Understanding the 5 Signs of Valium Abuse
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By: Harmony Staff

Clinically Reviewed by Dr. Deja Gilbert, PhD, LMHC, LPC

Updated on 02/24/2022

Warning Signs of Valium Abuse

America has awoken to the dangers of prescription drug addiction. Unfortunately, the threat isn’t limited to opioids, although they seem to garner the most media attention. Along with other benzodiazepine drugs, valium abuse can be every bit as life-threatening as addiction to any opioid pain medication. Understanding the dangers of benzodiazepines and the 5 signs of valium abuse will help you make an informed decision about getting help. In this article, Harmony Recovery Center will help you recognize valium abuse and empower you to address it.

What is Valium?

As a central nervous system depressant, valium enhances the effects of the inhibitory neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), creating a sense of calm and relaxation. Over time, the brain becomes incapable of naturally regulating this neurotransmitter, requiring continued use and at higher doses, to achieve the same result. Valium was patented in 1959. It became popular not long after, when the medical community began to use benzos instead of barbiturates for these conditions. Between 1968-1982, valium was the top selling pharmaceutical in the United States.

The peak came in 1978, when 2.3 billion tablets dispensed. Health practitioners often prescribe Valium (diazepam) to treat anxiety, insomnia, or seizure disorders. Benzodiazepines, including Valium, remain among the most commonly prescribed medications today.  The use of any benzodiazepine, including valium comes with a very real risk of addiction and dependence. It makes no difference if it’s by prescription or not. When taken for a prolonged period of time the brain becomes chemically dependent on the drug.

Dangers of Valium Abuse

The depressant quality of Valium makes misuse of the drug very dangerous. If the drug is illegal or the user doesn’t follow dosage instructions, ingesting a large amount or for a prolonged period of time can be life-threatening. As a central nervous system depressant, valium suppresses the respiratory system. This suppression limits the amount of oxygen that vital organs require to function properly. A valium overdose can cause stroke, seizure, brain damage, cardiac arrest, or breathing cessation, leading to an overdose fatality.

A unique trait of benzodiazepines is not only their high risk for abuse, but the danger of benzodiazepine withdrawal. Benzos, such as valium, are more dangerous to withdrawal from than opioids. Due to the sedative effect that benzodiazepines have on the brain, abrupt discontinuation can be life-threatening. Symptoms of Valium withdrawal include panic attacks, tremors, confusion, nausea, heart palpitations, hallucinations, suicidal ideation, and seizures. Because of these complications, it is highly recommended to seek professional help while attempting to detox from medications like Valium.

How Can I Help Someone with a Valium Abuse Problem?

Benzo addiction is a serious issue that usually requires medical help to overcome. Valium abuse is one of three types of addiction which have potentially deadly withdrawal side effects. Benzodiazepines, like valium, alcohol and barbiturates are the three classes of drugs which can lead to fatal seizures in withdrawal. Understanding the 5 signs of valium abuse and how to recognize them is critical if you want to help yourself or someone else recover from benzo addiction.

What you can do to help:

  • Listen to the person first rather than venting your worries and concerns.
  • Show them they can trust you and that it is safe to tell you the truth about their valium abuse.
  • Express the seriousness of the problem but emphasize that you know it is not their fault.
  • Do not blame or shame them for their addiction. It is their responsibility to accept help though.

The signs of addiction can be subtle. Addiction is a disease of the mind. It is insidious in many ways. One of those ways is that it often compels the sufferer to deny and try and hide the problem so the addiction can continue. In order to help yourself or someone else, you must be both able to see the 5 signs of valium abuse and be willing to take action. Know that this often entails difficult conversations and emotional confrontations. In some cases, an intervention may be in order and any enabling behavior will need to be curtailed.

Why Does Benzodiazepine Use Often Lead to Addiction?

Benzodiazepines are a class of sedative medications which are most often prescribed for a range of anxiety disorders.  Insomnia, control of seizures or muscle spasms and drug detox protocols are some of the ways we use these medicines. Benzos have anxiolytic, sedative-hypnotic, anticonvulsant and muscle relaxant effects. As the medical community has become more aware of benzo addiction issues like valium abuse, prescriptions for these medications are less common.

In the past it was somewhat more common for physicians to prescribe benzo for long-term use. As awareness of valium abuse and benzo addiction has spread, this type of treatment has fallen out of favor. Most physicians will seek a less dangerous, non-narcotic alternative to treat condition like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or insomnia that would entail taking a benzodiazepine regularly, if not daily. Benzos are still useful however and, in some cases, there simply is no substitute for them.

Some examples of benzos include:

  • Valium (diazepam)
  • Xanax (alprazolam)
  • Klonopin (clonazepam)
  • Ativan (lorazepam)
  • Librium (chlordiazepoxide)
  • Tranxene (clorazepate)
  • Paxipam (halazepam)

Benzo addictions, like valium abuse often occur when a person with a prescription for the medication takes extra to experience the euphoric effects. Others may buy benzos illicitly and become dependent on them. The time it takes to become addicted varies from person to person. But you should know that anyone who takes a benzodiazepine daily or close to daily for more than two weeks is at risk. Valium abuse may occur as a result of recreational use or it can happen when a person feels their prescription dose isn’t providing enough relief.

Are Valium Abuse and Addiction the Same Thing?

Addiction can be either psychological or physical. Often, it’s both. A person can become psychologically dependent on valium or another benzo. They can also become physically dependent in the sense that they will have withdrawal symptoms if they stop. Valium abuse either occurs as a result of addiction or it’s the cause of it. It’s a bit of a ‘chicken and the egg’ scenario. It isn’t that important to know how the benzo addiction began.

What is very important to understand though, is that addiction is not a matter of willpower. There are still far too many people who believe overcoming addiction is just a matter of determination and discipline. While it’s true that successful recovery takes dedication, that energy and focus are not applied to simply resisting picking up the drug. Rather, use the energy and focus to work a program of action, to take specific steps aimed at modifying not only a person’s behavior, but the way they think. Recovery means acting differently, but it also means seeing the world and your place in it differently.

Things to remember about benzodiazepine dependence:

  • Anyone who takes benzos for an extended period will become dependent. It is not your fault.
  • Benzo withdrawal without proper medical support can be very dangerous, even deadly.
  • A program of recovery is essential if you want to remain sober after you are safely detoxed.
  • Quitting benzos does not mean you have to suffer symptoms of anxiety or insomnia.
  • There are effective, non-narcotic alternatives and other interventions which can treat anxiety.

Simply trying to ‘white knuckle’ it or muscle your way through addiction does not work. In the case of valium abuse it can actually be dangerous. Never stop taking valium or any other benzodiazepine abruptly without professional medical advice. This can lead to potentially deadly seizures in withdrawal. We cannot emphasize this point enough. You must never stop taking a benzo ‘cold turkey’. You could die. Get a safe benzodiazepine detox from a professional medical facility or at the absolute minimum, follow a doctor’s advice on this to the letter.

How do Benzodiazepines Affect the Brain?

Like most psychiatric medications, the effect of benzodiazepines on the brain isn’t fully understood. What we do know is that these medications act on a neurotransmitter called gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA). Neurotransmitters are naturally occurring chemicals in the brain that the body uses to transmit messages or signals between neurons and in between neurons and muscles.

Neurotransmitters generally fall into one of three categories:

  • Excitatory: Activates or stimulates a particular response in the brain.
  • Inhibitory: Inhibits or suppresses the action response of a neuron (the opposite or excitatory)
  • Modulatory: Modulates or controls a group of neurons (usually plays more than one role)

GABA is the second type, an inhibitory neurotransmitter. Its main job is to reduce neuronal excitability throughout the central nervous system. Put simply, GABA has a calming effect. It is essential to sleep and restful states and regulating mood. You might say it’s the brain’s built in ‘chill pill’. Benzodiazepines like valium work by making the action of GABA more efficient. They allow GABA greater access to neurons. The effects we feel from benzos are, in fact, the effect of more of a natural brain chemical (GABA) being available to the brain.

Why is Valium Abuse Dangerous?

So, if GABA occurs naturally in the brain and it makes us feel good, why is valium abuse or benzo addiction dangerous? Great question. The answer is that brain chemistry is all about balance. Each neurotransmitter has a job to do and too little or too much of one of them in the wrong place at the wrong time leads to consequences. When the brain experiences consistently higher levels of GABA, it adjusts accordingly. Our bodies are continuously working to maintain homeostasis. In plain language, that means the body tries to regulate and balance its own chemistry and condition. If we become too hot, the body causes us to sweat to shed excess heat. If we are cold, the body causes muscles to fire (shivering) to warm us up. Benzo abuse upsets this balance and abruptly stopping them sends the brain into turmoil.

Why Benzo Addiction is Dangerous:

  • Benzos slow respiration. This can lead to respiratory arrest and death.
  • Combining benzos with other drugs like opioids or alcohol compounds the depressant effects.
  • Abusing these drugs can exasperate existing psychiatric symptoms, make depression worse.
  • Withdrawal without medical supervision can lead to deadly seizures.

In the case of valium abuse or other benzo addiction, the stimulation of GABA receptors not only increases GABA levels but causes a dopamine surge as a secondary effect. Both effects are pleasurable, which reinforces the valium abuse behaviors. When you remove the benzo, the brain is suddenly left with a shortage of GABA and less dopamine than before. As you can imagine, deficits of both of these chemicals leads to some pretty dreadful side effects. Essentially you get the respective opposites of the positive effects those neurotransmitters usually produce in the brain. This is dangerous for many reasons, but some of the key ones are outlined in the bullet list above.

How Addiction Hijacks the Mind

Addiction has a way of hijacking a person’s mind in a sense. It does this by reordering our priorities which then alters our behavior and leads to a spiral of addictive behaviors with negative consequences. Because drugs like valium directly affect the brains reward pathways, they can lead to the drug becoming more important than things that normally have the highest value in our minds. Getting more of the drug, protecting the source and the ability to use it can become more important than people, places and things. For example, friends and family members who seek to help may become an obstacle to using.

A person living with addiction may shut out people in their life who appear to come between them and the drug. People living with benzo addiction may lose their job or fail out of school because using the drug causes them to oversleep and be late. Or they may be visibly under the influence at work or school and lose a job or position in school as a result. At the extreme end of the spectrum, an addictive drug can become more important to someone than even necessities like nutritious food, shelter, warmth and so forth. That may sound like an exaggeration unless you or someone you know has been caught in the throes of severe addiction. Choosing between groceries or enough pills to keep you from withdrawal for a few more days is a dire situation for anyone to be in. That decision isn’t nearly as simple as it would seem to a person who isn’t suffering from addiction.

5 Warning Signs of Valium Abuse and Benzo Addiction

Being able to identify these 5 warning signs of valium abuse can help you or a loved one stop the treacherous path of benzo addiction before it is too late. Remember that confronting addiction may mean asking yourself or someone else some uncomfortable questions. It can entail painful realizations. But for whatever awkward talks or emotional outbursts may follow, they pale in comparison to the consequences if someone does not get help. Bear that in mind and be vigilant. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and support from others. Whether you have an issue with valium abuse or someone you love does, you don’t have to face it alone. There is strength in numbers.

#1.) Lethargy

Because diazepam is a central nervous system depressant, lethargy is a frequent side effect of valium abuse. While mild lethargy is normal with most benzodiazepines, excessive fatigue is an indicator of abuse or misuse of the drug. If an individual is falling asleep at odd hours, constantly drowsy, or has no energy, they may be abusing this medication. Combining valium or other benzos with other depressants can be especially dangerous as it has a compounding effect. Benzos and alcohol or benzos and opioids or all three together will exponentially raise the risk of respirator arrest and death as a result. Benzos are not the only drug which can cause these symptoms so if even if they are present and you confirm that benzos are not the cause, it still merits further investigation. Like we said, better you should have an uncomfortable conversation for safeties sake than to ignore a sign like this.

#2.) Neglecting Responsibilities

This is a frequently seen sign of abuse for any addictive substance. Neglecting various responsibilities, whether it be familial, financial, or personal, is a common occurrence among those suffering from addiction. If an individual no longer prioritizes time spent with loved ones, their career, or personal upkeep, they may be abusing valium.

Like any addiction to a chemical which taps directly into the brains reward pathways, valium abuse has a way of upending a person’s priorities. Eventually finding and using valium becomes one of the very most important things in their entire life. Inevitably other priorities will suffer as a result, and this can be a red flag for loved ones to act upon. As we all know, shirking responsibilities has real consequences and these can only serve to further complicate the life of someone who is working hard to recover from addiction. That’s why time is of the essence here. Getting help sooner rather than later means there will be that much less ‘wreckage of the past’ to clean up later.

#3.) Increased Anxiety

While diazepam is prescribed to treat anxiety in patients, abuse of this drug can actually increase anxiety if used in excess or for a prolonged period of time. As a drug that manipulates chemicals in the brain, valium can actually have degenerating effects on the disorder it was intended to treat. Increased agitation, frustration and anxiety may all be signs of prescription drug abuse or benzo addiction. This is particularly true with higher doses and/or use over a longer period of time (years rather than months). When the drug isn’t present in sufficient amounts, a person who is dependent on a benzo will experience heightened anxiety, agitation, insomnia and other symptoms.

#4.) Withdrawal Symptoms

This indicator is the most serious as withdrawal from any benzodiazepine can be fatal if not treated by a medical professional. If an individual has been taking or abusing valium or any benzo for 4 weeks or longer, sudden cessation will produce painful withdrawal symptoms such as vomiting, body tremors, sweating, heart palpitations, extreme agitation, and potentially fatal seizures. The severity of withdrawal symptoms depends on a number of factors which include:

  • Age and relative health of the person.
  • Amount of the drug they are taking daily.
  • How long they have been taking the benzodiazepine.
  • Past history or sensitivity to seizures (some people are more seizure-prone than others)

The most important thing to remember here is if someone is experiencing benzodiazepine withdrawal, they need immediate medical attention. Especially if they cannot or will not take the benzos or there isn’t enough to counter the effects. Do not hesitate. Get immediate medical attention. Call 911 in the event of an emergency, you could save a life.

#5.) Poor Cognitive Functioning

A common indicator of valium abuse is poor cognitive functioning. This can manifest in various ways. An individual struggling with valium abuse is likely to be forgetful, have a poor sense of judgment or be incapable of holding a coherent conversation. Benzodiazepines can affect short term memory and reasoning along with lowering inhibitions. In addition to ‘fuzzy thinking’ a person consistently on a high dose of benzos may behave uncharacteristically casual. Lower inhibitions may lead to anything from out of character promiscuity or flirtation to carelessness or risk-taking behavior. Motor skills are also usually impaired at higher doses, resulting in an inability to balance or speak clearly and annunciate without slurring words.

Valium Addiction Treatment

Treatment for Valium addiction typically consists of two primary components: detox and a professional addiction treatment program. Before an individual can enter latter phases of treatment, they must first have a medical detox from benzodiazepines and any other drugs they may be dependent on. This is the detox phase of treatment. Due to the severity of benzodiazepine withdrawal, it is highly recommended that detox take place at a dedicated medical detox facility. This will guarantee the client’s comfort and safety while being provided the necessary clinical supervision. A medical detox will have nurses on staff 24-hours a day, 7 days a week. That way detox medications can be administered and they are available to address any medical concerns. If symptoms change or arise, they can respond to them quickly.

Once the individual has successfully completed the detox stage of treatment, they will be ready to transition to the latter phases of care which include Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHP) and Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOP). Most treatment facilities provide various program options depending on the severity of the addiction. Once the client enters into an addiction treatment program, they will undergo various therapies, workshops and exercises within a structured environment designed to prevent outside distraction. Individuals involved in addiction treatment will be able to bond with fellow, like-minded clients, creating a system of mutual trust and accountability. Therapists will utilize proven strategies to expose the root source of addiction and assist the client in developing healthier behavioral coping methods, therefore promoting sustained sobriety. After primary treatment is complete, continuing care in an Outpatient Program (OP) is the best course of action for most clients.

Don’t Face Valium Abuse Alone

As an addictive benzodiazepine, valium is hard to quit without assistance. This powerful prescription drug can irreversibly alter brain chemistry, cause organ failure through its depressant qualities, and cause life-threatening symptoms if use is abruptly stopped. Common signs of valium abuse are lethargy, neglect of responsibilities, increase in anxiety, severe withdrawal symptoms, and poor cognitive functioning, among others.

To effectively combat valium abuse, an individual must go through an initial detox stage. This stage is necessary to step the person down safely and comfortably and avoid dangerous reactions. A thorough medical detox at a drug detox facility is best during this process as benzodiazepines are notoriously dangerous to withdraw from. After successful completion of detox, the individual is encouraged to enter an addiction treatment program to address their addiction head on and treat it at its source. Comprehensive programs like Harmony Recovery Center will provide a treatment plan that includes medical detox at a trusted facility, treatment at our center and thorough aftercare and alumni support.

Some Final Thoughts:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help and support from others if you are living with addiction.
  • When trying to help somebody else with addiction, you should also ask for help from others.
  • If someone you care about is living with addiction, be supportive. Avoid blaming or shaming.
  • Have a plan. Whether you have the addiction or someone else does, make a plan for help.
  • Learn all you can about addiction. It goes a long way towards helping you decide on the right type of care.

Harmony Can Help

If you or a loved one is struggling with valium abuse or dependence on any controlled substance, our experts are here to help. We believe that every individual deserves professional and effective addiction care. Regardless of your situation, we take our commitment to providing quality care to heart. We understand addiction and we can help! Call us at (704) 386-1131 today or contact us here and take the first step in your road to recovery.