. Ditto for memory problems. Research shows that long-term Xanax abuse can lead to dementia and memory problems in the short-term, although this is typically restored within a few months of the initial withdrawal. Hallucinations, while rare, are sometimes reported when people suddenly stop using Xanax as well. Suicidal ideation is sometimes reported, as the anxiety, stress, and excessive nervousness that can occur during withdrawal can lead to, or coexist with suicidal thoughts. Finally, though rare, psychosis may occur when a person stops using Xanax cold turkey, rather than being weaned off of it.
Xanax Withdrawal Timeline
Xanax is used so commonly for anxiety and panic disorders because it works quickly, but that also means it stops working quickly and leaves the body quickly. Xanax is considered a short-acting benzodiazepine, with an average half-life of 11 hours. As soon as the drug stops being active in the plasma, usually 6 to 12 hours after the last dose, withdrawal symptoms can start. Withdrawal is generally at its worst on the second day, and improves by the fourth or fifth day, but some symptoms can last significantly longer. If you go cold turkey and don’t taper your dose, your withdrawal symptoms will grow increasingly intense, and there really is no way to predict how bad they may get, or how you’ll be affected.
Unfortunately, five days doesn’t signal the end of withdrawal for some people, as some may experience protracted withdrawal. Estimates suggest that about 10% to 25% of long-term benzodiazepine users experience protracted withdrawal, which is essentially a prolonged withdrawal experience marked by drug cravings and waves of psychological symptoms that come and go. Protracted withdrawal can last for several weeks, months, or even years if not addressed by a mental health professional. In fact, these lasting symptoms may lead to relapse if not addressed with continued treatment, such as regular therapy.
Factors Affecting Withdrawal
Withdrawal is different for each individual, and the withdrawal timeline may be affected by several different factors. The more dependent the body and brain are to Xanax, the longer and more intense withdrawal is likely to be. Regular dose, way of ingestion, combination with other drugs or alcohol, age at first use, genetics, and length of time using or abusing Xanax can all contribute to how quickly a dependence is formed and how strong it may be. High stress levels, family or prior history of addiction, mental health issues, underlying medical complications, and environmental factors can also make a difference in how long withdrawal may last for a particular individual and how many side effects are present.
Coping with Xanax Withdrawal
The best way to avoid a difficult and potentially dangerous withdrawal is to slowly taper down your dose of Xanax, meaning to take progressively smaller doses over the course of up to several weeks. By keeping a small amount of a benzo in the bloodstream, drug cravings and withdrawal may be controlled for a period of time until the drug is weaned out of the system completely. It may sound like designing a taper would be a no-brainer, but it’s definitely not recommended to taper without a physician’s guidance. Why? Because Xanax is a short-acting drug, your body metabolizes it very quickly. Controlling that is challenging because the amount of drug in your system goes up and down with its metabolism. To help you avoid these peaks and valleys, doctors often switch you from Xanax to a longer acting benzo during withdrawal, as it may make the process easier. And believe me, that’s what you want. If the physician goes this switch route, once you’ve stabilized on that med, you’ll slowly taper down from that a little bit at a time, just as you would with Xanax.
Another reason not to play doctor on this one is if you start to have breakthrough withdrawal symptoms when your dose is reduced, your physician can pause or stretch out your taper. It’s up to him or her, through discussion with you, to design the best tapering schedule for your individual needs. Sometimes it’s a fluid and changing beastie.
In addition, adjunct medications like antidepressants, beta-blockers, or other pharmaceuticals/ nutraceuticals may be effective in treating specific symptoms of Xanax withdrawal, and you’ll need a physician to recommend and/ or prescribe those as well.
Alleviating Symptoms of Withdrawal
An individual may notice a change in appetite and weight loss during Xanax withdrawal, so it’s important to make every attempt to eat healthy and balanced meals during this time. It may sound obvious, but a multivitamin including vitamin B6, thiamine, and folic acid is especially helpful, as these are often depleted in addiction and withdrawal. There are some herbal remedies that may be helpful during withdrawal, such as valerian root and chamomile for sleep. Meditation and mindfulness are very useful for managing blood pressure and anxiety during withdrawal, so be sure to check out my March 15 blog for more on mindfulness. Considering the insomnia and fatigue that may occur during withdrawal, it may seem counterintuitive to commit to exercise, but it has been shown to have positive effects on mitigating withdrawal symptoms and decreasing cravings. Exercise stimulates the same pleasure and reward systems in the brain, so it stands to reason that it can also help to lift feelings of depression or anxiety that may accompany physical withdrawal symptoms.
Xanax Withdrawal Safety
Some of the things I’ve mentioned are so important they bear repeating. Xanax should not be stopped suddenly, or cold turkey, and vital signs like blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, and temperature need to be closely monitored during withdrawal. This is because these may all go up rapidly during this time, and this can contribute to seizures that can lead to coma and even death.
People with a history of complicated withdrawal syndromes and people with underlying health issues should work very closely with their physician during withdrawal, as should the elderly and people with cognitive issues, as there can be unique risks involved. If you have acquired your Xanax illicitly, you can still work with a doctor to taper down your dose. Start by visiting a primary care physician or urgent care center and tell them that you are in, or are planning to be in, benzodiazepine withdrawal. If you don’t have insurance, visit a community health center. If you plan to or have become pregnant, you will need to discuss your options with your prescribing physician and OB/GYN about the risks and benefits of continuing versus tapering Xanax or other benzos. Some women continue taking them throughout their pregnancy, while others follow a dose tapering schedule.
The key to achieving the goal of getting off of Xanax is to follow the tapering schedule to the very end. By the end of your taper, you might be cutting pills into halves or quarters. Note that some individuals may be better suited for a harm reduction approach, in which the taper leads to a maintenance dose rather than abstinence. If you’re very concerned about the risks involved in Xanax tapering for any reason, discuss these concerns with your physician, because you may be better suited for inpatient detoxification. While this is more expensive, it is covered by many insurance plans.
No matter how you slice it, quitting Xanax takes time, patience, and determination. If you’ve been using it for longer than a few months, quitting can be hard, and there will be days where you want to give up and give in. But with medical supervision and support, you can be successful, and in the long-term, the health benefits are considerable. Withdrawal isn’t a picnic, but if Xanax is both the alternative to it, and a problem for you, it beats that alternative hands down.
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