Medications act on the body through a variety of physical interactions with organ systems, including the brain. This is also true of psychoactive medicines used to treat mental health disorders or conditions. However, along with the desired effects, there are often side effects that can affect the person taking the medication in unexpected and unintended ways, with long-term consequences.
Xanax is a medication that can often result in uncomfortable and even dangerous side effects. Sometimes, people abuse Xanax to self-treat when symptoms seem to get worse or for conditions not originally diagnosed. Other individuals take it illicitly to get high. Because of the many types of side effects that Xanax can cause, this abuse can lead to long-term, negative health effects.
How Xanax Affects the Body and Brain
Xanax, known generically as alprazolam, is one of a number of drugs referred to as benzodiazepines or benzos. Like all the drugs of this type, Xanax helps to slow the messages traveling through the brain, promoting a sense of calm, relaxation, and even sedation. Because of this, it is often prescribed to treat conditions that result from overstimulated nervous or brain conditions, such as:
- Panic disorder
- Mood disorders
In other words, by taking benzos like Xanax, a person can calm some of the overstimulation of the brain. Because of this, Xanax is referred to as a nervous system depressant or sedative. Nevertheless, this sedative action – as well as other interactions of Xanax in the body – can result in some unexpected or challenging side effects, especially if the drug is being abused.
Ready to leave addiction behind?
Call now to speak to a consultant about your treatment options
Short-Term Physical Side Effects
Xanax is a psychoactive drug, meaning it is intended to affect the brain itself, treating mental health disorders rather than physical ones. Nevertheless, its action on the brain also affects other organs and physical health. Many of the physical side effects caused by Xanax in the short-term are described by Medical News Today, including:
- Decrease in or loss of physical coordination
- Slowed breathing
- Heart palpitations or chest pain
- Stuffy nose
- Blurred vision
- Upset stomach or changes in bowel movements
- Swelling of hands or feet
These side effects can range from mild to severe, varying between individuals. Often, when a prescription is being followed properly, the effects will fade after the person has become used to the medication. However, this is not always the case, and if the person is abusing the drug on a regular basis, side effects may remain or even get worse.
The Psychological Effects of Xanax Use
As mentioned above, Xanax acts on the brain to slow messages and induce calmness. It does this by increasing the availability of a brain chemical called GABA, which interrupts the other chemicals travelling through the brain. Because of this action, the drug also has some mental side effects, some of which interfere with the individual’s ability to function normally. These, described by RxList, include:
- Inability to concentrate
- Sleep problems
- Memory loss or difficulties
Again, these symptoms sometimes diminish as the person gets used to taking the medication; however, this isn’t always the case. In addition, if the person takes the medication regularly for a long time, these and other side effects can get worse, resulting in long-term mental or physical health complications.
How Xanax Side Effects Progress
Many of the symptoms described above can become more severe with long-term Xanax use. One of the most well-known problems has to do with the potential for developing dementia. Numerous studies from the past decade, such as this one from the British Medical Journal, indicate that people who take benzos like Xanax on a long-term basis have a higher risk of developing dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, than those who don’t take benzos.
Other long-term issues, some of which are discussed by the American Psychiatric Association, include:
- Heart damage and arrhythmia
- Low oxygen in the brain (hypoxia) due to decreased lung function
Because of the challenges that can develop using Xanax in the long-term, it is often recommended that people not take this drug regularly for longer than a month. However, some sources, such as the Ashton Manual, are even more conservative, recommending that the drug not be used regularly for more than 2-4 weeks. The reason for this is connected with many of the side effects mentioned above, as well as for another important reason: the risk of withdrawal after developing dependence on the drug, which has its own complications.
Xanax Abuse and Dependence
As explained above, Xanax abuse can lead to addiction very quickly. This is due to the development of tolerance, or the body becoming used to the drug so the effects seem to diminish. This often leads the person to start using more of the drug to keep up the level of effect. Some may also use it to self-treat conditions for which it was not prescribed; for example, a person who has been given the medication to treat anxiety might start using it to manage insomnia.
This type of abuse can lead the body to reach a point where it can’t function normally without the drug in the system. When this point has been reached, the person is dependent on the drug. When the person then becomes unable to control use of the drug, it turns into an addiction.
Removing the drug from the body suddenly can cause severe withdrawal symptoms, such as:
- Increased anxiety
- Suicidal thoughts
These symptoms can become severe enough to cause injury or even death. For this reason, it is important to get medical support to come off benzos. Xanax in particular is prescribed in such small doses that it can be difficult to taper properly without the assistance of a professional who knows how to design this process. Even smaller doses of Xanax can result in severe withdrawal symptoms without proper tapering to stop use.
Is the Damage Reversible?
For the physical and mental side effects of Xanax use, the potential to reverse the effect depends somewhat on what the effect is. For example, if it has been used long enough for memory damage or dementia to develop, it may not be possible to return to the person’s normal mental capabilities. The severity of brain damage that can occur is discussed in an article from Psychology Today. On the other hand, symptoms like heart palpitations, swelling of extremities, and irritability can reverse after stopping the medication.
Stopping the drug earlier so these issues never develop is the better course. It is possible to get help and stop Xanax abuse before side effects lead to more severe, long-term health problems. Addiction treatment can help individuals who have lost control of Xanax use to manage the cravings and triggers that lead to continued abuse of the drug, helping to reduce the risk of severe side effects.
Stopping Abuse of Xanax
To stop Xanax abuse when dependence or addiction is present, the course most likely to result in abstinence is to get help from a reputable, research-based addiction treatment facility. These organizations can help the individual find effective medically supported detox to avoid withdrawal risks and can also provide support, treatments, and therapy that enable the person to gain control over Xanax use.
- Individual or group Cognitive Behavioral Therapy sessions
- Family or interpersonal therapy
- Peer support groups, such as 12-Step programs
- Exercise and nutritional support
- Other programs to provide recovery support
With these and other treatments, the individual can learn to enjoy life again without Xanax and manage the symptoms that might lead to relapse into abuse.