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How Xanax Use Affects Our Brain and Body — And Can Lead to Addiction



Medically Reviewed by Dr. Mohammed Saeed, MD.

The number of prescriptions for benzodiazepines, a class of drugs used to treat anxiety and panic disorders, grew 67% between 1996 and 2013 to 135 million prescriptions per year, according to Yale Medicine. In addition, the quantity each patient was prescribed during that time period more than tripled. With this increased use of benzodiazepines, it’s important to understand just how addictive these drugs can be.

One common benzodiazepine is Xanax, also known by its generic name alprazolam. Xanax is so addictive because the drug acts quickly in the brain and body, often within an hour of being taken. While Xanax enters the body quickly, it also leaves the body in a short period of time. On average, the human body removes half of the Xanax ingested in just over 11 hours.

Remember, we’re not doctors and this isn’t medical advice. Always consult with a medical professional whenever you start or stop taking a prescription drug.

How Xanax Works

Xanax acts as a depressant on the central nervous system (CNS) by increasing gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. GABA is a brain chemical, or neurotransmitter, that promotes calmness and creates a feeling of relaxation. Additionally, Xanax lowers the brain’s excitement level, which helps in treating anxiety and panic disorders.

Physically, Xanax also provides relief from muscle tension. It can also help with insomnia. There are mental effects as well, including a temporary loss of memory, a reduction in feelings of hostility and irritability, and fewer bad dreams.

When an individual takes too much Xanax, they can experience a range of effects, from shallow breathing and clammy skin to dilated pupils and a weak or rapid heartbeat. A Xanax overdose could also cause someone to lapse into a coma or even die.

Side Effects of Xanax

There are multiple potential side effects associated with Xanax. Typically, an individual will only feel these side effects when they first start taking the drug or if their dosage changes. Additionally, the individual may find that other medications they are taking may interact with Xanax. Age and other medical conditions can also factor into whether someone feels side effects. Finally, consuming any other type of CNS depressant, including alcohol, can result in a reaction.

Side effects individuals may experience when taking Xanax include:

  • drowsiness
  • dizziness
  • fatigue
  • insomnia
  • memory problems
  • slurred speech
  • blurred vision
  • dry mouth
  • stuffy nose
  • poor coordination
  • muscle weakness
  • difficulty concentrating
  • irritability
  • nausea or vomiting
  • constipation or diarrhea
  • excessive sweating
  • headaches
  • appetite or weight changes
  • swelling of the hands or feet
  • loss of interest in sex

Xanax Dependence versus Addiction

There is a difference between dependence and addiction to Xanax. Dependence is the physical state where the body requires more and more of the drug for the person to experience the same effect. This is also known as tolerance. When someone is dependent, they will have mental and physical withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking the drug. Addiction, which includes physical dependence, goes much deeper than tolerance. Someone who is addicted isn’t able to stop taking the drug despite the consequences to their health, lifestyle, and the lives of others.

Dependence refers to a physical state in which the body is dependent on the drug. With drug dependence, someone needs more and more of the substance to achieve the same effect. They experience mental and physical withdrawal effects if they stop taking the drug. This may mean that they are never without the drug and that they will spend money on the drug instead of paying for food or other essentials.

While dependence can be harmful, someone who is addicted may develop even riskier or more dangerous behaviors, such as theft of the drug or driving while high. Once an individual becomes addicted to Xanax, they will greatly benefit from both clinical support, such as behavioral therapy, and support from their peers in recovery.

Xanax Withdrawal and Treatment

Withdrawal symptoms from Xanax feel more severe than those associated with other benzodiazepines. Because of this, when individuals choose to stop using the drug, they should undergo the detoxification process at a treatment facility or under the care of a trained health care professional. This will help the person safely stop using Xanax and minimize any withdrawal symptoms.

Possible symptoms someone using Xanax may experience during withdrawal include:

  • aches and pains
  • aggression
  • anxiety
  • blurred vision
  • dizziness
  • headaches
  • hypersensitivity to light and sound
  • insomnia
  • irritability and mood swings
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • numbness and tingling in the hands, feet, or face
  • tremors
  • muscle tension
  • nightmares
  • depression
  • paranoia
  • difficulty breathing

After detoxing from Xanax, individuals should enroll in a professional addiction treatment program. Reputable treatment programs will address not just the addiction itself but also the underlying causes of the anxiety or depression that may have led to substance abuse. The most common therapy used is a form of behavioral therapy known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). A therapist treating someone with CBT for a benzodiazepine addiction will help provide the individual with self-control training and cue exposure as part of developing healthy coping strategies.

Building on a belief that spiritual development and healthy recovery can bring inner peace to clients overcoming addiction and substance abuse, Into Action Recovery Centers takes a people-centered approach to addiction treatment. We’re conveniently located in Houston, Texas and our care is overseen by experienced master’s level counselors and medical professionals, who specialize in personalized treatment for drug and alcohol abuse. When you’re ready to begin your recovery from Xanax addiction, we’re here to help.


Dr. Mohammed Saeed, MD.

Dr. Saeed is a psychiatry specialist with over 40 years of experience in the medical field. He received training in General Psychiatry at the University of Texas Medical Branch, where he was selected as the Medical Director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. He currently serves as the medical director at Into Action Recovery Centers. Full Bio

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