Xanax & Teenagers: Know the Warning Signs of Addiction

Medically Reviewed

Xanax is one of the most widely prescribed psychiatric prescription drugs on the market. Prescriptions for benzodiazepine drugs spiked 67 percent from 1999 through 2013. Xanax is the brand name for the benzodiazepine drug alprazolam that is dispensed to manage the symptoms of anxiety and panic disorders.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reports that there were nearly 50 million prescriptions written for alprazolam in 2011, and Xanax is one of the top benzodiazepine drugs of abuse. High prescription rates for a drug often means that it may be more accessible, and teenagers may find it in their parents’ medicine cabinets more easily. Most of the time, prescription drugs that are misused are obtained from a family member or friend for free. Adolescents may mistakenly believe these drugs are safer than illicit street drugs because they were initially prescribed by a doctor for a medical reason.

The Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey reports that Xanax is the most commonly abused tranquilizer medication by high-school seniors, and 4.7 percent of 12th-graders in the United States reported past-year misuse of Xanax in 2017. About 4.1 percent of 10th-graders reported past-year Xanax abuse in 2017 while 2 percent of 8th-graders did.

The survey also indicated that 15 percent of 12th-graders thought it would be easy to get Xanax. Trends in Xanax abuse and perceived availability by teenagers have steadily gone down over the life of the MTF survey since its inception in 1975.

Xanax abuse and addiction can be managed through specialized treatment, which can improve the overall health and well-being. This benefits not only the teenager struggling with addiction but also the overall family dynamic.

How to Spot Xanax Abuse

Benzodiazepines, like Xanax, are often called benzos for short. Xanax is also called Xannies, Totem Poles, Z-bars, Xanbars, Zannies, Blue Footballs, Upjohn, School Bus, Planks, White Boys, Bicycle Parts, Yellow Boys, White Girls, and Zanbars. Recognizing the slang terms for Xanax can help to pinpoint drug abuse, as it can indicate familiarity with a particular drug or medication. Watch for these terms to pop up in conversation between teens or on their social media pages.

Often, when drugs are being abused regularly, people will spend a lot of time talking about them, trying to figure out where to get them, using them, and recovering from the effects of the drugs. Near obsession with Xanax can be an indicator of problematic use and also addiction.

Xanax is a drug that acts as a central nervous system depressant. When it is misused, signs of a Xanax high are likely to be similar to those associated with being drunk from alcohol.

Things to Look For Include:

  • Slurred speech
  • Falling, having trouble with balance, motor skills, and coordination
  • Lowered inhibitions
  • Heightened sociability
  • Less regard for potential consequences
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Difficulties thinking clearly
  • Memory lapses
  • Blurred vision
  • Extreme drowsiness
  • Impaired reflexes
  • Muscle weakness

Xanax decreases anxiety by stimulating activity of the body’s natural tranquilizer GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid), which works to slow heart rate and respiration, and lower blood pressure and body temperature, to reduce the stress response. Shallow breathing, cold skin, slow pulse, and low blood pressure are signs of Xanax intoxication.

The FDA publishes that the drug is only marketed for short-term use, as it is considered to be extremely habit-forming and addictive. Taking Xanax regularly can cause a person’s brain to get used to the medication and its impact on brain chemistry, which is called drug tolerance. The user will then likely start to take more and more Xanax each time, and take it more frequently, so they can get the high they are seeking. Xanax may be found stashed in several in easy-to-reach locations, such as a car, on the nightstand, or in a purse or backpack.

Xanax is a short-acting benzo, so it takes effect quickly and also wears off fast — in just a few hours. Repeated use builds up dependence, and when Xanax processes out of the body, withdrawal symptoms and drug cravings can be difficult and even potentially dangerous. Withdrawal symptoms can include hyperactivity of the central nervous system, which may lead to anxiety, hallucinations, psychosis, insomnia, and even potentially life-threatening seizures if use is stopped suddenly.

Addiction Signs

Drug tolerance, dependence, escalating dosage, and withdrawal symptoms are all potential signs of addiction. Further indicators of Xanax addiction include:

  • An inability to stop using Xanax even if multiple attempts have been made.
  • Changes in the way Xanax is taken to amplify the high, such as chewing it instead of swallowing it, or crushing it to then smoke, inject, or snort it.
  • Taking more Xanax in a sitting than intended. A person may keep taking Xanax for longer or take it in increasing doses for a longer high.
  • Decreased interest in things not involving Xanax use. Recreational and social activities that were important before may no longer be a priority.
  • Increased social isolation and secrecy. This can lead to troubles with peers and interpersonal relationships in general.
  • Attendance issues and grades dropping at school. Xanax abuse can lead to less attention to things like schoolwork.
  • Significant mood swings. The difference between the Xanax high and the comedown can be very noticeable, swinging from happy and talkative to low and irritable.
  • Declining physical health. Appetite, sleep functions, eating habits, and attention to personal hygiene can all be affected, which can lead to illness as well as negative changes to physical appearance.
  • Increased use of Xanax in situations that could be deemed risky. Xanax impairs a person’s thinking. It interferes with logical thinking patterns and the ability to recognize potential danger and think through adverse consequences
  • Using Xanax even while knowing use is going to be harmful. Xanax use can become compulsive.

Next Steps

When Xanax is being used without a prescription and not under the direction of a medical professional for a genuine medical need, this is problematic and a cause for concern. Getting professional help at this point is important.

Education is key. Arm yourself with as much knowledge as you can to help your teen with drug abuse and/or addiction. Read up on the warning signs and keep an eye out for them. Try to keep the dialogue open. If you suspect that Xanax is being abused, approach the subject carefully. Remain calm and understanding, and come from a place of love.

A professional interventionist can help families to have these difficult conversations. An interventionist will walk families and loved ones through staging a structured intervention with the ultimate goal of getting the teen into a specialized treatment program. Multiple small conversations may be more impactful than a one-time intervention in some cases.

Really listen to what your teen has to say and let them know that they are heard, loved, and supported no matter what. Show them how their drug abuse is impacting you personally and help them to recognize that professional help is the best course of action.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains that adolescents may be more susceptible to accept help and listen to a professional than their parents and family members. Enlisting the help of a doctor, mental health professional, or trained interventionist may be highly beneficial in getting a teen into treatment. If your teen is under age 18, you can mandate them into treatment. It’s important to talk through the pros and cons of this approach with an interventionist and medical professional.The teenage brain is not fully developed, and this makes them unable to have as much willpower or control over their thoughts and actions as adults do. Drug use at this young age can cause damage to the brain that may not be entirely reversible. The journal Clinical EEG Neuroscience warns that the impact of abusing mind-altering drugs to an adolescent brain can cause damage to the structure and function of the brain during an important developmental time. As a result, it is essential to get help for teenage drug abuse.

Ultimately, the parent holds the power over getting an adolescent into a treatment program. Even if the teenager is unwilling at first, addiction treatment programs can still be beneficial, and teens will often find the motivation to want to be sober on their own throughout treatment.

There are specialized programs that focus on adolescents specifically, and they can surround teens with peers and others with similar backgrounds. Peer support is very important to teenagers, and positive interactions through group therapies and support groups can be vital to helping a teen who is battling drug abuse and addiction.

Family support is also key. Programs regularly involve family members and strive to improve communication skills and the overall family dynamic through counseling, therapy sessions, workshops, and educational programming. Addiction treatment programs can provide a safe environment for teens to find a healthy mental and physical balance for a long-lasting recovery.

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