Xanax, the brand name for alprazolam, is a powerful sedative and anti-convulsant. It is the most highly prescribed psychological medicine in the United States. Alprazolam is classified as a benzodiazepine, like Valium or Ativan. It is normally prescribed to treat anxiety and panic disorders; patients take this medication in order to calm themselves when they have severe panic attacks or to quiet generalized anxiety. It works by augmenting a specific neurotransmitter, gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA for short. When alprazolam makes GABA more effective, it creates an overall sedating effect that helps patients better control their emotions, even during acute bouts of anxiety.

Short-Term Effects

Under normal circumstances, the neurotransmitter GABA would reduce the excitability of cells in the nervous system. During a seizure or panic attack, neurons are firing at a rapid pace. It is GABA’s job in the nervous system to regulate this over-stimulation so that normal functioning can be restored.

When taken as prescribed, Xanax has very noticeable short-term effects on a person’s physical and mental state. Since alprazolam enhances the functioning of GABA, patients rapidly receive relief from their symptoms, usually within an hour. However, alprazolam does not simply calm a person down, there are other effects as well:

  • Drowsiness and fatigue
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Changes in mood
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Impaired motor function
  • Impaired judgement
  • Memory problems
  • Dizziness
  • Dry mouth
  • Lack of libido
  • Difficulty breathing

Long-Term Effects

Any time a person takes a drug that alters the chemistry of the brain for a prolonged period of time, there are risks of long-term effects. Alprazolam, and other benzodiazepines, carry an extremely high risk of physical dependence. If large doses are taken for a lengthy period, a patient’s body may not produce as much GABA as it once did. It may even stop making GABA altogether while a patient goes through withdrawal. Even if taken as prescribed, long-term use of Xanax carries risks that should not be taken lightly:

  • Drug tolerance
  • Substance abuse
  • Psychotic episodes or hallucinations
  • Poor impulse control
  • Irritability and aggression
  • Prolonged confusion
  • Delirium
  • Dementia
  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts or actions
  • Constipation
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Increased chance of serious physical injury
  • Physical dependence

Withdrawal Symptoms

It can be very dangerous to attempt quitting this drug cold turkey. Anyone who has been taking large quantities of alprazolam for a prolonged period of time, more than a month, may need to be under medical supervision while they detox. Physical dependence on alprazolam is like any other drug addiction. Withdrawal symptoms may be very severe and could include:

  • Blurred vision
  • Tremors
  • Loss of appetite
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Sweating
  • Psychotic episodes, like severe anxiety or paranoia
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Extreme sensitivity to light and sound
  • Headaches
  • Muscle pain
  • Tremors
  • Seizures

Other psychological medicines prescribed to treat anxiety, like certain anti-depressants, take weeks to begin having a noticeable effect on symptoms. Alprazolam is different, it has a very short half-life, meaning that it enters and exits the body very rapidly. This is a good thing therapeutically because it means that patients get relief quickly. However, this is a bad thing when it comes to withdrawal symptoms. A short half-life means that withdrawal also happens quickly. Some long-term users may even find that they begin to have mild withdrawal symptoms in between their regular doses. This can quickly lead to a patient taking their medicine more frequently than prescribed by their doctor. Also, patients tend to build up a tolerance for the drug and need increasingly higher doses to achieve the same level of relief.

When a person begins to detox from Xanax use, they may have a marked increase in the anxiety and panic attacks that led them to use or abuse the drug in the first place. This makes patients feel that they cannot handle their emotional issues without alprazolam and lead them to resume taking it. If the body is no longer producing enough GABA, or won’t produce it at all without the medicine, then trying to come off of it is even harder. Without the natural means of calming down neurons, severe panic attacks and even seizures can occur until withdrawal ends. The most dangerous symptoms may only take a week or two to dissipate, but the heightened anxiety may last as long as a month or two.

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