What Are Benzodiazepines? - Side Effects & Withdrawal

Instructor: Robin Harley

Robin has a PhD in health psychology. She has taught undergraduate and graduate psychology, health science, and health education.

Benzodiazepines are a class of drugs that have a calming effect on the body. In this lesson, we will discuss their mechanism of action, side effects, withdrawal, and addiction potential.

Benzodiazepines Defined

Has anyone ever told you to 'take a chill pill'? This idiom is often used when someone appears to be experiencing stress. While this is just a saying, and the exact type of pill that is referenced is unknown, there is a type of medication that can have this stress-reducing, 'chill out' effect.

In this lesson, we will discuss benzodiazepines, a class of drugs that can reduce anxiety, induce sedation and sleep, and relax the muscles. Some of the most common benzodiazepines include alprazolam (Xanax), diazepam (Valium), lorazepam (Ativan), and clonazepam (Klonopin). Let's begin by delving into the details of how these drugs work.

An example of a benzodiazepine

How Do Benzodiazepines Work?

Our bodies have a naturally occurring chemical called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). This chemical relaxes the nervous system by attaching to GABA receptors throughout the body. Benzodiazepines work by attaching to these receptors and enhancing their function, which quickly produces a calming effect. Let's take a look at some of the most common uses for benzodiazepines.

Uses for Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines are fast acting and highly effective for many anxiety-related problems. They are typically prescribed for 2-4 weeks while slower-acting medications take effect. They have shown promise for treating generalized anxiety disorder, which manifests in excessive worry that can interfere with a person's daily life. Panic disorder, which is characterized by frequent panic attacks, has also shown improvement with benzodiazepines.

They are also prescribed in the short term for insomnia because they can shorten the time it takes to fall asleep and lengthen the time spent sleeping. Additionally, benzodiazepines are used as first-line treatments for seizures and can reduce and manage the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. These medications can be life saving in some circumstances. However, like every other type of medication, they can have unwanted side effects.

Side Effects

Side effects can occur with short- and long-term use of benzodiazepines. They tend to worsen with chronic use, and this has a great deal to do with tolerance, which we will discuss in detail later. The most common side effects include:

  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability and agitation
  • Depression
  • Memory Impairment
  • Impaired ability to operate a vehicle

You may notice that some of these side effects seem like the symptoms you would take these medications to treat. These are called paradoxical side effects, and they are more likely to occur in children and elderly patients. These side effects can lead to the misdiagnosis of psychiatric problems, such as obsessive compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and phobias. Abruptly stopping the medication can lead to a host of problems, however.


An abrupt cessation or rapid reduction of benzodiazepines can be dangerous. It can lead to benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome, a collection of potentially life-threatening symptoms. Early symptoms are part of the acute withdrawal phase, which usually lasts a week or two but can last up to a month. They include:

  • Irritability
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Panic attacks
  • Tremors
  • Heart palpitations (premature beats)
  • Confusion
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures
  • Psychosis
  • Suicidal thoughts

In rarer cases, protracted withdrawal may occur, in which symptoms can last for years. This is more common for people who have taken benzodiazepines for many years. Some of these symptoms include:

  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
  • Tingling or numbness in the limbs
  • Muscle weakness, tremors, and cramps

In either case, these symptoms will occur in an unpredictable fashion, but will gradually decrease over time. Withdrawal can produce a rebound effect; the original psychiatric disorder for which the benzodiazepines were prescribed can worsen. Therefore, it is important to gradually reduce the dose rather than abruptly stopping this medication.

Psychological intervention can help manage anxiety, sleep routines, and self-monitoring of symptoms. However, benzodiazepines are notorious for being difficult to quit due to the pleasurable feelings they produce and unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. Let's discuss what happens when a person becomes accustomed, dependent, and/or addicted to benzodiazepines.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account