What You Need to Know about Depressants

What You Need to Know about Depressants
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By Kathleen Korman, MSN, RN, ACNS-BC, Director of Nursing, Recovery Works Merrillville, a detox and residential treatment center in Northwest Indiana

One of the most commonly abused substances is depressants.

People who struggle with this addiction will often show severe symptoms that put a serious strain on their daily life, including:

  • Lack of coordination
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Slowed pulse and breathing problems

Man feeling the effects of depressants drug abuse.

To help yourself or your loved ones, it’s crucial to know the warning signs of addiction. Here is everything you need to know about depressants, including their dangers and what substances count as depressants.

What Is a Depressant Drug?

Depressants are drugs that affect the central nervous system and brain activity.

These drugs do not make people feel depressed. Rather, depressant drugs are meant to reduce the following in patients:

  • Arousal
  • Stimulation
  • Anxiety
  • Stress reactions
  • Sleep disorders

Types of Depressant Drugs

Depressants come in many forms, whether it be a pill, syrup, or an injectable substance. Sedatives, tranquilizers, and hypnotics are all forms of depressants.

Most prescription depressants can be grouped into one of three drug classes.


Barbiturates are highly addictive. However, people can quickly build a tolerance to them, which means patients will have to take higher doses to feel similar effects, leading to hazardous side effects.

Barbiturates can reduce heart rate, regulate breathing, and destabilize blood pressure. Most commonly, they are used to treat insomnia, headaches, and seizures.

Examples of barbiturates include:

  • Luminal (phenobarbital)
  • Mebaral (mephobarbital)
  • Nembutal (pentobarbital sodium)


Benzodiazepines were created to replace barbiturates because of their addictive side effects. However, benzodiazepines retain some of the same hazardous side effects seen in barbiturates.

Still, benzodiazepines can treat a lot of the same health issues as barbiturates, in addition to panic disorders, alcohol withdrawal, and premenstrual syndrome.

Common types of benzodiazepines include:

  • Halcion (triazolam)
  • Klonopin (clonazepam)
  • Prosom (estazolam)
  • Valium (diazepam)
  • Xanax (alprazolam)

Non-Benzodiazepine Sedative-Hypnotics

Non-benzodiazepine sedative-hypnotics are psychoactive drugs that are very similar to benzodiazepines in use, side effects, and addictive potential. They are only referred to as non-benzodiazepine because the molecular structures of the drugs are completely different from benzodiazepines.

These types of depressants are generally used for short-term treatment of sleep disorders, like insomnia.

Commonly used non-benzodiazepine depressants include:

  • Ambien (zolpidem)
  • Lunesta (eszopiclone)
  • Sonata (zaleplon)

Is Alcohol a Depressant?

Elder man suffer from alcohol abuse.

Although many people use alcohol as a way to improve their mood or give them a shot of charisma, alcohol is a depressant that can negatively affect your mental and physical health.

As you drink alcohol, a portion of what you drink will go into your bloodstream to eventually be delivered to all parts of your body, including the brain. At that point, your brain releases chemicals like dopamine and serotonin to offer a sense of euphoria while also depressing your reflexes and speech capabilities.

Illegal Depressant Drugs vs. Legal Depressant Drugs

There are both illegal and legal forms of depressant drugs. Here’s a chart to help you understand the legality and limitations of common depressants.



Barbiturates Discontinued (formerly legal with prescription)
Benzodiazepines Legal with prescription
Cannabis Legal or illegal, depending on the state
Alcohol Legal for those age 21+
Opioids Legal with prescription
Heroin Illegal
GHB Illegal
Sleeping Pills Legal, over the counter

Effects of Depressant Drugs

The main effect of depressant drugs is slowed brain activity. This is done by increasing gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) activity, which is a chemical that slows brain activity. This chemical process makes these drugs highly effective for treating anxiety disorders.

Depressants tend to affect everyone differently. While a lot of factors determine how you will react to depressants, here are a few of the most noteworthy variables:

  • Size (weight and height)
  • A person’s health
  • A person’s tolerance for the depressant
  • Amount of the depressant taken
  • Strength of the depressant
  • Other depressants taken at the same time

Short-term Effects

Short-term effects from depressant drugs can happen as side effects from the drug’s intended use or abuse. In other words, you could experience these side effects no matter how you use depressants:

  • Slurred speech
  • Dizziness
  • Dilated pupils
  • Lack of coordination
  • Slowed pulse and breathing
  • Lowered blood pressure
  • Difficulty with concentration
  • General fatigue

With higher doses, depressant drugs could also have some of the following short-term effects:

  • Memory problems
  • Impaired judgment
  • Paranoia
  • Irritability
  • Suicidal thoughts

When someone takes depressants with other substances, they risk slowing down their heart rate and breathing enough to cause death.

Long-term Effects

If a person uses or abuses depressants for a long time, they’ll likely develop a tolerance for the drug, which is one path to addiction.

Long-term effects of depressants can include:

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Depression
  • Breathing problems
  • Sleep disorders
  • Sexual problems
  • Weight gain
  • Increased risk of diabetes

Dangers of Depressant Drug Abuse

Although medical professionals prescribe many depressant drugs to treat disorders, they can be dangerous if misused or used for prolonged periods.

Woman needing help with depressant drug abuse.

Why Do People Abuse Depressants?

Depressant abuse can be intentional or unintentional.

Intentional abuse usually occurs when a person mixes multiple depressants, takes more than the prescribed amount, or uses a depressant without a prescription. Unintentional abuse may happen when a person accidentally uses a depressant outside of its guidelines.

No matter the motive, abusing depressants is incredibly harmful to one’s mental and physical health. It can worsen the disorders people try to treat with the depressants, including anxiety disorders.

Are Depressant Drugs Addictive?

Depressants are addictive and can lead to substance use disorder (SUD) because people can build a tolerance to depressants after using them for long periods.

Drug tolerance means the body needs more of a drug to get the desired effect. This leads people to take larger or more frequent doses of the depressant to get the same relief or euphoric feeling as they did before their tolerance developed.

Tolerance can then lead to dependency, meaning the person cannot function normally without using the drugs. Generally, you can tell if a person is addicted to or abusing depressants if they exhibit any of the following behaviors:

  • Mood swings
  • Decreased social activity
  • Depressive episodes
  • Decreased work productivity
  • Secretive behavior

Additionally, once a person develops a dependence on depressants, they will experience withdrawal symptoms when not using the drugs. These symptoms may include:

  • Nausea
  • Muscle weakness
  • Insomnia
  • Agitation
  • Fever
  • Delirium
  • Hallucination
  • Convulsions

Stimulants vs. Depressants

Stimulants are another family of drugs that give their users a sense of euphoria, similar to depressants. However, their means of creating that euphoric feeling are very different: while depressants slow your brain down, stimulants speed up brain activity.

By speeding up brain activity, stimulants can increase pulse and breathing rates and elevate your blood pressure. This causes some to feel more alert and energetic. But with prolonged usage, stimulants can cause:

  • Headaches
  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia
  • Aggression

Common stimulant drugs include:

  • Amphetamines
  • Cocaine
  • Khat
  • Methamphetamine
  • Nicotine (though it also works as a depressant)

Are Stimulants or Depressants More Dangerous?

It’s hard to say if stimulants or depressants are more dangerous. Both have severe risks associated with their use, and abuse of both drugs can lead to debilitating dependencies.

It should be enough to realize that abuse of either drug is harmful and should be avoided at all costs.

How to Seek Help for Depressant Abuse

Woman seeking help for depressant abuse.

If you or someone you know is currently struggling with depressant abuse or addiction, now is the time to look for help. And if you recognize you have a problem with drug abuse, you’ve already completed the first step towards recovery.

Because of the withdrawal symptoms, one can experience trying to get off of depressants and other drugs, people seeking treatment should check in to a rehab facility to detox. Rehab facilities will monitor detoxification and help ease the transitionary period.

Pinnacle Treatment Centers is ready to welcome anyone looking to travel the road to recovery. Our specialties include drug addiction and alcohol use disorders, meaning we are well-equipped to manage depressant abuse. Don’t hesitate to reach out and start your recovery as soon as possible.

The materials provided on the Pinnacle Blog are for information and educational purposes only. No behavioral health or any other professional services are provided through the Blog and the information obtained through the Blog is not a substitute for consultation with a qualified health professional. If you are in need of medical or behavioral health treatment, please contact a qualified health professional directly, and if you are in need of emergency help, please go to your nearest emergency room or dial 911.