Lorazepam: How Does the Drug Affect the Body?

What Are Benzodiazepines, and Are They Addictive? » Lorazepam: How Does the Drug Affect the Body?

Anxiety is a common part of the human experience. We all feel it from time to time, but for individuals with anxiety disorder, this constant feeling can impede on everyday life. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that approximately 18 percent of American adults suffer from a form of anxiety. To combat this issue, many people use prescription drugs, such as Xanax, Valium, and Ativan.   

Ativan is the brand name for the benzodiazepine lorazepam. This drug is popular in the United States; in fact, it is among the top 10 psychiatric drugs used by American adults. Physicians use lorazepam to treat a variety of ailments. According to Stanford University, the drug can treat:   

  • Serial seizures in children 
  • Anxiety 
  • Schizophrenia  
  • Pre-surgery anxiety 
  • Alcohol withdrawal symptoms  
  • Severe vomiting due to chemotherapy 

The United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) considers lorazepam a Schedule IV controlled substance, which means that the drug has acceptable medical use and a low potential for addiction. However, there is a growing body of research suggesting that the drug is more addictive than once believed. A myriad of new research argues that lorazepam, when misused or abused, can be habit-forming and even life-threatening.

How Does Lorazepam Work?

Like most benzodiazepines, lorazepam functions by targeting a neurotransmitter known as gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). This neurotransmitter’s job is to reduce neuron activity in the brain and central nervous system. When a person uses lorazepam, their GABA levels increase, creating a feeling of calm, relaxation, and general wellbeing. These effects might explain why people misuse lorazepam, taking higher-than-suggested dosages or using the drug without a doctor’s prescription.

While lorazepam can be useful for individuals suffering from anxiety or schizophrenia, the drug can be dangerous if someone abuses it for a prolonged period. According to a report from , benzodiazepines like lorazepam could contribute to significant brain damage. The drug could also contribute to psychological distress. A 2007 report from revealed a correlation between lorazepam use and suicide in individuals over the age of 65.

Psychological Risks

Some of the troubling mental and psychological risks of lorazepam abuse are:

  • Confusion
  • Tolerance to Ativan
  • Rebound anxiety
  • Depression
  • Memory loss
  • Learning difficulties
  • Emotional blunting

Physical Health Problems

Lorazepam use can also lead to a variety of physical health problems, particularly if the person using the drug takes too high a dosage. Because benzodiazepines act upon the central nervous system, a high dosage can slow a person’s breathing and heartbeat to dangerously low rates. Other physical effects include:

  • Coordination problems
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Dry mouth
  • Blood in urine or stool
  • Stomach pain
  • Weight loss
  • Tremors

How Addiction DevelopsDetox, Withdrawal, and Treatment

Most physicians agree that benzodiazepines are habit-forming drugs. This means that an individual’s brain can develop a tolerance for a certain drug, and over time, the drug’s effects are diminished. To achieve the same high, a person must use a higher dose or take the drug more frequently, eventually leading to an addiction. Some signs of lorazepam addiction are:

  • Cravings for lorazepam
  • Needing the drug to function normally
  • Withdrawal symptoms (like nausea and tremors) after stopping use
  • Mixing lorazepam with other substances (like alcohol)

Lorazepam tolerance can sometimes drive a person from prescription use to abuse and addiction. This can lead to devastating effects, such as the ones listed above. However, the most harrowing risk of lorazepam misuse is the risk of an overdose. If an individual increases their lorazepam dosage, hoping to feel the same effects they used to feel, they may accidentally overdose and experience respiratory or cardiovascular failure. For example, CNN reports that benzodiazepines like lorazepam accounted for 30 percent of all fatal prescription drug overdoses in 2013.

Benzodiazepine withdrawal requires medical supervision due to the life-threatening nature of some withdrawal symptoms that might be experienced, such as seizures. Generally, physicians will employ a tapering process to gradually wean an individual off the benzo.

Some individuals who stop using benzodiazepines like lorazepam are may develop a condition known as benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome. According to journal Addiction, this psychological disorder can lead to a variety of symptoms, including:

  • Sleep disturbance
  • Irritability
  • Panic attacks
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Hand tremors
  • Weight loss
  • Palpitations

Once the withdrawal period has passed, the person may no longer have a physical dependence on lorazepam, but the issues underlying the addiction haven’t yet been addressed. Therapy is required to address these issues and sustain sobriety. If the person only detoxes from the drug without participating in therapy, relapse is highly likely

Choosing a Treatment Approach

If you, or someone you know, are addicted to lorazepam, how do you know which treatment method is best? The answer depends on the person’s specific needs, as treatment and recovery is a deeply personal process. The treatment process will vary based on many factors, including how long the person has been using lorazepam, whether they have a co-existing substance abuse problem, and whether they were using the drug to treat a medical condition. A comprehensive rehabilitation program will work with each individual client to ascertain the best therapeutic approach. 

Although recovery may seem like a long and challenging journey, it can change a person’s life for the better in countless ways. With the help of dedicated medical professionals, the support of a loving network of family and friends, and a commitment to a better future, a life without lorazepam or any substance abuse can be a possibility.

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Brooke Abner,

Motivational Coach