October 4th, 2011
02:57 PM ET

Is there a wrong way to detox off Xanax?

Every weekday, a CNNHealth expert doctor answers a viewer question. On Tuesdays, it's Dr. Charles Raison, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University, and an expert in the mind-body connection for health.

Question asked by D. Epps from Georgia:

Is there a wrong way to detox off Xanax?

Expert answer:

Sadly, there are probably more wrong ways to detox off Xanax than right ones. Lots of people have a very hard time getting off Xanax if they’ve been on it for awhile no matter what approach they take. This is one of the reasons Xanax has fallen from favor in the last decade.

Xanax was the hottest thing going in the late '80s and early '90s. It was considered the most potent and useful of the class of medications called benzodiazepines. Benzodiazepines, which include such well-known drugs as Valium, Klonopin and Ativan, promote relaxation and sleep by making it harder for brain cells to fire.

These medications can be spectacularly helpful when used appropriately. But their use comes at a price. When taken on a daily basis for more than a few weeks, the brain develops a dependency on them for normal functioning.

Xanax has a very short half-life, which is a fancy way of saying that it goes into and out of the body very quickly. This property appears to make Xanax even more likely to cause emotional and physical dependency than other benzodiazepines. The short half-life means people will often start withdrawing from Xanax between scheduled doses, which tends to powerfully reinforce their psychological dependency of the medication.

This property has, over time, made Xanax among the least popular of benzodiazepines among psychiatrists.

If you take Xanax long enough, you will become physiologically dependent on it. This does not mean that you are an addict or that you are abusing it. It only means that if you stop the medication suddenly you are at risk for a very dangerous withdrawal syndrome that can include delirium and seizures and can be lethal.

So the wrongest way to detox off Xanax is to just suddenly stop taking it. This can literally be a fatal mistake.

Another very common “wrong way” of trying to detox from Xanax is to attempt to get off the medication too quickly, which can cause such discomfort that people become afraid to continue the detox process.

It can take months to successfully come off Xanax, and often the last little bit is the hardest to get off.

So patience is of great importance for successfully weaning oneself from Xanax. Under the guidance of a physician, the detox can often be made easier by switching from Xanax to an equivalent dosage of a benzodiazepine with a long half-life such as Klonopin or Librium, and then gradually tapering off that agent.

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Sometimes this works. But in my experience, this switch is so uncomfortable for some people that they can’t tolerate it.

Benzodiazepines get a bad rap because they do have abuse potential and they do cause dependency. But they can be wonder drugs for some people. Many year’s worth of long-term data suggest that they do not cause significant harm, even when taken for long periods.

I like benzodiazepines, but I would never start anyone on Xanax for the reasons I’ve outlined above. On the other hand, more than once I’ve seen people - especially older folks - who have literally ended up in the psychiatric hospital trying to get off Xanax. Most of the time they had been doing just fine for years and it was some new doctor who decided they had to get off the Xanax “no matter what.”

This seems crazy to me. Not being on Xanax is better than being on it. But living a reasonable life on Xanax is considerably better than making yourself sick trying to get off it.

A final important point. No matter what you do, make sure you work closely with a clinician with expertise in detoxing off benzodiazapines.

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  4. Name*Gloria

    I have beem on alprazolam for 25 years. Teemed up with many. Anti depressants. The latest is celexa 20 mg. Xanax has saved me quite often. The latest diagnosis is all body tremors from Ataxia. I am so tired of xanax and all meds i feel as if death could be near. I will not stop using xanax as i am a female age 69 suffering from Grief Depression. I really dont do anything in life but sit, cry, and sleep with crazy dreams. I hope God is with me.

    June 4, 2017 at 10:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. KLRman

    I am starting to think I am dependent on this for sleep. Was given to me during chemo for stress anxiet...thought it was a sleep aid when I started it 5 years ago. I take 2 mgs at night.Should I cut to 1mg a night? Guess I will talk to the Doc about tapering from where I am. Thanks KLRman

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  10. Susie

    I just turned 71 last week. I have been on Xanax for years for depression and panic attacks. I was on 0.5 mg 4 times a day then tapered down to 3 a day all was good till fell and fractured my upper and lower spine. Putting me in the hospital where all meds were stopped .i ended up having halusuinations and sever pain and other problems. When I returned my Dr put me back on the Xanax 3 times a day. I went to pain management and received OxyContin 3 times a day. This has caused a problem with my psychiatrist he is being pressured by (them) to take me off Xanax I went down to 1 and 1/2 each day and had sever depressing thoughts did not want to go on . We upend my Xanax to 2 a day and now the pressure is on again to stop Xanax all together. I can't stop oxy because I am not a candidate for surgery. I am taking oxy 10. Mg 3 times a day . Still in a lot of pain when I dropped 3re pill seems that dose works with oxy. So discouraged. Don't know what to do afraid of mental state when I go back on 1 and1/2 a day.

    June 14, 2018 at 21:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Susie

    I hope to make the above note a little bit clear . I am 71 and on OxyContin 10 mg 3 times a day for sever pain and now on Xanax 0.5 mg 2 times a day for depression and anxiety and panic attacks. When I am on 3 Xanax pills the pain is lowered to a tolerable amount. The pressure is on to go to 1 and 1/2 a day now since talking to my psychiatrist today. I hope that makes things clearer.

    June 14, 2018 at 22:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Shatilyn

    Please people DO NOT EVER START ON BENZOS.. They are HIGHLY ADDICTIVE. I started taking them when I was 25 now am 67. When4 I started taking them I was taking 2mgs 4 times a day,now I am d own to 3mgs a day. IT WAS HELL cutting back. I had severe memory lose tingling all over my head neck and shoulders burnt like fire. The least noise made me jump. I was awake for 10 days. I did not know if it was night or day, My hubby would come home from work, and Ithough he was leaving for work, I am getting to cut down to 2mgs, a day. I will get off of them but take your time. If I could go back back to when I was 25 IWOULD NEVER HAD STARTED TAKING THEM, It is a nightnare to stop. Just remember GOD will help you through it. Good luck to all that are going through this and be strong. GOD BLESS YOU

    September 4, 2018 at 01:43 | Report abuse | Reply
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