What Are Benzodiazepines?
Benzodiazepines, also known as “benzos,” are a class of pharmaceutical drugs developed to treat symptoms of disorders and medical conditions, such as anxiety, insomnia, or seizures. Like any other drug, benzos will cause short- and long-term side effects but the risk for abuse and dependence is higher than most other medications. Even when prescribed for a short period of time, a person who is taking benzodiazepines is at risk for abuse. If a person tries to stop suddenly, they may go through withdrawal symptoms. Many side effects may result from benzodiazepine abuse, including memory loss, often referred to as blacking out.
How Can You Blackout from Benzodiazepines?
It is possible to blackout from benzodiazepines such as Xanax, Valium, and Halcion. The phenomenon is similar to blacking out from drinking alcohol, and the risk increases when combining benzodiazepines with alcohol. Both substances work on the gamma Aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors of the brain, and when more natural GABA is present, communication between neurons slows down. Slowed communication means that memories do not go from short-term memory to long-term storage, resulting in what is known as “blacking out.” This is called anterograde amnesia, a condition that impairs short-term and long-term memory creation, causing a complete inability to recall events that occurred during intoxication.
Anterograde amnesia is most often experienced after use of a fast-onset, short-acting benzo, and the risk of blacking out increases when mixing these medicines with alcohol. When a person is in a black out, they are temporarily unable to form new memories while relatively maintaining other skills such as having a conversation, eating, having sex, or even driving. Taking benzodiazepines long-term or in large quantities can result in an increased tolerance, leading one to take more of the drug, which increases the risk of blacking out. Episodes of amnesia can range from seconds, minutes, and hours to days. The time of onset and duration depends on the dose and route of administration. Users who black out are unaware of their behavior until it is pointed out by other parties, some only become aware after being detained by health or legal authorities. When benzodiazepines cause anterograde amnesia, it can lead to either partial (fragmentary) blackouts or complete (en bloc) blackouts.
Partial (Fragmentary) Blackouts
Partial blackouts are characterized by someone having the ability to recall certain events from an intoxicated period, and yet being unaware that other memories are missing until they are reminded of the existing “gaps” in memory. A blockage in memory formation prevents the transfer of short-term memory to long-term storage, resulting in only being able to recall a portion of events.
Complete (En Bloc) Blackouts
En bloc, or complete, blackouts are classified by the inability to recall any memories from the intoxication period, even when given cues.
Once the brain is able to produce and store memories, the person may “wake up” from this state of amnesia and resume normal activity, but most fall asleep before the end of a blackout.
Signs of Blacking Out from Benzodiazepines
It may be difficult to identify when someone is experiencing anterograde amnesia because they often remain awake and can engage in regular behavior such as talking, eating, and having sex. The user may also engage in risky behavior, but often it is difficult to detect whether someone is blacked out. Some indicators that a person may be in a blackout include:
- The person is easily distracted
- The person continuously forgets what they are talking about or what they are doing
- The person frequently repeats the same thing over and over again without memory of repeating themselves
- The person exhibits lack of awareness of their surroundings
- The person exhibits a lack of concern for others’ thoughts and feelings
- The person chooses to engage in risky behaviors that are unlike their usual behavior
- The person has consumed large quantities of benzodiazepines and/or alcohol over a short period of time
Dangers of Blacking Out from Benzodiazepines
Recreational use of Benzodiazepines can produce similar effects to alcohol intoxication. Just as binge drinking can lead to blacking out, large doses of benzos may cause the same effect. People who take benzodiazepines and drink alcohol may experience episodic memory loss. Most users are not aware of their black outs until someone else brings it to their attention. The state of disinhibition and memory loss usually leads to the user feeling shame and anxiety. A study on memory and benzodiazepines found that, when hearing about their black outs, users perceived their own behavior as inexplicable and inconsistent with their self-conception or normal behavior. Abusing benzodiazepines can lead to addiction and the user may experience frequent blackouts, which have been described as unpleasant, unpredictable, and embarrassing.
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Impaired memory increases the likelihood of personal injury, accidents, and violence. People who black out from benzodiazepines will sometimes become aggressive, get in trouble with authority, or become victims of crime. Due to its highly addictive properties, relapsing is quite common and often involves alcohol abuse as well. If you are struggling with benzodiazepine addiction or blacking out, talk to a healthcare professional about detoxing. Detoxing from benzodiazepines can be extremely uncomfortable and in some cases dangerous, but help is out there. A rehabilitation setting can help you start the road to recovery. Contact a dedicated treatment provider today to learn more.