What Are Benzodiazepines?
Benzodiazepines, also known as “benzos,” are a class of depressants that are often prescribed to treat anxiety disorders. So, if you’re wondering “what are benzos,” note that they’re just a class of drug called benzodiazepines. They can be useful anticonvulsants and sleeping medications in some instances as well.
These drugs operate by interacting with the central nervous system in a way that suppresses certain neurotransmitters and allows others to flow more freely.
In terms of treating anxiety, these drugs allow the neurotransmitter GABA to flow freely, which leads to a suppression of the central nervous system. The person’s heart rate, breathing, and other central functions might slow as well.
What you get, though, is the experience of reduced anxiety on the chemical level. In most cases, people with general anxiety disorder have thought patterns or pieces of the brain that work to generate more anxiety than is needed.
Anxiety and stress are important mechanisms for survival, but the misfiring of the amygdala or repetitive negative thoughts can create an internal environment of anxiety that far exceeds the useful levels.
It’s a comfort to know that a big piece of anxiety is chemical and exists in the body. You could have the same intense thoughts without the discomfort of anxiety if the body were to subdue its stress response.
Why Is GABA Important?
GABA is a neurotransmitter that holds a lot of responsibility in the body. It does different things in the respective areas of the body where it’s most needed.
For one, the body releases GABA somewhere in the reward system of the brain. Alongside dopamine, it comes in and produces a calm sense of relaxation when a person does something that’s useful in a biological sense.
When we have sex, for example, we might release more GABA. The same goes for instances when we go for a run or complete intense exercise of any kind. A big piece of the “runner’s high” comes from GABA.
GABA flows and causes the central nervous system to subdue stress and allow the person to feel free and easy. That’s part of the reason that exercise is so helpful when dealing with anxiety.
Benzodiazepines inhibit the chemical that inhibits GABA. GABA has an inhibitor because it can’t be allowed to flow all of the time. If that were the case, we wouldn’t be as adept at survival.
So, there’s a little blocker that prevents it from running when it’s not needed. Benzos enter the situation and prevent that “blocker” from doing its job. The result is increased GABA, lower stress response, and reduced anxiety.
Dopamine and Benzos
Along with the fact that benzos reduce anxiety, they’re also known to produce a little bit of euphoria in high enough doses. Euphoria, joy, comfort, relaxation, and total release are all things that a person might experience if they start using these drugs.
Those experiences have something to do with the release of GABA and dopamine. Dopamine is a primary actor in the reward system as well. Dopamine hits are what drive us to complete many of the tasks that we routinely complete every day.
It’s also the culprit behind much of the physiological side of addiction. When we get a rush of dopamine, our biology is programmed to recreate whatever it was that prompted it. That’s why, among other reasons, we’re driven to have sex, eat satisfying foods, make money, and more.
In instances where we can hack that system and produce immense amounts of dopamine without effort, addiction is right around the corner. Slot machines, opioids, alcohol, benzos, and most of the other agents of addiction work in close contact with dopamine.
It makes total sense that someone suffering from anxiety would benefit from these drugs. It also makes sense that any normal person would enjoy the release from their normal thoughts and anxieties.
When you take benzos, you’re given a little “pass” to get away from the things that trouble your thoughts. You can start to get comfortable with that pass and seek it out at all hours of the day.
Numbing things down in exchange for peace and quiet is something that a lot of people look for. Some individuals might have experienced trauma that they want to forget for a while.
Other people might have a massive heap of responsibility at home and at work. Others might just think that benzos are a fun party drug before they start to find themselves wanting to use them often.
Note that there is a safe and effective way to take benzodiazepines without abusing them. Those methods are understood by doctors, which is why these drugs should only be used as prescribed.
When it comes to using these drugs recreationally, however, there’s a big risk for substance abuse. This happens quickly, too, as benzos tend to have short half-lives and generate dependence.