What Are Depressants?

Central nervous system depressants are substances that decrease activity in the brain and body. Prescription depressants are indicated for the treatment of a variety of conditions, such as insomnia, seizures, anxiety, muscle tension, and pain in general.

When abused, however, these drugs can have adverse effects on the body, some resulting in serious complications, overdose, and even death. Common depressants include alcohol, opioids, benzodiazepines, muscle relaxers, and sedatives.


Alcohol is among the most frequently used depressants, sometimes mistaken for a stimulant due to the euphoria it invokes early on during intoxication.

Nearly 9 out of 10 adults aged 18 or older report drinking alcohol at some point in their lives and roughly one-fourth of those have engaged in binge drinking – a pattern of abuse that increases the risk of adverse effects and alcohol addiction.

While alcohol is legal to use among adults over age 21, it is often abused, and people who use alcohol frequently and in large amounts run the risk of addiction and alcohol poisoning. When used long-term alcohol increases the risk of liver cirrhosis, as well as many cancers.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), adverse effects of long-term, excessive alcohol abuse may include:

  • Weakening of the heart muscle
  • Irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia)
  • Stroke
  • Hypertension
  • Alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis of the liver
  • Increased risk of cancer in the mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, and breast
  • Increased risk of pancreatitis
  • Weakened immune system
  • Disorientation
  • Vision difficulties
  • Injuries from intoxication
  • Agitation and depression


Opioids and opiates belong to a class of drugs that include both prescription painkillers and illicit substances such as heroin. Due to their highly addictive nature, they are frequently abused for their feel-good effects.

Some health complications from opioid use include, but are not limited to the following:

  • Heart palpitations
  • Sweating and chills
  • Nausea
  • Constipation
  • Itching
  • Hypersensitivity to stimuli
  • Confusion

While many other depressants, such as alcohol and benzodiazepines (benzos), are difficult to overdose on lethally, potent opioids such as heroin and fentanyl can cause death in just minutes. Furthermore, opioids are far more dangerous when combined with other CNS depressants such as benzos, alcohol, and sedatives.

In fact, in 2017, of the estimated 72,000 drug overdose deaths in the United States, the vast majority involved either prescription or illicit opioids/opiates.


Barbituates are used for a variety of purposes, such as anesthesia, seizure management, and pain relief. They are also sometimes used for the treatment of alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

Like many depressants, barbiturates have a high potential for addiction if misused. Side effects of excessive barbiturate use include:

  • Risks to pregnancy
  • Heart palpitations
  • Intentionally heavy sedation
  • Accidental overdose and death

Barbiturates can become addictive in a relatively short amount of time and are involved in approximately 1500 emergency room visits each year. By some estimates, they may currently be involved in as many as one-third of the drug overdose deaths in the United States.


Benzos are anti-anxiety medications that are prescribed for the treatment of anxiety and panic disorder, insomnia, and sometimes seizures or depression. Benzos also have a high potential for abuse and addiction. Side effects of benzodiazepine abuse may include the following:

  • Sedation
  • Dizziness and unsteadiness
  • Weakness
  • Depression
  • Loss of orientation
  • Headache
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Confusion
  • Irritability and aggression
  • Impaired memory

Benzodiazepines are rarely fatal if overused on their own, but when used in conjunction with other depressants such as opioid the risk of a fatal overdose increases exponentially. In fact, benzos are involved in a large percentage of drug overdose deaths each year, especially those classified as combined drug intoxication.

Additional Depressants

There are several types of drugs classified as depressants that are less likely to be abused, but could potentially interact with other CNS depressants and therefore should only be used according to a doctor’s orders:

Antihistamines – these are used to reduce allergic reactions, inflammation, and in some cases can also work as mild anti-anxiety agents
Muscle Relaxers – used to ease strain and tension on the muscles due to injury, surgery, or other debilitating conditions
Anti-psychotics – used to treat the hyperactive mood during a manic episode, schizophrenia, or Tourette’s syndrome
Alpha and beta blockers – often used for Raynaud’s disease, high blood pressure, and anxiety disorders

Treatment for Depressants

Treatment for addiction to depressants such as alcohol, opioids, benzodiazepines, and barbiturates should begin with a medically-assisted detox. During this process, the patient is supervised 24/7 while his or her body rids itself of toxic substances.

Undergoing a medical detox allows the patient to monitored and administered medication to help ease withdrawal symptoms that would normally lead to relapse.

Following detox, patients are encouraged to participate in one of our addiction treatment programs, which includes both partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient formats. Both tracks include individual and group therapy, individual and family counseling, 12-step programs, and holistic approaches such as yoga, meditation, and art therapy.

After intensive treatment has been completed, patients can benefit from our aftercare planning services and alumni activities that foster ongoing community support and continued recovery.

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