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Tranquilizer Abuse, Addiction, And Treatment Options

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

Medically reviewed by

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

April 29, 2019

As one of the most routinely prescribed medications for sleep, anxiety, and other mental health diagnosis, some tranquilizers are often abused. Tranquilizer addiction can develop quickly and what was originally a habit may turn deadly, without warning.

What Are Tranquilizers?

Tranquilizer is a blanket term for a number of medications that act as central nervous system (CNS) depressants, and often used interchangeably with sedatives. Tranquilizers slow brain function, which can help make anxiety and depression symptoms more manageable or help a person fall asleep. The specific areas of the brain that are affected differ depending on the specific tranquilizer.

Tranquilizers are broken down into three distinctly different classifications, known as major tranquilizers, minor tranquilizers, and other medications:

  • Major tranquilizers are usually referred to as antipsychotics and are used to treat mental illness, such as mania, schizophrenia, and other mental health issues. These types of tranquilizers are typically not habit-forming, and not commonly abused.
  • Minor tranquilizers include depressants and sedatives that are classified as barbiturates, benzodiazepines, and sleep aids. These minor tranquilizers have been known to be abused and have high risk for developing addiction.

Tranquilizers are often involved in many suicide attempts and accidental overdoses. These types of drugs can elicit drowsiness, relaxation, euphoria, depressed breathing, and an overall sense of calm. However, abusing tranquilizers can result in vision issues, weakness, dependence, tolerance, high risk for addiction, coma, or death.

Types Of Tranquilizers

While both major and minor tranquilizers affect the central nervous system, these two types of tranquilizers work in entirely different ways in the brain. Major tranquilizers act to calm symptoms associated with psychosis, such as delusions, hallucinations, paranoia, agitation, and mania. Minor tranquilizers ease restlessness, anxiety, insomnia, and muscle spasms.

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Major tranquilizers are specifically used to treat conditions in which psychosis or mood disorders symptoms are present.

Commonly prescribed major tranquilizers, or antipsychotics include:

  • Haldol (haloperidol)
  • Compazine (prochlorperazine)
  • Thorazine (chlorpromazine)
  • Etrafon (perphenazine and amitriptyline)
  • Prolixin (fluphenazine)

Minor tranquilizers are prescribed to people struggling with anxiety and insomnia, and can be further broken down into benzodiazepines and barbiturates, including prescription sleep aids.

Minor tranquilizers medications include:

  • Barbiturates:
    • pentobarbital (Nembutal)
    • amobarbital (Amytal)
    • secobarbital (Seconal)
  • Benzodiazepines:
    • diazepam (Valium)
    • clonazepam (Klonopin)
    • lorazepam (Ativan)
    • chlordiazepoxide (Librium)
  • Prescription sleep aids:
    • zaleplon (Sonata)
    • eszopiclone (Lunesta)
    • zolpidem (Ambien)

Minor tranquilizers are habit-forming and classified by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as schedule II drugs, indicating they are a high risk for abuse and addiction. These drugs can be misused by those who have a prescription, but also can be purchased illicitly.

Tranquilizer Abuse Side Effects

Abusing tranquilizers has many effects. Quite often, a person who is misusing tranquilizers will take higher than prescribed doses in order to feel more of the relaxation and anxiety relieving properties. This can lead to intense euphoria, and in an attempt to continue those euphoric sensations, a person may keep abusing tranquilizers.

The following is a list of tranquilizer abuse side effects:

  • nausea
  • persistent cough
  • runny nose
  • rapid speech
  • decreased appetite
  • memory problems
  • paranoia
  • confusion
  • low inhibitions
  • mood swings
  • developing tolerance
  • dependence

Tranquilizer Tolerance Vs. Tranquilizer Dependence

A person abusing minor tranquilizers is at extreme risk for developing an addiction. Taking higher than recommended doses of these tranquilizers can result in a tolerance to the drug. This is a result of the body getting used to the higher dose and not responding in the same way that it did previously. The body then requires an even higher dose to feel previous tranquilizer effects.

Long-term tranquilizer use can result in dependence on the drug. At that point, the body then feels that, in order to function normally, it is dependent upon the tranquilizer. If the body goes without the tranquilizer, symptoms of withdrawal emerge.

Tranquilizer Addiction Symptoms

A person struggling with tranquilizer addiction will show signs of dependence on and withdrawal from tranquilizers, and will also display some or all of the following behaviors:

  • cravings for tranquilizers
  • unable to decrease or stop taking tranquilizers
  • using tranquilizers in unsafe or dangerous situations
  • avoiding situations or people that do not support tranquilizer abuse
  • spending large amounts of time and money on tranquilizers
  • neglecting responsibilities to use tranquilizers

A person exhibiting these symptoms is likely struggling with an addiction to tranquilizers, and will benefit from a substance abuse program that can address and treat tranquilizer addiction.

Tranquilizer Addiction Treatment Options

People struggling with tranquilizer addiction are strongly encouraged to find a medically supervised detoxification program at the beginning of substance abuse treatment. Stopping a barbiturate, benzo, or z-drug abruptly, or “cold-turkey” can have severe side effects, including seizures. The round the clock care that many inpatient detox programs offer provides continual supervision that will help address the withdrawal symptoms as they emerge.

Evidence suggests that people addicted to tranquilizers benefit from being prescribed short acting drugs to manage withdrawal symptoms, while also tapering off the tranquilizer they are addicted to. This regimen has shown promising results with detoxification from tranquilizers.

Once detox is completed, it is recommended that anyone struggling with addiction continue into a substance abuse program. These rehabilitative programs offer counseling and other benefits residents. Aftercare services and long term treatment plans are often part of the overall program.

How Long Does Tranquilizer Addiction Treatment Take?

There is no one answer to how long treatment will last for a person who is addicted to tranquilizers. The general answer is – as long as it takes. This answer is based on number of factors, such as:

  • length of abuse
  • additional diagnoses
  • additional substances abused
  • circumstances that lead to rehabilitation
  • severity of addiction

Inpatient programs can last weeks or months, and the needs of the person can be determined during the assessment phase of rehabilitation. As treatment progresses, modifications can be made to the initial treatment plan to ensure that the person receiving services is getting exactly what they need to attempt to meet their goal of sobriety.

Reach out to us today, so we can help you find the treatment options that can ultimately work best for you or your loved one.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration - 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings

Encyclopedia Britannica - Tranquilizer

National Library of Medicine - Tranquilizing Agents

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