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Sedative Addiction: Signs, Risks, & How to Get Help

Sedatives are medications that are often prescribed to treat anxiety and insomnia.1 The various sedative agents are classified as controlled substances by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), with individual types falling into one of several Schedules based on their potential for misuse and sedative addiction, despite their recognized medical uses.2

According to the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 2.2% of Americans aged 12 and older (6.2 million people) misused tranquilizers or sedatives in the past year.3

People who use sedatives may want to understand more about what they are and whether their misuse could lead to addiction. In this article, you’ll learn:

  • What sedatives are.
  • The signs of sedative addiction.
  • The risks associated with sedative misuse and addiction.
  • Information on sedative addiction treatment.

What Are Sedatives?

Sedatives include a wide range of prescription medications that are variously used for treating anxiety and panic disorders, sleep disorders, and acute stress reactions.1, 4 They are central nervous system (CNS) depressants, which means they slow or inhibit certain types of brain activity.4 Many of the prescription sedatives are intended for oral use and may be administered in capsule, pill, or liquid form.4

The sedative class of drugs includes several different types of medications, including barbiturates, benzodiazepines, and prescription sleep medications (sometimes called non-benzodiazepine sedative-hypnotics, selective benzodiazepine receptor agonists, or more simply, “z-drugs” based on the similarity of their chemical names).1, 2 Examples of these various sedative types include:2

  • Barbiturates like phenobarbital (Luminal) and pentobarbital (Nembutal).
  • Benzodiazepines like alprazolam (Xanax), lorazepam (Ativan), diazepam (Valium), chlordiazepoxide (Librium), and triazolam (Halcion).
  • Sleep medications such as zolpidem (Ambien), eszopiclone (Lunesta), and zaleplon (Sonata).

The misuse of sedatives may involve a person taking the medication in ways that it was not intended to be used, such as using them to get high.1, 4 In some cases of sedative misuse, a person may seek out multiple prescriptions, ask for early refills, or take increasing doses without their doctor’s knowledge.1, 4 Sedative misuse can increase the risk of physiological dependence, addiction, overdose, and other potentially dangerous health consequences.1, 4

Sedative Addiction

As mentioned above, sedatives have the potential for misuse and addiction.1 A sedative use disorder or sedative addiction is characterized by the continued use of sedatives despite the negative consequences of such use.6 The 2020 NSDUH reports that 0.4% (or 1.2 million people) had a prescription tranquilizer use disorder or sedative use disorder in the past year.3

Signs of Sedative Addiction

The American Psychiatric Association outlines the diagnostic criteria for sedative addiction in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) under the category of “Sedative, Hypnotic, or Anxiolytic Use Disorder.6 Doctors and mental health professionals use these criteria as part of their assessment to make a diagnosis in someone who might be struggling with sedative addiction.

To receive this diagnosis, people need to meet at least 2 of the following criteria for sedative use disorder within a 12-month period:6

  • Using sedatives in higher amounts or more frequently than intended.
  • Being unable to cut down or control sedative use.
  • Spending a lot of time obtaining, using, and recovering from the effects of sedatives.
  • Cravings, or strong urges to use sedatives.
  • Failing to fulfill obligations at home, school, or work due to recurrent sedative use.
  • Continuing sedative use despite social or interpersonal problems that are caused or exacerbated by sedative use.
  • Giving up or reducing important social or recreational activities due to sedative use.
  • Using sedatives in situations where it is physically hazardous to do so, such as while driving.
  • Continuing to use sedatives despite knowing that a psychological or physical problem is likely the result of the sedative.
  • Tolerance, or needing to use more of the substance to experience previous effects.
  • Withdrawal symptoms when you stop using sedatives.

Dangers of Sedative Misuse and Addiction

The compulsive misuse of substances associated with sedative addiction can pose many dangers to your mental and physical health. Sedatives can impair certain brain functioning, which can result in decreased coordination, slurred speech, confusion, poor concentration, and memory problems.4, 5 Misuse may also increase the risk of experiencing slowed breathing, lowered blood pressure, dizziness, lightheadedness, headache, and other physical symptoms.4

Mixing sedative medications with other substances, such as alcohol, may also be dangerous.2 Using sedatives with other substances may pose different risks. For example, depressants like alcohol, opioids, or other sedatives can magnify the effects of sedatives and cause dangerously slowed breathing and coma that could lead to death.2

Sedative dependence develops as a person’s body becomes adapted to the presence of a drug. Sedative misuse can lead to significant physiological dependence, which can result in acute withdrawal symptoms when a person stops using the substance.5, 7 These symptoms can range in severity, but include potentially life-threatening effects such as seizures if you abruptly stop using the drug.4, 6

Getting Help for Sedative Addiction

If you or a loved one are struggling with misuse or addiction to sedatives, help is available. Treatment can help you safely stop using sedatives and start the path to recovery. If you’re not sure if you have a problem, you can take our substance misuse self-assessment to see if treatment might be the right course of action for you.

While there are no medications specifically approved to treat sedative use disorder, sedative withdrawal can be managed medically during this often-difficult period of early recovery. In some cases, your medical detox team will first switch you to a relatively long-acting benzodiazepine or other sedative medication to help mitigate severe withdrawal symptoms, while monitoring your withdrawal progress and addressing any withdrawal complications to arise.8 Following detox, a variety of behavioral therapeutic approaches, including cognitive-behavioral therapy, will be the cornerstone of treatment for helping a person adapt to stopping the use of sedatives and promoting long-term recovery.4

American Addiction Centers (AAC) is a leading provider of addiction treatment, with facilities across the U.S. You can reach out to AAC to learn more about your treatment options, find an addiction treatment center, verify your insurance, and discuss any questions or concerns you may have about rehab. Our admissions navigators are available 24/7 to help you when you can .


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