Benzodiazepines (prescription drugs)

Benzodiazepines, also known as sleeping pills or tranquillisers, are prescribed by doctors to relieve stress and anxiety and to help people with insomnia or sleeping problems. However, some people use benzodiazepines illegally, to become intoxicated.

Benzodiazepines are depressant drugs and like other depressants work by slowing down the activity of the central nervous system. In the short term, they can help with relaxation, calmness and relief from tension and anxiety. Used more frequently, they do little to solve the problem that caused the anxiety in the first place and they can have a range of unwanted side effects.

Benzodiazepines usually come in the form of tablets and capsules and are generally stamped with their name and milligram quantity.  Common forms include Valium and Serapax.

Benzodiazepines are prescribed as sedatives/hypnotics (to induce sleep) or anxiolytics (to relieve anxiety). They vary in how quickly they work and how long their effects last. They are also used to treat epilepsy, to relax muscles, to help people withdraw from alcohol, or as an anaesthetic before surgery.  The use of benzodiazepines over a long period of time (more than two to three weeks) should be carefully monitored by a doctor.

Effects of benzodiazepines

The unwanted negative effects of benzodiazepines vary according to dose.

Low to moderate doses - The immediate effects of low to moderate doses include mild impairment of thought processes, memory and coordination; drowsiness, tiredness and lethargy; dizziness; vertigo; and blurred or double vision. 

Higher doses - Higher doses can result in drowsiness, over-sedation and sleep. They may produce an effect similar to alcohol intoxication. Other effects may include confusion, slurred speech, poor coordination, impaired judgement, and difficulty thinking clearly, loss of memory, blurred or double vision and/or dizziness. Mood swings and aggressive outbursts may also occur.

Overdose - Very high doses of benzodiazepines can cause respiratory depression, unconsciousness or coma. Death rarely occurs from overdose of benzodiazepines alone, but deaths may occur if large doses are combined with alcohol or other drugs.


If a dependent person suddenly stops taking benzodiazepines, or severely cuts down their dose, they may experience physical withdrawal symptoms as their body readjusts to functioning without the drug. Withdrawal symptoms from benzodiazepines can be quite severe and can include insomnia, depression, anxiety, headaches, dizziness and mood swings. 

People who have been using benzodiazepines for more than a month should not suddenly stop taking them without seeing a doctor or health worker.


For people who use benzodiazepines for non-medical purposes, there are a number of drug treatment options. Some aim solely for the user to achieve a drug-free lifestyle. Others recognise that the overall aim of reducing harm/risks related to a person's drug use, rather than abstinence, is a more achievable and realistic goal.

Treatment is more effective if tailored to suit a person's circumstances and usually involves a combination of methods. The different options include counselling, group therapy and supervised/home withdrawal.

Sources of information:

DrungInfo Clearinghouse - Australian Drug Foundation

Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre 

Benzodiazepines information page by the DrugInfo Clearinghouse

DrugInfo Clearinghouse is a service provided by the Australian Drug Foundation. It functions as a drug prevention network providing information about alcohol, other drugs, and drug prevention. Their information page details the effects, withdrawal and treatment of benzodiazepines.

Information page about benzodiazepines by Reconnexion

Reconnexion provides a specialist counselling treatment service in Melbourne for anxiety disorders and depression and specialises in benzodiazepine dependency and withdrawal. Contact Reconnexion for treatment if you are located in Melbourne and visit their website for more general information about benzodiazepines.

It may be difficult to know what to do if you are worried about someone who is using benzodiazepines. It may be particularly concerning if you think someone you are close to is using and not telling you about it. Helping someone who is not ready to change their behaviour is challenging, particularly when the decision to get help is ultimately theirs.

If you approach the person you are concerned about there are several things you may want to consider before doing so.

Be informed - Gather information about the drug and its effects so you can see the signs that someone has been using. It will also help if the person you are trying to assist knows that you understand what they might be experiencing.

Discuss benzodiazepine use openly - Try and ascertain if the person has a pyhsical addicition. Giving up benzodiazepines is difficult and will require medical supervision. Try not to discuss your concerns whilst the person is heavily affected by the drug.

Let the person you are concerned about know that you are open to listening to them without being judgmental.

Speak to a counsellor yourself first - Sometimes it is sensible to seek help and advice yourself if someone's drug-related behaviour is impacting on your life.

References : Reach Out! website

DrugInfo Clearinghouse - Australian Drug Foundation

DrugInfo Clearinghouse is a service provided by the Australian Drug Foundation. It functions as a drug prevention network providing information about alcohol, other drugs, and drug prevention.

National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC)

NDARC conducts research and related activities that increases the effectiveness of Australian and international treatment and intervention responses to alcohol and other drug related harm.


Reconnexion, based in Melbourne, provides a specialist counselling service for adults and young people experiencing anxiety disorders, depression and benzodiazepine dependency and withdrawal.

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