Is Xanax (Alprazolam) Addictive?

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Xanax, the brand name for alprazolam, is the most widely prescribed (1) benzodiazepine in the United States. Millions of prescriptions are written each year for this potent blue pill. Prescribed for anxiety, it provides the user a nearly immediate calming effect. It can offer much needed relief when used as prescribed, but can be potentially dangerous when overused. Benzodiazepines like Xanax can become highly addictive over time, carrying a host of life-threatening side effects.

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How Addictive Is Xanax & Why?

To measure how addictive a substance may be, scientists use a scale called “Misuse Liability.” This measuring tool indicates the potential of misuse for various controlled substances. Xanax ranks relatively high on this scale. This means that it carries a potentially high risk for misuse and addiction.

There are a few reasons that Xanax ranks so high (2) on the “Misuse Liability” scale. Xanax is known to have both a rapid onset as well as a short half life. Onset is the rate at which the effect of a substance is felt, and half life is the amount of time it takes for the body to metabolize a substance. This means that the effects of Xanax will be felt quickly but will fade quickly. A person who uses Xanax will need to frequently use Xanax to feel its effects over an extended period of time. This rapid rate of use can cause the body to quickly become dependent upon Xanax both mentally and physically.

Xanax, Dopamine, & the Brain

The brain is the main communication hub of the body’s central nervous system. One way that the brain communicates is through chemicals called neurotransmitters. Different neurotransmitters are responsible for sending different messages throughout the brain and body.

An important neurotransmitter for overall well being is the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine controls a multitude of brain and body functions including:

  • Learning
  • Motivation
  • Sleep
  • Mood
  • Attention
  • Pain processing
  • Movement

Xanax impacts the dopamine production (3) and response in the brain. This causes the person using it to feel a host of pleasurable sensations. When dopamine is released in high levels, it sends the “reward” signals to the brain. These signals urge the brain to repeat this same behavior. These signals can become the basis for addictive patterns of Xanax use.

Can Addiction to Xanax Be Due to Genetics & Heritability?

There are many factors that impact the onset of a substance use disorder. Studies have shown (4) that genetics can play a role. It is difficult, however, to point to a single factor as the entire reason for a substance use disorder.

Can Addiction to Xanax Develop When Taking as Prescribed?

Though the risk is decreased, addiction can still develop when taking Xanax as prescribed. Even under the care of a physician, Xanax is a powerful benzodiazepine. Many are able to take Xanax without developing a dependence. Some, however, find that a substance use disorder will develop.

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What Are Risk Factors That Influence Xanax & Benzodiazepine Dependence?

There are a multitude of factors that play a role in determining Xanax dependence. Though some play a larger role than others, it is rarely as simple as one single cause.

Positive Reinforcing Effects

One of the main functions of the neurotransmitter dopamine is to reinforce behaviors. It rewards the brain and body with a host of positive sensations. This communicates a need and desire to repeat a behavior.

Xanax interacts with this system causing large amounts of dopamine to be released into the brain. This sends strong signals reinforcing the need to repeat this behavior. This reward system loop caused by Xanax can play a major role in drug dependence.

Tolerance Development

Another determining factor in Xanax dependence is the quick development of tolerance. Tolerance is when the body requires more of a substance to get the same effect. The effects of Xanax are felt rapidly but do not last for very long. This means a person will need to take more Xanax to continue to feel its effects. This frequency of use can speed up the rate of tolerance potentially leading to patterns of dependence.

Can Xanax Dependence & Withdrawal Affect Your Mental Health?

As it interacts with various chemicals in the brain, Xanax begins to alter parts of those chemical functions. Many of these chemicals, like dopamine and serotonin, are crucial for overall mental stability. With too much or too little of these important chemicals, symptoms of depression and anxiety begin to emerge.

As the brain becomes dependent, it will require Xanax to function properly. If Xanax is suddenly stopped your brain and body will enter into a state of withdrawal. During this time various mental health symptoms can emerge as the brain attempts to regain stability without the presence of Xanax.

How Addictive Is Xanax Compared to Other Common Prescription Drugs?

Potent drugs, also known as controlled substances, are ranked on a scale from “I” to “V” to determine their risk for addiction. These rankings are known by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as their Schedule (5). Xanax is ranked by the DEA as a Schedule IV. This means that it does have a risk for addiction but less than other prescribed medications like oxycodone, hydrocodone, and fentanyl.

Signs of Physical or Psychological Dependence & Addiction to Xanax

Symptoms of Xanax dependence and overuse will vary from one person to another, but some common symptoms include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Sluggishness
  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Slurred speech
  • Impaired coordination
  • Legal consequences
  • Missing school or work
  • Isolation

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Seeking Treatment for Xanax Use Disorder

If you or someone you love finds themself in patterns of Xanax dependence, Guardian Recovery is available to help. We are a nation wide network of substance use treatment facilities committed to the highest standards of care. Our trained addiction professionals are able to ensure your safe transition from a lifestyle of substance use to reaching your recovery goals. Call today to speak with a treatment advisor and begin your journey to a new life in recovery.

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  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538165/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5846112/
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11226811/
  4. https://www.nature.com/articles/nrg2536
  5. https://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/schedules/#:~:text=Schedule%20IV%20Controlled%20Substances&text=Examples%20of%20Schedule%20IV%20substances,and%20triazolam%20(Halcion%C2%AE).

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave

L.M.H.C.

Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

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Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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