How does Xanax work?

Xanax works by slowing brain activity. More on Xanax in the brain and body, as well as how fast and long Xanax works here.

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Xanax (alprazolam) is a benzodiazepine prescription drug that’s used to treat anxiety disorders and panic attacks. How much Xanax is safe is between 0.75 – 1.5 mg throughout the day.  Here we review how Xanax affects the body and brain, when Xanax starts to act and if you can improve on Xanax effect. More here with a place for your questions about Xanax at the end.

How does Xanax work in the body?

Xanax works by decreasing abnormal brain activity and results in a calming effect on the body. Although Xanax can sometimes trigger feelings of euphoria, it generally helps relieve anxiety and relax the body. How long Xanax stays in the system depends on occasional vs.chronic use, as well as personal metabolic differences.  The depressant qualities of Xanax result in:

  • dizziness
  • drowsiness
  • lightheadedness
  • unsteady balance

Xanax can also have unpleasant, and sometimes dangerous, side effects. The most common side effects are drowsiness, stomach problems, and changes in mood, such as irritability. But even at normal doses it can sometimes cause more serious adverse effects, such as seizures, hallucinations, or suicidal thoughts. There’s no way to predict who will experience these adverse effects, but they’re more likely to occur when Xanax is taken in a way other than directed by a doctor.

How does Xanax affect the brain and nervous system?

Xanax is a central nervous system depressant. This means it slows brain activity. Xanax (alprazolam) works specifically by increasing GABA activity, curbing the brain’s “excitability” and allowing the brain to restore its natural balance. Although different classes of central nervous system depressants work in unique ways, ultimately it is their ability to increase GABA activity that produces a drowsy or calming effect.

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Despite these beneficial effects for people suffering from anxiety or sleep disorders, benzodiazepines like Xanax can be addictive and should be used only as prescribed. Xanax should not be taken along with other central nervous system depressants like alcohol or benzodiazepines. It can cause excessive drowsiness and even be dangerous when mixed with other medications. Mixing alcohol with Xanax is especially dangerous: so much so that doctors recommend that you never mix the two.

How fast does Xanax work

Xanax reaches its peak level in the blood in 1-2 hours. At that point, Xanax has taken full effect. Sometimes people will crush and snort the powder from the tablets to try to get more immediate effects, but this is dangerous. Although snorting Xanax can result in near immediate delivery of alprazolam to the brain, snorting Xanax increases your risk adverse effects or even overdose.

How long does Xanax work?

Xanax stays in the body for an extended period, with a half life averaging around 11 hours. However, the alprazolam in Xanax is not completely effective for those full 11 hours. For people with severe anxiety, a dose of Xanax may be prescribed several times a day.

What makes Xanax work better

Immediate release Xanax takes effect quicker when it’s dissolved under the tongue rather than swallowed. The effects won’t last as long, but it can sometimes be the best way to beat an anxiety attack before it gets out of control.

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Does Xanax work for everyone?

No, Xanax is not right for everyone. You can get addicted to Xanax or Xanax can trigger serious adverse side effects. Because alprazolam is a habit-forming medication, Xanax is not recommended for those with a history of drug or alcohol abuse. In some people, Xanax can have serious side effects. People who experience problems while taking Xanax should talk to their doctor immediately about discontinuing the medication.

If you are looking for help with Xanax addiction, you can find answers to your many questions and learn what happens during rehab programs in our comprehensive guide to Xanax Addiction Treatment.

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How Xanax works questions

Please leave us your questions or comments about Xanax use below. We try our best to respond to all questions with a personal and prompt reply. And if we don’t know the answer to your question, we will refer you to someone who does.

Reference Sources: Medline Plus: Alprazolam
PubChem: Alprazolam
ToxNet: Alprazolam
NIAAA: Neuroscience Pathways to Dependence
Utah Department of Human Services: CNS Depressants 

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About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.


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  1. Since being on Alprazolam for over 15 years, 0.5mg, I don’t know what it has done to my brain, but without it I cannot go to sleep, daytime laying down trying to take a nap….not happening. My brain must be so conditioned for the fix, sleep has been blown away. Pretty sad.

  2. I have been on many drugs for 20years for many different diagnosis. I had in my medical chart I was psychotic because a judge didn’t understand my crying and telling her a man kept taking me to court over stolen cattle! I owned a small ranch and was under so much stress I zoned out. My worst drug was clonipan. I finally got of Prozac, Geodon, sleeping meds and constant group therapy I couldn’t retain. Now I’m down to Lamotrigin 100mg BID and Xanax BID prn. My heart pounds when I go out in public or am under stress because of emotional abuse for many years. I struggle at night in my sleep till I’m exhausted. The Xanax helps when I finally take it but I hate the fact that I have to. I eat very healthy and have so improved since March when I got off all the other drugs. I walk my service dog but I’m not real active. My body feels dead emotionally and physically. Any suggestions to keep on improving?

  3. When I take a pee test will it show that I took the Xanax or does it work like alcohol by going into my blood ???? I just wanna know if it’ll show on the pee test

  4. Can you tell me why sometimes I take Xanax and it works very well and other times I don’t have any efffect from it at all? Why is that? Thank you

  5. I want doctors to know that I have taken 35 different anti depressants and they are all terrible..and xanax works…with no weird head trips..I am not numb or having out there feelings or sitting in one place for hours..I think doctors should give this to anyone suffering from depression first, and not last. People get addicted to everything including food, chocolate, if it exists then someone is addicted to it…so stop hurting people with your caution..I am sure it does not work for everyone. but those it does work for should have it immediately. Only people with depression past or present should treat others with depression…most of you have no idea how painful it is and how much people do not want to be on this planet, while you are throwing crap at the wall…

  6. Hello,

    Since I was a child I suffered from severe anxiety. Often times not even being able to go to a store and buy something. I do not know why as I think I am a good looking person and have several degrees in science. I am afraid of most social situations and am always looking through their eyes rather than my own. I am well aware of my dysfunction. The fear I feel is without words. My hands shake and people look at me so scared for me. Some people that initially start off friendly leave quickly after starting conversations, sometimes the anxiety is so intense my eyesight gives out and they know. I do better will people I can relate too. If it’s about my job I do well in those awkward encounters.

    I have adjusted my lifestyle to deal with this. I go to work and stop at shops on the way home and have a set schedule of things. I run about 25 miles a week. But I also have a child and cannot always do what normal parenting needs. An invite to someones home is terrifying to me. Another child around scares me. School meetings are frightening. To make matters worse I’m kind of an asshole and rather than discuss things I am usually very blunt and sometimes mean.

    About two times a week I take a half of a .25 mg bill of xanax. Very small dose. And suddenly my body functions with me. My hands and body don’t shake, my mind stays calm and I can converse without freaking out. I feel happy and normal. I even look at my hands when I take it and they don’t even shake. My doctor always wants to see me though when I renew my prescription – she is worried I will become an addict. But, even though I drink too much, I have never felt compelled to take more than what I said before.

    So I ask, what disorder do I have and is there a permanent medication that might make me a better person? Like xanax but without the possibility of addiction/etc. I do okay on my own but my kid needs me to change.

  7. What are the side effects when cutting back on the or stopping ? Is there any side effects with pain or problems with muscle, ligaments , tendons. Since it calms and relaxes , it also relieves tension stress in the those areas and injuries so a person can get better rest but not sure what happens after stopping it. Can any long term problems happen to the brain / body down the road still taking them ?

    In a more perfect healthier world with better exercise etc. there wouldnt be the need for so many drugs .
    So most of America is on some med. or does some drug/ drinks etc. Its sad but true that this is the reason for more mental illness related problems in the country than before so much office automation , increased populations and everything else in the ever increased / rushed societies and corruption in it. I was wondering if CDC in mariquana could possibly be a healthier substitute for xanex. I feel the right exercise , diet , meditation , socialization and good hobbies etc is best but when things are that bad and rest is needed the most and most after anxiety then the drug is needed because those other things can still fail and a person should only do so much exercise or yoga.

  8. To all of those that take xanax for anxiety or panic disorder, this drug does it’s job. I was diagnosed with panic disorder over 10 years ago and this is the first drug I was prescribed. It was life changing. As my anxiety leveled out, I decided that the buzz effect from the drug was not what I needed, I needed a longer acting drug and now take 1-1.5mg/day of klonopin but prescribed 3 mgs a day. At one point in my life I needed it. I worked in surgery and began having panic attacks that made me faint. There is a place for these drugs. But not abuse. Let me tell you about my current situation. My boyfriend of 3 years is taking xanax daily and has for a while. He is prescribed 1mg/day however this drug makes him feel like Superman so he buys them off the street in higher doses. I recently intercepted a message from his dealer and he bought 40 ‘bars’ (the most milligrams you can get in one pill)….I noticed how detached and irritable he was. I thought we were going through a rough patch but when I would cry and he had a stone cold look in his eyes and absolutely no empathy, I realized he was back to abusing this drug. He simply doesn’t give a damn. He went through this before and went through addiction counseling. He questioned everything he did when he got sober because he made some very big decisions while under the influence. He spent months depressed and locked in his house. When he decided to take it again, it was under control. He was able to function normally and have a relationship that he could ‘feel’. Now he is taking so much that sometimes he just stares into the abyss. He’s made decisions again that is destroying our relationship. He is lying about important subjects, he is incredibly irritable and rude, he is disinterested in sex and family life altogether. He is back to feeling like Superman. I don’t know that I can trust him anymore. This has changed our lives and my children lives. He isn’t even interested in them anymore, which is not him. It’s like he is permanently drunk doing unacceptable things and abnormal things that the ‘real him’ would think through and make different decisions. The problem with this drug is when things get uncomfortable, the answer is to pop another pill… It’s like drinking until you can’t feel but in a pill. If you really care about your life and your loved ones, do yourself a favor and respect that this drug can and eventually will ruin your life if you abuse it. There are other drugs out there that don’t do this such as ativan and klonopin. They simply don’t have the same chemical make up and doesn’t cause these problems. I have given my boyfriend one option. He cuts it out of his life or I no longer want to share my life with him. What is sad is that I know at some point he is going to HAVE to come off of them again which is an extremely painful process and afterwards a very deep depression. With that depression comes all the thoughts of what he screwed up while he was high and what once was a good thing in his life no longer exists. I hope he makes the right decisions and I am willing to help him through the detox process but I am not willing to live with an un-involved, irritable, angry, empathy-less man. I want a family and he promised me before the drugs that’s all he’s wanted too. We will see what he wants most. Take care and don’t underestimate the power this drug has to turn your life upside down. Wish me luck and I hope this sheds some light on someone else that may be dealing with this. It’s the power of the drug. Hang in there.

  9. I have been taking .25 Xanax pill for 6 weeks. I started in the first 3 weeks taking one whole one split and ingested increments of it during the day. In the following 2 weeks, I only take one half of that, so 1/2 of the pill a day, plus 1/4. In the last week I have taken 1/4, one morning and one evening. I am currently in an outpatient program to stop, but haven’t gotten tapering instructions from therapist yet, hopefully I will see one this week coming up. I suppose my question is am I doing the right thing in what I have tapering for the last week according to tapering protocol?

  10. I get anxiety sometimes and have trouble sleeping most nights – but how do I know if I just need to battle through it? How do I know if my level of anxiety is abnormal.

  11. I am a person that will get in a abusive verble relation and stay in it even though I know it’s not what I want. When put on xanax it frees me. I end this abusive relationship. In a week or two. I dont take the medication anymore. I will then seek out a counceling

  12. Currently I am doing cold turkey after i abused the drug for about two momths. I would do it on the weekends when i went out and i drank with it. I built a tolerance and increased my dosages. I recently stopped, its been a month now. I am not experiencing any severe withdrawls such as anxiety and depression. The only thing is my nerves in my hand are tingling and sweating uncontrollably but im very happy and i workout everyday. When will this stop? I dont need treatment programs because i have a very non dangerous symptom. But when will my brain realize i dont need it anymore. Months? Weeks?

  13. I have been taking 2 mg a Xanax twice a day for 6 months now I went down to 1mg twice a day I am shaking all day and night I am not getting any sleep and my headaches are getting worse. I feel like my brain wants to explode. In the beginning the Xanax was calming me down and and I was sleeping at least 5 hours a night but once I wake up the shaking and tremors were terrible now I am getting 0 sleep and I have chronic insomnia I am afraid I may suffer a seizure or stroke or die from lack of sleep. I have chest pains, I have mobility problems unable to write concentrate at work forgetful my doc tried every sleep medications and antidepressants nothing is working. Please help

  14. Can xanax help reduce your blood pressure? My pressure spiced recently to an injury and have been taking a .25 when I feel it rising and it has helped. Is it safe. My daughter has been taking it for anxiety and I borrowed a few from her.

    1. Hi Phillip. Anti-anxiety drugs like Valium, Ativan, Xanax are only helpful if the main cause of high blood pressure is stress and anxiety. However, the reasons for having a heightened blood pressure much more complex and I’d advise you to consult your doctor or call your pharmacist to get more professional information about your course of treatment.

  15. I have a fear of flying. I have flown before, but it’s been 18 years. It was the longest 4 hours of my life. Is this something that Xanax could help me control?

    1. Hi, Norma. Thanks for the question. I did some research on increasing GABA activity, and found out that you can do it naturally. Some of the examples include change in your nutrition such as including food that contains higher levels of glutamic acid (almonds, walnuts, bananas, broccoli, etc). Also, you may exercise more times per week, and boost your Vitamin 6 intake. You can do the same by searching using these keywords: increase GABA activity.

  16. I’ve recently tried Xanax that was given to me by a friend a few times. No, I don’t have a prescription and I understand how irresponsible I was but… since I last took a dose… my life has been 1000x better. I was depressed and always in a negative mood. It’s like someone took away the gloomy glasses I was looking through for many years. It’s already been a week. I hope I don’t have to continue taking those pills (I never took more than one pill/bar) but I want to make sure I don’t go back to being miserable. Any advice? Thanks!

    1. Hello Friend. If you have any problems with your mood, then you should seek help from a professional. You know the risks that you’ve taken when you consume somebody’s medication.

  17. Hi. I have been suffering discomfort on one side of my face and a feeling of a lump in my throat for several months. My doctor is convinced this is all anxiety and is affecting my face muscles. He has now prescribed Xanac and after taking only 1 pill all symptoms were gone for several hours. Does this confirm that this is anxiety or could be that the way xanax works it just masks my symptoms? Thanks

    1. Hi Franco. It could be anxiety. However, if you are not 100% sure in your doctor’s practice, I suggest you go to another doctor and ask for a second opinion.

  18. Does the xanax and or klonopins effect harder when disolved?
    And mg wise, how many klonopin mg’s is the effect approximately the same as a 1mg xanax?

    1. Hi Raiza. That’s a question scientists have yet to answer precisely and the exact mechanism of Xanax action in the brain is not completely known to medicine. From what is known, when stable levels of Xanax are achieved in the system, CNS agents of the 1,4 benzodiazepine class presumably exert their effects by binding at stereo specific receptors at several sites within the central nervous system – the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter. It is through these inhibitory actions that the calming and soothing effects of Xanax are achieved, which make this medication perfect for treating anxiety dissorders.

  19. Is there a food substitute that can replace Xanix, can I change my diet and not need as much. I do not eat much sugar because I am hypoglycemic. Any guidelines to follow?((

    1. Hi Sarah. I’d suggest you consult your doctor and a nutritionist before attempting to lower your Xanax intake by adapting your diet and eating habits.

  20. Hi Jane. You can ask your doctor whether it’s smart to stop taking Xanax, and how should you quit it. But, do you know that Xanax is excreted into your milk? I hope your doctor warned you about this before startingyou on the medication.

  21. I had a baby in June and I have had really bad anxiety since, my Dr. prescribed me .25 Xanax to take once a day at night but it makes me so tired I immediately fall asleep. My anxiety is usually during the day, will it build up in my system to help me or is it just like a sleeping pill? I do not have trouble sleeping and am tired most of the time (due to the new mom thing) Should I keep taking it or should I just try and live with the anxiety?

  22. Hello Susan. I’m sorry that I’ve only just seen your question. Going cold turkey off Xanax can result in anxiety or panic attacks or even seizures, which is why a gradual taper is recommended. I’d suggest that you seek help from a psychiatrist for short term management of symptoms using Xanax, gradually lower your doses, and then create a plan together to implement cognitive and behavioral changes to deal with anxiety. Xanax is not a cure for anxiety; it just covers up the symptoms. Are you ready for a life without Xanax?

  23. i have been prescribed xanax 3 milligrams a day for 12 years through a doctor. the doctor has just recently retired and can no longer prescribe it. ive been trying to find a doctor who can help me with no luck. i had this problem one time before and ended up in the er. i thought i was dying. i only have enough for 2 more nights. im terrified already. can you help me?

  24. Hello Maddi. Well, you’ll probably need an appointment with your psychiatrist to talk out your concerns and seek a new prescription. Or perhaps try to call in the request?

  25. I have had serious panic attacks as well as a really bad issue with anxiety due to Hyperthyroidism as well as child trauma. I have been prescribed Alprazolam 1mg. But I feel as though it doesn’t help as much as the non generic Xanax that comes in bar form. With all this issues I also suffer from insomnia. How do i get my Psychiatrist to change my medication without having to go through the hassle?

  26. Hi Jam. You don’t sound convinced that drinking alcohol while on Xanax is a good idea. Neither do I. Have you sought a second opinion?

  27. the doc said that its ok to drink several hours after i’ve taken the xanax. yup she said it. she said just dont take it then start drinking

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