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The Effects Of Xanax (Alprazolam) On The Brain

Joseph Sitarik, DO

Medically reviewed by

Joseph Sitarik, DO

February 4, 2019

Xanax is used for the treatment of individuals struggling to control their anxiety. This medication reacts with the neurons in the brain to produce feelings of calm and relaxation. Because of the way Xanax interacts with the brain, this drug is highly addictive and may cause individuals to become dependent on it.

We live in an age overrun by anxiety and fear. It’s estimated over 50 million people have a prescription for Xanax, making it the third-most prescribed medication in the United States. But, what are the effects of Xanax on the brain?

Xanax, which is the brand name for the drug alprazolam, belongs to a class of prescription medications called benzodiazepines. While scientists are still learning what causes anxiety in the brain, it’s understood why taking Xanax as directed is helpful for calming people down.

What Is Xanax Used For?

As a benzodiazepine, Xanax is used for treating anxiety disorders and panic attacks. Xanax decreases abnormal excitement in the brain and produces calming effects. Unlike some medications, Xanax works very fast and provides immediate relief when taken as directed, lessening feelings of anxiety and fear. To fully understand the effects of Xanax on the brain, it’s important to understand the condition Xanax primarily treats: anxiety.

Anxiety, like our brains, is complex. Doctors and researchers are continuously working hard to better understand anxiety and what causes it in the brain. What scientists have discovered is when people are feeling anxious, certain areas in the brain show an increase in activity. Many of these areas are crucial for processing emotions and making decisions. Although researchers still don’t fully understand why these areas are related to anxiety, it does help explain how Xanax works.

How Does Xanax Work In The Brain?

The chemical structure of Xanax is the perfect shape to interact with certain neurons in the brain. Neurons are like wires that send messages throughout the body. When neurons run into each other, a message is carried over by molecules. Inside the neuron, however, the signals are electric. Taking Xanax disrupts the balance of electrical charges inside and outside of the neuron. The charge is crucial because neurons use electrical impulses to send their messages. Taking Xanax disrupts this charge and decreases activity in the brain related to anxiety and fear.

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What Does Xanax Do To The Brain?

GABA receptors, which are like gates in the brain, allow a chemical in Xanax to pass through and disrupt electrical impulses, or communication, between brain cells. The shape and structure of the chemical makeup of Xanax is like a key that fits into the GABA receptor lock. Once Xanax attaches to the GABA receptor, it releases a chemical that disrupts the signal between neurons. The result? The brain quiets down, slows in activity, and produces feelings of calm and relaxation.

While there are natural chemicals in the brain that do the same thing as Xanax, the brain of a person with anxiety isn’t working quite right. By taking Xanax and activating GABA receptors, the drug provides comfort during what would normally be anxious or scary thoughts. However, because of this complicated interaction in the brain, there are several negative side effects to taking Xanax, including abuse and addiction.

Short-Term Effects Of Xanax On The Brain

Xanax slows down brain activity and produces short-term effects of calm and sedation. Other short-term effects of Xanax use include sleepiness, drowsiness, and sluggishness. Because Xanax changes activity in the brain, it may cause additional side effects like:

  • changes in appetite
  • difficulty concentrating
  • dizziness
  • headache
  • lightheadedness

The effects of Xanax last for around 3-4 hours. Once the effects wear off, there will likely be an urge to repeat the process and take more Xanax to feel the effects once again. Xanax has a short half-life, which means the medication goes in and out of the body at a quicker rate than drugs with a longer half-life. As a result, a person must take Xanax more frequently to feel the positive effects, which increases the risk of addiction.

Long-Term Effects Of Xanax On The Brain

The long-term effects of Xanax on the brain are likely to vary from person to person. The severity of effects depends on the person, any underlying mental health conditions, and how long they’ve abused Xanax. To date, there are conflicting studies about how benzodiazepines like Xanax affect the brain over the long-term.

Although there is debate in the medical community about how Xanax affects the brain over long periods of time, long-term effects of Xanax may include:

  • confusion
  • depression
  • memory problems
  • mood changes
  • problems with coordination or balance
  • slurred speech
  • suicidal thoughts
  • unusual changes in behavior

Benzodiazepines, like Xanax, may lead to a variety of cognitive problems, including memory lapses and ongoing confusion. People may also become physically and psychologically addicted to Xanax. The risk of addiction increases when the drug is abused, or when people take it without a prescription, in large amounts, or for long periods of time. Failing to take Xanax, once addicted, can result in severe symptoms of withdrawal.

Xanax Withdrawal And Detox

Taking Xanax over time means the brain has become used to having it in the system. Abruptly stopping the use of Xanax causes the brain to go through a period of adjustment that results in uncomfortable symptoms of withdrawal. Xanax withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • edginess and mood swings
  • high blood pressure
  • intense anxiety
  • irritability
  • restlessness
  • sleeping problems (insomnia)
  • sweating

In severe cases, Xanax withdrawal may cause death. During the worst of withdrawal, a medically supervised detox program can help to ensure safety and comfort by providing around-the-clock care and supervision. Medical supervision during detox usually takes place in a hospital or inpatient treatment center to help alleviate symptoms and provide a person for further addiction treatment.

Xanax Addiction Treatment

Although effective for treating anxiety, prolonged Xanax abuse can lead to addiction. Addiction is a brain disease that occurs when a person takes Xanax compulsively and continues to use it despite harmful consequences. Xanax addiction treatment usually involves a combination of medications and behavioral therapy.

Medications similar to Xanax, like other benzodiazepines, may be used in a process called tapering to gradually lessen dependence and avoid symptoms of withdrawal. This must be done under medical supervision to be effective and allows professionals to help return Xanax-induced brain changes back to normal.

Behavioral therapies, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), can help a person change their thinking and attitudes towards drugs and learn the coping skills necessary to evolve in recovery. Inpatient rehab centers can be an effective way to address Xanax addiction because they combine evidence-based treatment methods with comfort, supervision, and support.

American Chemical Society: Reactions - How Does Xanax Work?

Business Insider - This is what happens to your brain when you take Xanax

CNN - What Are the Long-term Brain Effects of Xanax?

U.S. National Library of Medicine: Medlineplus - Alprazolam

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