Misuse of Anti-Anxiety Drugs Linked to Overdose Deaths


By Kylie Wolfe

The phrase “opioid epidemic” has become commonplace as overdose deaths continue to rise in the United States. But research shows that many drug-related fatalities involve both opioids and benzodiazepines, another type of frequently prescribed medication.

An Unfortunate Reality

Drugs like Xanax and Valium, two very addictive medications for anxiety and insomnia, are considered benzodiazepines, or “benzos.” When combined with alcohol or opioids, the result can be deadly. This mix can “cause people to fall asleep and essentially never wake up again,” said Anna Lembke, an addiction psychiatrist at Stanford University School of Medicine.

Benzos and opioids are often prescribed together, but the latter has been linked to 75% of overdose deaths where benzos are also present. As of 1999, there were 1,135 deaths connected to benzos in the United States and 10,684 in 2016. As this number increases, prescriptions also continue to rise. According to the American Journal of Public Health, 8.1 million adults filled a prescription for benzos in 1996. By 2013, that number was 13.5 million.

Understanding the Effect

Benzos are prescribed for occasional use over the span of a few weeks. When they’re misused and taken daily, the brain rewires itself and the body begins to require “more and more to get the same effect,” Lembke said. Like most addictive substances, it’s easy to start down this path and hard to go back.

When used in moderation, these treatments have a calming effect that sedates the patient and addresses symptoms. This happens very quickly and is triggered by the release of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).

Researchers learned that a significant number of people are not taking these drugs as directed, however. Most do not have a prescription and may get the medication from a relative. A study from Psychiatric Services reported that of the 30.6 million people who take benzos, 5.3 million admitted to improper use.  

Future Plans

As public health officials try to remedy the opioid epidemic, researchers caution that they should also target the use of benzos. They’re calling for better education about associated risks and proper use, and to decrease the frequency of prescribing benzodiazepines.

With safer treatments on the market, they recommend that doctors should only prescribe benzos in low doses for short periods and only to address severe conditions. 

Discussion Questions

  • How do drugs impact the brain and the body?
  • What issues can lead to misuse of opioids and benzodiazepines?
  • What should doctors and researchers do to help solve the larger issue of drug overdoses?


  • Opioid
  • Benzodiazepine
  • Epidemic
  • Neurotransmitter