Xanax is the most commonly prescribed psychiatric drug, with roughly 50 million prescriptions written each year for either Xanax or its generic form, alprazolam. It was developed as a short-term treatment for anxiety, but can also be used to treat depression and phobias. Xanax is a benzodiazepine and is the most popular medication of this type, which also includes Valium, Ativan, Halcion, and Limbitrol. Its popularity makes Xanax familiar to most people, and as a result, many people assume that it is safe to use. However, like any prescription drug, Xanax comes with the risk of side effects. Some doctors feel that the effects of Xanax make it unsuitable as a treatment for anxiety or any other condition.

How Does Xanax Work?

Xanax and other benzodiazepines work by binding to brain receptors for the neurotransmitter GABA. In a typical brain, GABA reduces nerve impulses to control fear or anxiety. When Xanax binds to GABA receptors, it makes the brain think it is producing GABA and so it produces a calm and pleasant feeling. As it calms the brain, Xanax also acts as a central nervous system depressant, slowing down brain activity and breathing and heart rates. In this manner, Xanax reduces anxiety. The effects are felt rapidly, with the first effects kicking in after just 8 to 25 minutes and full effects felt within the hour. This rapid impact makes Xanax useful as a short-term treatment for anxiety or panic attacks.

Side Effects of Xanax

Before making the decision to use Xanax to treat anxiety, patients should consider the potential negative side effects of Xanax. Short-term side effects include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Slurred speech
  • Poor concentration
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Problems with movement and memory
  • Lowered blood pressure
  • Slowed breathing
  • Clammy skin
  • Dilated pupils
  • Weak pulse
  • Coma
  • Death

When used in combination with alcohol, which is also a central nervous system depressant, the effects of Xanax are exaggerated. Breathing and heart rate can slow to dangerously low levels, even resulting in death.

Pfizer, the corporation that produces Xanax, stands by it as a treatment for short-term anxiety, but many patients end up using Xanax for extended periods of time, even years. It is highly addictive, so patients who use it for long periods can easily become dependent on it. Long-term use has been linked to:

  • Violence
  • Suicide
  • Depression
  • Dementia
  • Impaired cognitive function
  • Blackouts

The Dangers of Xanax

The dangers of long-term Xanax use have inspired some doctors to campaign against it as a commonly used treatment, or even as a treatment at all. In an interview conducted by Dr. Tanveer Ahmed, Dr. Peter Breggin warns against the impact Xanax can have on the human brain. He strongly feels that because of the negative effects of Xanax, it should be banned or at least made harder to obtain a prescription for it. While Dr. Breggin agrees that it can treat short-term anxiety, he believes that the way Xanax works disables the brain and causes permanent damage. He speaks of people whose cognitive function has been permanently impaired–while they were taking Xanax, their brains stopped recording memories, leading to years of missing time and a loss of the sense of self. He attributes roughly one million unnecessary deaths to Xanax use or abuse over the past few decades.

In addition to the interview with Dr. Breggin, Dr. Ahmed profiles several Xanax addicts and one pharmacist in order to illustrate just how devastating an addiction to this drug can be. The case studies demonstrate the negative effects of Xanax on individual lives, and the medical experts provide the science behind the effects of Xanax, and policy recommendations to reduce future damage.

Danielle Hannan: Danielle was once a fashion model and socialite in Sydney, Australia, but her life has been reduced to a fixation on Xanax after a decade of addiction. Originally prescribed Xanax for anxiety, she welcomed the feeling of “numbness in the brain” at first. Over time, however, she has become completely dependent on Xanax. Her addiction has been literally crippling–once healthy, she is now stooped and walks with a cane. Her voice is slurred and difficult to understand. Her appearance gives the impression of an elderly woman, but in fact, she is middle-aged. Danielle lives in a one-bedroom apartment with her partner, Charlie, and her entire day revolves around Xanax. If she does not take at least half a pill when she wakes up, she will hallucinate. At one point, she attempted to quit her Xanax use, but as she put it, “went completely mad.” Rather than suffering through withdrawal, she has elected to stay addicted and live with the side effects of Xanax.

Nicole Shellard: No one could have anticipated the dark turn Nicole’s life would take after a doctor prescribed Xanax for the anxiety she experienced when her marriage began to fall apart. At that time, she was an occupational therapist on Long Island with a master’s degree, a good job, and young children. Now she is serving a prison sentence for manslaughter. In May of 2010, Nicole suffered a blackout, a known side effect of Xanax, while driving. She struck and killed Katherine Underwood, a local hairdresser out for a bike ride. Nicole has absolutely no memory of the accident. She cries describing the pain of leaving her children to be raised without her, knowing that they cannot possibly understand why she is in prison instead of with them.

Daniel Politi: In 1992, Daniel became one of the first Australian to be prescribed Xanax for panic attacks. Decades later, his addiction to Xanax rules his life. He visits a medical center weekly for his seven allotted pills. He is unable to go more than 24 hours without taking it, or he will suffer the negative effects of Xanax withdrawal. For Daniel, this includes hallucinations. He describes withdrawal as a nightmare. The impact Xanax addiction has had on Daniel’s life is profound: once married and employed, he is now divorced and without a job. At times he has overdosed on Xanax and ended up in the hospital. In an interview with Dr. Ahmed, Daniel has a difficult time following the thread of conversation, demonstrating the cognitive damage he has suffered from years of Xanax abuse. What could have been a promising life seems to be a life spent waiting for the next dose of Xanax.

Don Cantalino, Pharmacist: Don’s story illustrates the far-reaching negative effects of Xanax, not just on people who use Xanax, but on those who work in the pharmaceutical industry. He lives on Long Island, where he works in a pharmacy. Cantalino shows stacks of forged prescriptions from people trying to obtain Xanax, either for themselves or to sell on the street, where a single Xanax pill can fetch $100. In addition to the crime of forgery, violent consequences have resulted from the demand for Xanax. In the six months prior to this interview, Xanax addicts had shot and killed pharmacy workers, customers, and policemen while trying to get their hands on it. Cantalino now carries a gun for protection.

These stories demonstrate just how addictive Xanax can be. If you or someone you love struggles with Xanax addiction, call our toll-free number today. We can help.