Central nervous system (CNS) depressant drugs include tranquilizers, sedatives, and hypnotics. The job of these drugs is to slow down brain activity. Because they slow down the CNS, they’re useful in treating anxiety, panic, and sleep disorders. 

CNS depressant drugs are available as a prescription sedative and over-the-counter (OTC) sedatives. Having depressant sedatives available, OTC gives a false sense of security. But, long-term use can lead to depressant addiction and withdrawal symptoms. 

What Are Depressant Drugs?

Drugs such as sedatives, tranquilizers, and hypnotics are depressant drugs. These drugs work by attaching neurotransmitters in the brain. As a result, the CNS slows down and causes drowsiness and relaxation, and lowers inhibitions. 

Depressant drugs treat issues such as:

  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Panic attacks
  • Stress
  • Sleep disorders
  • Pain
  • Seizures

CNS depressant drugs work differently depending on their drug class. However, they all lower the activity and awareness of the CNS. But, despite that similarity, they have major differences. 

Some depressant drugs are significantly safer and prescribed more than others. However, both OTC and prescription sedatives can lead to depressant addiction. As a result, depressant drugs should be used as directed. 

Are Depressants Less Dangerous than Stimulants?

Whether depressants are less dangerous than stimulants is hard to answer. Depressant drugs slow down the CNS and have dangerous risks. But, stimulants are dangerous also. The “crash” that follows the “high” has very severe risks. For this reason, it is hard to say if depressants are less dangerous than stimulants. 

Over-The-Counter Depressant Drugs

Over-the-counter (OTC) sleeping pills use antihistamine as a sedative. Some common OTC sleep aids include:

  • Sominex
  • Sleepinal
  • Unisom

But, some OTC sleep aids use antihistamine and Acetaminophen. Examples include Tylenol PM and Asprin-free Anacin PM. However, Nyquil uses antihistamines and alcohol to create a sedative effect. 

The sedative effects of antihistamines may cause feelings like a hangover. Furthermore, the long-term effects of depressants prescription include headaches and forgetfulness. Above all, the long-term impact of depressants prescription leads to depressant addiction. As a result, OTC depressant drugs shouldn’t be used nightly.

Alcohol is a Depressant Drug

Alcohol is one of the most used over the counter depressant drug. The effects of alcohol depend widely on the person and how they consume alcohol. Because alcohol makes a person feel good when they first start drinking, it can cause people to begin misusing alcohol. 

Prescription Sedative: Barbiturates

Barbiturates, or downers, are a prescription sedative. It treats anxiety and sleep disorders. Common benzos include:

  • Amytal
  • Luminal
  • Mebaral
  • Nembutal
  • Seconal

Although barbiturates were considered safe, many issues such as depressant addiction and overdose became clear. Even in small doses, these depressant drugs cause a sense of euphoria and relaxation. These feelings encourage depressants addiction in some people. 

Because barbiturates offer great sleep benefits, they were popular from the 1950s to 1970s. But, the quick rise in depressant addiction and the long-term effects of depressants led to fewer prescriptions.

Prescription Sedative: Benzodiazepine

Often called benzos, benzodiazepines are CNS depressant drugs. They are mostly used to treat anxiety, sleep disorders, and acute stress reactions. Common benzos include:

  • Valium
  • Xanax
  • Ativan

The muscle-relaxing effects of benzos are useful for anxiety treatment. And, for short-term use, they are safe. However, the long-term effects of depressants can lead to depressant addiction and severe withdrawal symptoms. 

Prescription Sedative Sleeping Pills 

Prescription sleeping pills are part of depressant drugs that include non-benzo sleep aids. These drugs are also known as “z-drugs.” These depressant drugs include:

  • Ambien
  • Sonata
  • Lunesta

Z-drugs specifically treat insomnia and sleep disorders. They are different than CNS depressant drugs. For instance, they are chemically different. In addition, they stimulate neurotransmitters differently. 

However, z-drugs, unlike benzos, do not reduce anxiety. But, they do have fewer side effects than benzos. And although the long-term effects of depressant drugs like z-drugs are lower, they can still lead to depressant addiction.

Opioids are Depressant Drugs

The most common prescription pain drugs are opioids. Opioids such as Methadone treat opioid addiction. Although opioids like codeine and hydrocodone are prescription sedatives, opioids are also illegal street drugs like heroin. 

The strength of opioids and the risk of addiction varies greatly. However, they are chemically similar and have the same effects. Although opioids are useful, they are perhaps the most dangerous drug. For instance, 128 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose. Also, hundreds of thousands of people struggle with depressant addiction every year. 

Effects of Depressant Drugs

CNS depressant drugs increase GABA neurotransmitter production. This effect slows down brain activity. As a result, it causes drowsiness, relaxation, and effects such as:

  • Lowered blood pressure
  • Dilated pupils
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Slowed pulse and breathing
  • Sleepiness or fatigue
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Dizziness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Memory loss
  • Slowed reaction time
  • Relaxation
  • Slurred speech
  • Reduced inhibitions
  • Loss of coordination
  • Impaired judgment
  • Blacking out

Long-Term Effects of Depressants

The long-term effects of depressants include various harmful effects. These effects depend on the depressant and the severity of misuse. However, the chronic misuse of depressant drugs can lead to tolerance requiring higher doses.  

Other long-term effects of depressants  include:

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Weight gain
  • Hypersomnia
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Breathing and sleep difficulties
  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Physical dependence
  • Addiction

However, an overdose is another possible side effect of depressant drugs. Consuming excessive amounts of depressant drugs leads to respiratory depression, seizures, and even death. Depressant drugs shouldn’t be used with any other prescription sedatives or OTC depressants and alcohol. 

If a person combines prescription sedatives and OTC meds, it can be fatal. But, this risk increases when people use depressants to come down from stimulants. Stimulants include drugs such as cocaine and Adderall. However, it’s very dangerous to combine multiple CNS depressant drugs. For instance, it can lead to overdose, respiratory failure, and death.

Signs of Depressant Addiction

The most common sign of depressant addiction is taking more than prescribed. For instance, taking more to increase the effects of the drug. Also, taking depressant drugs without a prescription is a sign. 

Signs of depressant addiction include:

  • Mood swings
  • Being secretive
  • Abnormal behaviors
  • Lacking energy or motivation
  • Decreasing social activity
  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Recurrence of use after stopping

Mixing depressants and other drugs is also a sign of depressant addiction. Although mixing drugs intensify the effects, it’s a sign of tolerance and dependence. Without treatment for depressant addiction, people risk severe withdrawal symptoms or worse. 

Depressant Drug Withdrawal

When a person stops taking depressant drugs, severe withdrawal symptoms begin. Because these drugs change brain chemistry, withdrawal symptoms start suddenly and are very severe. For instance, most withdrawal symptoms start within 12 to 24 hours of the last dose. 

However, these symptoms are the worst 24 to 72 hours after the last dose. But, after the initial withdrawal period, or acute withdrawal, symptoms start to fade. Unfortunately, post-acute withdrawal symptoms can last up to 24 months.

The rebound effect is another symptom of depressant withdrawal. The rebound effect is when symptoms of the original issue come back stronger. For example, a person with anxiety will have worse anxiety after stopping depressant drugs. 

Common withdrawal symptoms of CNS depressant drugs include:

  • Insomnia
  • Restlessness
  • Shaking 
  • Weakness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Irritability
  • Excessive sweating
  • Hallucinations
  • Change in perception
  • Anxiety
  • Panic attacks
  • Tremors
  • Seizures
  • Depression
  • Body aches and pains
  • Muscle stiffness
  • Heart palpitations
  • Tension
  • Stress
  • Memory issues
  • Increased blood pressure and pulse
  • Hypersensitivity to light and sound

Withdrawal from depressants can be life-threatening. But, the risks increase when a person stops “cold turkey” on their own. However, medical detox is a safe way to withdrawal from depressant drugs. 

Medical Detox for Prescription Sedatives

The safest way to go through depressant drug withdrawal is in medical detox programs. Medical detox allows people to rid their bodies of drugs under medical care. Although medical detox doesn’t take away all the symptoms, it does ease most of them. 

Medical detox includes:

  • Managing severe withdrawal symptoms
  • Medication to ease cravings and discomfort
  • Nutritional plans
  • Medical monitoring
  • Psychotherapy

Inpatient Treatment for Prescription Sedative

Once detox is complete, most members enter into inpatient treatment. Inpatient treatment allows them to focus on their recovery in a safe place. Inpatient treatment includes:

  • Individual and group therapy
  • Medically supervised treatment
  • Life skills training
  • Family and couples therapy
  • Prevention of recurrence of use
  • 12-step programs

Therapies for Depressant Addiction

Many treatment facilities such as Discovery Institute, offer a variety of therapies for depressant addiction. These therapies help members replace negative thoughts and behaviors with ones that support recovery. For example, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is very beneficial for depressant addiction. This therapy helps members modify their thoughts and behaviors. It also helps members learn coping skills. 

Chronic Ongoing Depressant Addiction Treatment

Although a person may complete inpatient treatment, depressant addiction treatment is a chronic ongoing process. For this reason, there are various options for the next phase of treatment. Chronic treatment options include:

  • Partial hospitalization programs
  • Outpatient programs
  • Aftercare and 12-step programs
  • Supportive recovery housing

Prescription Sedative Treatment at Discovery Institute

If you or a loved one is struggling with depressant addiction you are not alone. We provide a range of treatment options to meet your needs. Contact us today and find out how you can take back your life. 

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by Dr. Jeffrey Berman, MD

Dr. Jeffrey Berman, MDDr. Jeffrey Berman is a psychiatrist in Teaneck, New Jersey and is affiliated with Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital. He received his medical degree from State University of New York Upstate Medical University and has been in practice for more than 20 years. He also speaks multiple languages, including French and Hebrew.