Valium has become one of the most widely used medications today, with patients taking it to treat everything from insomnia and headaches to anxiety and seizures. In many ways, Valium has become a “wonder drug,” but this masks the danger of a drug that can be very habit-forming. Valium addiction is a real problem facing many people, but treatment options are both available and effective for those who need help.
The Facts of Valium
Valium is the brand name of the drug diazepam, which is a benzodiazepinex. Benzodiazepines are antidepressants, commonly prescribed to those who have distressing physical and/or psychological concerns, such as anxiety disorders, insomnia, seizures, or muscle spasms. Anxiety disorders are remarkably common and widespread; almost 30 percent of the adult population of the United States experiences an occurrence of an anxiety disorder at least once, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
As a result, there are over 150 different types of diazepam, and of them, the Valium formula is the most well known. Diazepam is so effective and popular that some medical journals have referred to it as the “prototypical benzodiazepine,” saying that its status as the most widely prescribed benzodiazepine for more than four decades has led to it sitting atop the mountain of drug prescriptions.
Benzodiazepines work by stimulating the brain into creating a chemical known as gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA. In a healthy brain, GABA is responsible for the regulation of chemical and electrical signals being transmitted in the central nervous system. An anxiety disorder is an example of a condition whereby the brain cannot produce enough GABA to regulate the signaling in the central nervous system, which leads to a patient experiencing panic or anxiety attacks. Benzodiazepines (like diazepam) work their magic by inducing the brain to produce extra quantities of GABA, so the central nervous system is regulated again, and the panic and anxiety reactions to distressing stimuli are controlled.
This also has the side effect of the patient feeling pleasantly relaxed and calm; for a patient whose life is continually disrupted by their anxiety disorder, the tranquil sensations brought about by a diazepam like Valium can be very attractive.
In explaining how benzodiazepines like Valium are used to treat anxiety disorders, ABC News explains that the way Valium is formulated, it can take as little as 20 or 40 minutes to go into effect, and it lasts longer than other benzodiazepines.
Factors like these, as well as brand-name recognition, explain why Valium is so popular and why some doctors are quick to prescribe it.
How Can Valium Be Abused?
For a large number of patients, Valium’s potency makes it too easy to cross the line between prescribed use and off-label use, where the drug is taken in a way that is outside a doctor’s guidelines. This could be because a patient is desperate for relief and increases their consumption of Valium beyond the daily 2-10 mg dose, usually without telling their doctor. Valium can also be abused by people who do not have a medical need for the drug, but who want to feel the calming, relaxing effects of the benzodiazepine unlocking the brain’s GABA chemicals.
Once started, this kind of uncontrolled use can be very hard to stop. Valium is not designed to be a long-term drug, and even prescribed and responsible use should be tapered off after four months of first intake. Taking Valium for more than four months, especially in excess (or if the brain can produce GABA without assistance) greatly increases the chances of becoming addicted.
Given time, it will become much harder for the brain to function normally without the constant presence of diazepam, but since this state becomes the new normal, people who are abusing Valium might not even realize they have a problem.
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Signs of Valium Abuse
This inability to feel good without Valium is one of the key signs that a person’s use of Valium has crossed the line. This state will persist even as the body and mind begin to suffer with the excess diazepam in the person’s system; mild symptoms of such suffering include a lack of coordination (difficulty walking, writing, thinking, driving, etc.), almost like being drunk. These may be easy to pass off, but as more Valium is taken off label and for longer periods of time, the symptoms become much more serious. They include:
- Mood swings
- Rapid heart rate
- Uncontrollable trembling, especially in the hands
- Difficulty breathing
At this stage of Valium abuse, the primary danger is that the patient will continue to take more Valium, partly because they have become physically dependent on the diazepam, but also under the impression that the calming, soothing effects of the Valium will make the discomfort of the symptoms go away. In reality, however, persistent use of Valium increases the body’s tolerance to the drug, meaning that standard amounts of diazepam are no longer sufficient in stimulating the brain to release GABA; more and more is required to feel the desired effect, which has the result of increasing dependence on the drug and the severity of the effects.
The inability to function without Valium is one of the key giveaways that a person’s use of Valium is full-fledged abuse of the drug. Someone who is hooked on Valium will be irritable, unable to concentrate or sleep, and fixated on trying to recapture the burst of relief that came with the initial exposure to the drug.
Drug withdrawal takes place when the user’s body is forced to function without the presence of a drug on which it has become dependent. There is general discomfort when a person stops using Valium after a period of abusing it, but withdrawal symptoms can be quite painful and dangerous. They include severe headaches, vomiting and nausea, muscle cramping, and abdominal pain. Users may also experience high blood pressure, an intense craving for more Valium, recurring panic and anxiety attacks, and unpredictable mood swings.
Sometimes, people try to stop using Valium on their own, but the onset of these withdrawal symptoms can be so overwhelming that they go back to the drug, thereby deepening the addiction. This is why even if a person has been abusing Valium, they should not try to quit the abuse alone. Withdrawal is an important part of treating Valium abuse, and it should be conducted in a clinical setting with medical supervision.
Getting Help for Valium Abuse
A client who checks into a treatment center to receive help for Valium abuse will be given a psychological evaluation, which will determine the severity of the addiction; this will, in turn, determine the format of treatment. For those who have a longstanding abuse problem or who have been taking copious amounts of diazepam, a doctor will likely recommend an inpatient program, where the client will be housed in a rehabilitation center and receive treatment. This form of therapy focuses on examining the psychological reasons that drove the Valium addiction and teaching the client how they can cope without diazepam once treatment has concluded.
If a doctor determines that the addiction is somewhat manageable, the person might be entrusted to an outpatient program, where they can continue living at home but are expected to regularly visit the treatment center for therapy. Programs can still be all-day formats, or the client might be required to spend weekends at the treatment center.
When getting treated for Valium abuse, withdrawal is the first step of the process. In this context, it is known as medical detoxification, where dependence on the drug is slowly and carefully reduced. This can still be an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous process, so doctors and medical staff should be on hand to administer medication that will ease the discomfort and not react with the diazepam being processed from the body. For example, doctors might put the patient on a regimen of a benzodiazepine with a slower onset of action (something that isn’t as rapid as Valium’s 20-40 minutes) or a benzodiazepine with less abuse potential. Drugs like chlordiazepoxide (sold commercially as Librium) are effective in reducing the risk of seizures during withdrawal and will not cause further adverse reactions with pre-existing diazepam.
The precise length of detoxification depends on a number of factors, such as the severity of the Valium abuse, the person’s physical and mental health, as well as the presence of any other drugs, including alcohol. Generally, detoxification lasts a week, but it is not unheard of for the process to last longer.
Therapy and Continued Support
Following detoxification, individuals will have to continue their treatment for Valium abuse through therapy and counseling. This is to help clients develop their psychological resistance to taking Valium as well as control their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors related to the substance abuse. Lastly, treatment for Valium abuse should involve the client’s family, as the home environment plays a big role in the development of both the conditions for substance abuse and the risk of relapse. Family therapy can improve communication and interpersonal relationships, both for the client individually and for the family unit as a whole.
Recovering from Valium abuse is a long-term process, which requires commitment to adhering to the strategies and philosophies laid out in treatment. To help clients receive the continual assistance they need to consistently apply what they learned during rehabilitation, aftercare support groups based on the 12-Step program are important. They can help individuals and their families navigate the challenging but rewarding world of recovery. Groups like Benzodiazepine Anonymous feature members who have had their own struggles with Valium abuse, who are in a position to share their experiences with those who are freshly putting their diazepam addiction behind them.
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