Xanax: What it actually is

Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug from the benzodiazepine family, is increasingly to blame for drug deaths. Its’ calming and sedative effects are desirable, however, the harm it does to those who take it is less so. Benzodiazepines are extremely prevalent amongst drug deaths, with benzos present in 49% of drug deaths. Drug deaths have more than doubled in recent years and as Xanax is gaining popularity, it’s important to understand what it actually is.

How does Xanax work?

Xanax, generic name alprazolam, is a fast-acting drug that reduces anxiety by increasing the levels of calming neurotransmitters in the brain. Benzodiazepines are highly addictive and should only be prescribed for a few different reasons; alcohol withdrawal, acute anxiety (temporarily for 2-4 weeks, whilst other medication kicks in) and drug withdrawal. It can numb your emotions, therefore, if you come off of it after prolonged use you may be overwhelmed with different feelings.

Benzodiazepines are all anti-anxiety medications that produce similar effects, however, the main difference is their onset of action and how long they last for. Often if a drug acts fast the effects won’t last as long, which is true for benzodiazepines. The benzodiazepines that act fast have greater abuse potential.

The risks

There are many risks associated with benzodiazepine use, such as, addiction, depression and psychosis. Those who use them have reported losing memory of full weekends due to taking it. As it is an anti-anxiety medication, it can lower inhibitions which may cause you to act in an inappropriate way. A preoccupation with getting Xanax can induce stealing or even incite violence. Recently, a batch of benzodiazepines caused significant aggression which led to a spike in violence in Scotland.

The deadliest risk of benzodiazepines is respiratory depression which is when your breathing rate significantly reduces, causing an abnormal exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, which can result in coma or death. Benzodiazepines are often taken alongside other drugs and as drugs like codeine and alcohol also have respiratory depressive effects, the risk of respiratory depression is amplified. In most drug deaths there is a benzodiazepine involved.

Rapper Lil Peep died from respiratory depression resulting from Xanax and Fentanyl (synthetic heroin).

The issue with mixing drugs as that they do not always have a summative effect; two different drugs taken together may produce unpredictable effects. In addition, the substances the drugs are mixed with may interact with the drugs and as they are often mixed with varying materials, this can be hard to predict.


Xanax is more addictive than Valium (diazepam) as it has a quicker onset of action. The addictiveness of a substance also depends on how you take it as the faster it hits your brain, the more addictive it will be. IV injection is the most addictive way to take a drug, followed by snorting and under the tongue, smoking and then orally.

Signs of addiction:

  • Neglecting other interests due to preoccupation with the addiction
  • A compulsion to use
  • Continuing to use despite harmful effects occurring
  • Tolerance
  • Difficulty in controlling drug use
  • Withdrawal symptoms

*3 signs signify an addiction, 1 or 2 signs signify misuse*

In the UK, doctors are hesitant to prescribe benzodiazepines due to their abuse potential and they will screen for “drug-seeking behaviours” which are common methods employed to obtain abused drugs legally through prescription. However, in the US it is much easier to access benzodiazepines as they are often recommended for exam stress which may contribute to why their rapidly increasing abuse rates.

Read: Cocaine, Young Males & Depression

Illegal drugs aren’t standardised so it’s a Russian Roulette as to what is in the tablet. Is it the right strength? Is it mixed with harmful chemicals? Is it even the right drug? Warfarin, an anticoagulant drug that thins the blood with a risk of bleeding, has been known to have been sold as Xanax as it looks similar. The illegal versions are exponentially stronger than those prescribed therefore to change from obtaining benzos legally to buying them illegally, comes with a strong risk of overdose. Although they are similar drugs, Xanax can be up to 20 times stronger than Valium which may lead to accidental overdose.

Misuse of Xanax is strongly linked to mental health problems including anxiety and depression, and this may be a negative coping mechanism to help deal with emotional turmoil. If you are addicted to Xanax, or worry that you may become addicted, the best thing to do is to seek help – there is always a way out. Suddenly stopping benzodiazepine use is not recommended, it is much safer to gradually wean off of it and to optimise the outcomes whilst avoiding risks, you should cease using the drug with support from your doctor.


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