What Are Depressants? Symptoms, Treatment, Support

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what are depressants

What Are Depressants?

Depressants are a class of drugs that work to slow the activities of the central nervous system. The central nervous system or CNS is comprised of the brain, spinal cord, and associated nerves and is responsible for sending messages throughout the body that are vital to body function. The central nervous system can be excited (or work at an increased level) if needed, or it can be slowed during sleep or times of immense relaxation. For many, these processes occur naturally and are triggered based on internal or external factors. For others, the central nervous system seems constantly “on,” making vital functions such as sleep challenging. 


Depressants work within the central nervous system to slow down the speed of messages entering and leaving the brain. There are a variety of depressant medications available. Some are prescribed by medical or mental health providers to treat diagnosed conditions, including insomnia, panic attacks, seizures, and anxiety. However, depressant drugs are also widely abused or used in a manner outside of medical need. Most depressants are highly addictive, and many are classified as controlled substances by the federal government. 


Commonly Used Depressants

Depressants are categorized into three types. The three primary types or categories include hypnotics, sedatives, and tranquilizers. Many widely used and familiar drugs are depressants. Some of the most common examples include alcohol, opioids, and many sleeping medications. Although the different types of central nervous system depressants work in different ways, they all work to slow the activity of the CNS, primarily the brain. 



Barbiturates, also called downers or barbs, are drugs frequently prescribed to treat anxiety, sleep disorders, and other similar mental health conditions. One of the most well-known drugs of this category is Luminal (Phenobarbital). At one time, barbiturates were considered a “safe” form of depressant; however, as the number of prescriptions increased, so did the occurrence of addiction and overdose. Even when taken as prescribed, barbiturate drugs produce intense feelings of relaxation and euphoria. They also have a significant impact on sleeping patterns. However, due to widespread abuse and the development of benzodiazepine drugs, barbiturates are no longer a first-line medication used to treat many sleep or anxiety issues. 



Although not a prescription or illicit drug, alcohol remains one of the most commonly and widely abused drugs globally. Alcohol also works as a central nervous system depressant; however, the level of impact depends on how much and how fast one consumes alcohol. Many do not realize alcohol is a depressant. Initially, alcohol use leads to changes in the brain that promote relaxation and reduced inhibition. However, ongoing alcohol use can lead to increased anxiety and other mental health symptoms in addition to addiction and withdrawal symptoms when one tries to reduce or stop drinking. 


Sleeping Medications

This group of drugs includes non-benzodiazepine sleeping medications, also referred to as “z-drugs.” Some of the most familiar are Lunesta and Ambien. These are medications formulated specifically to help treat sleeping disorders such as insomnia. They are developed differently than other depressants and are often thought to have fewer side effects and a lower risk for addiction when used as prescribed for a short duration. Unlike benzodiazepines, these drugs do not help reduce anxiety symptoms. It is important to note that long-term use or improper use can inevitably lead to dependency and addiction despite the lowered risk. 



Also referred to as benzos, this group of drugs is prescribed by medical and mental health providers to treat anxiety, sleep disorders, seizures, and other similar stress-related mental health conditions. Frequently prescribed benzodiazepines include Xanax, Ativan, and Valium. When used as directed, they provide beneficial sedative and muscle-relaxing properties. Benzodiazepines are considered safe for short-term use. Unfortunately, they are also highly addictive drugs and frequently misused, leading to addiction and withdrawal symptoms when trying to reduce or stop using. 



Opioids are some of the most addictive and highly abused drugs. Each year millions of people worldwide lose their lives to opioid overdose. Despite growing regulation around opioid prescriptions, they remain the most commonly prescribed medications for pain management. In addition to pain relief, some opioids such as methadone are used to help with addiction treatment. There are different opioids, some of which are legal (codeine, etc.) and others manufactured or illegal (heroin, etc.) Although drugs like codeine are legal, they are still the subject of widespread illicit use and abuse. Opioids vary in strength. However, their effects are generally the same. They work to slow the activities of the CNS producing significant relaxation, inhibition, and sedative actions. 


Symptoms (Effects) of Depressant Use

Although the effects of depressant drugs will vary depending on the type and dose of the drug, they all have similar actions. Virtually all central nervous system depressant drugs work by increasing GABA production in the brain. GABA, or Gamma-aminobutyric acid, is an amino acid that acts as the primary neurotransmitter for the central nervous system. It is responsible for inhibiting (or blocking) specific signals to the brain, therefore, decreasing the activity in the central nervous system. GABA works to produce a calming and relaxing effect. When the activity levels in the brain slow, it also leads to other short and long-term symptoms. Some of these will resolve as the drug wears off; however, with long-term use or addiction, some side effects may not resolve without seeking professional addiction treatment at a luxury drug addiction treatment center like The Hills in Los Angeles, CA. 


Short-Term Depressant Symptoms

Although depressants work within the central nervous system, their effects are felt throughout the body. In addition to slowing the brain’s activity, they also slow activities related to other body functions. These effects may include dizziness, troubles with memory or concentration, inhibited reaction time and coordination, dilated pupils, slurred speech, impaired judgment, problems urinating, reduced blood pressure, slowed heart rate and breathing, and blackouts. 


Long-Term Depressant Symptoms

Depressant drugs are mean to be used for short-term symptom control. Most depressants, when used long-term, lead to adverse side effects. The occurrence of side effects will depend on the type of drug used, the severity of misuse, and how long it is used. The most common side effect to long-term depressant use is dependency and addiction, which often require professional addiction treatment at a drug and alcohol rehab like The Hills to overcome. Other side effects of long-term depressant use may include medical difficulties such as chronic fatigue, weight changes, sexual dysfunction, problems with sleep and breathing, and the physical effects of addiction. Mental health challenges may also occur. Someone with a previously diagnosed mental health condition may notice worsening symptoms, while someone without previous mental health struggles may notice new symptoms. Examples may include depression, increased anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and mental health symptoms related to detox and withdrawal.


The Risk of Overdose

A dangerous risk associated with central nervous system depressant misuse is overdose. Using depressants in a manner other than prescribed (either too frequently, too long, or at elevated doses) can lead to a dangerous and potentially fatal slowing of your respiratory rate and heart rate. It can also cause seizures and possibly death. It is not uncommon for someone using depressants to engage in polysubstance abuse, meaning using two drugs together. Using depressants with another drug that causes sedation, such as alcohol or other depressant drugs (over-the-counter allergy medications, for example), will amplify this effect. 


Treatment for Depressant Addiction

The first step in treatment for central nervous system depressant addiction is detox. When you stop taking CNS depressants, it is not uncommon to experience withdrawal symptoms. Depending on the nature and severity of your addiction, withdrawal symptoms may be intense and could be dangerous. Therefore, detoxing from depressants under supervision in a medically supported detox program at The Hills is essential. 


For most, withdrawal symptoms will begin between twelve and twenty-four hours after your last dose. The most severe symptoms occur within the first one to three days after you stop taking depressants. While most symptoms begin to reduce in intensity during the first week of withdrawal, they can persist for up to two years. These are referred to as post-acute withdrawal symptoms or PAWS. Common symptoms that can occur during depressant withdrawal are sleeping problems, nausea, shaking, mood changes, hallucinations, anxiety, panic, tremors, seizures, heart palpitations, stress, memory and cognition struggles, elevated blood pressure, and heart rate, and body aches. In addition, depressant withdrawal can have life-threatening symptoms that are best managed under medical supervision. 


Once detox is complete, treatment for CNS depressant addiction can occur in different settings depending on the severity of your addiction. It is important to choose a program that will address substance addiction and any mental health concerns that should be addressed as part of your treatment program. At The Hills, we will work with you to design a treatment plan that focuses on your unique treatment needs and goals. The most common treatment model for depressant addiction is cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT. CBT is frequently used as part of many mental health treatment programs. CBT therapy is meant to help you learn more about your addiction and any unhealthy thoughts or behaviors that trigger substance use. Once you better understand the roots of your addiction, it is possible to replace negative thoughts with healthy and beneficial coping strategies.


If you or a loved one struggles with central nervous system depressant addiction, it is vital to seek professional help to overcome dependency on these potentially dangerous drugs. Although highly beneficial as part of a medically prescribed treatment program, depressants are highly addictive and can be dangerous to quit “cold turkey.” To learn more about how treatment at The Hills in Los Angeles, CA, can help you safely and successfully achieve sobriety and maintain lasting recovery from depressant addiction, reach out to our admissions team today.





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