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Sleeping pills and minor tranquillisers

Explains what sleeping pills and minor tranquillisers are used for, how the medication works, possible side effects and information about withdrawal.

Can benzodiazepines cause withdrawal problems?

You will not normally experience any withdrawal problems with benzodiazepines if you:

  • take them occasionally, as a one-off dose
  • follow your doctor’s recommendations on how to take them.

But if you take benzodiazepines regularly and for a long time, you may become dependent on them. This might mean you experience physical withdrawal symptoms if you stop or reduce your dose. Or you may feel that you cannot cope with your day-to-day life unless you take them.

What are the withdrawal symptoms of benzodiazepines?

If you experience withdrawal problems from benzodiazepines, you may have some of the following symptoms:

  • abdominal cramps
  • agoraphobia (fear of situations which feel difficult to escape)
  • anxiety, including physical symptoms such as muscle tension, tight chest, fast heartbeat, sweating, trembling or shaking
  • blurred vision
  • concentration problems
  • dizziness
  • face and neck pain
  • headaches
  • increased sensitivity to light, noise, touch and smell
  • loss of interest in sex
  • loss of appetite
  • mild to moderate depression
  • nausea (feeling sick)
  • nightmares
  • panic attacks
  • restlessness
  • sleep problems
  • sore eyes
  • sore tongue and metallic taste
  • tinnitus (ringing in your ears)
  • tingling in the hands and feet (pins and needles)
  • unsteady legs
  • vomiting (being sick)
  • weight loss.

Some people may also experience more severe withdrawal symptoms from benzodiazepines. These may include:

If you suddenly stop taking benzodiazepines, this can cause serious withdrawal symptoms. These include:

  • confusion
  • psychosis
  • seizures
  • a collection of symptoms including a rapid heartbeat, sweating, high blood pressure, tremor (shaking), hallucinations and agitated behaviour.

Eventually my doctor weaned me off it, very slowly, over months. Which was hard, but I knew it was the right thing to do.

When might I experience withdrawal symptoms from benzodiazepines?

Withdrawal symptoms can begin several hours after you stop taking a short-acting benzodiazepine. Or they can begin up to three weeks after you stop taking a long-acting benzodiazepine. This is because long-acting benzodiazepines can stay active in your system for a while after you have stopped taking them.

The longer you take benzodiazepines, the more likely it is that you will find it difficult to stop and the greater your risk of withdrawal symptoms. Short-acting benzodiazepines can be especially difficult to come off if you have taken them for a long time.

See our page on comparing benzodiazepines for more information on short-acting and long-acting benzodiazepines.

How can I safely stop taking benzodiazepines?

If possible, you should reduce your dose gradually when you stop taking benzodiazepines. This reduces the risk of experiencing withdrawal symptoms.

Your doctor can provide more specific advice on how to safely withdraw from your medication. You may also find it helpful to speak to others about your withdrawal. For example, this may be from a local or online support group, or help from friends and family.

See our pages on coming off psychiatric medication for more information, including different ways to find support.

Antidepressants and benzodiazepine withdrawal

Some people experience depression after coming off benzodiazepines. If you experience this, your doctor may offer you antidepressants to help you deal with the symptoms of depression. Although some research suggests that selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants are not effective for treating depression that happens after coming off benzodiazepines.

See our pages on antidepressants for more information about this medication, including the possible benefits and side effects. You can also discuss any questions or concerns you have about this with your doctor.

5 tips for when you want to come off your medication

Watch Katherine from our Information team give her top 5 tips for coming off your medication safely.

This information was published in April 2021. We will review it in 2024.

References and bibliography available on request.

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