Prescriptions depressants are a valuable medical option for treating a number of health issues. However, as with any prescription medication, there are health risks when they are taken outside a doctor’s explicit guidance.

Find out more about depressants and their effects on the mind and body. Learn the consequences of depressant abuse and how you can get help.

What is a depressant

Depressants, or downers, are substances that reduce brain stimulation or otherwise depress nervous system activity. There are a few major categories of depressants:


Barbiturates such as phenobarbital and pentobarbital have historically been used for their anti-anxiety and anti-seizure properties. Medical use of barbiturates has declined over the years in favor of benzodiazepines due to lower risk of overdose.


Sometimes called benzos, benzodiazepines have been available since the 1960s for the treatment of sleep disorders, convulsions, anxiety, and other acute stress reactions. While considered safe for short-term medical use, long-term or illicit use risks dependence. Common benzodiazepines include diazepam (Valium), alprazolam (Xanax), lorazepam (Ativan) and Clonazepam (Klonopin).

Sleep medication

Certain depressants such as zolpidem (Ambien) and eszopiclone (Lunesta) are designed specifically to treat sleep disorders, particularly insomnia.

Effects of depressants

Depressants work in a number of ways, most commonly by increasing the production of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). This increased brain chemical has the effect of slowing brain activity and producing a relaxation effect. In addition to this, there are often various side-effects to depressant use.

Short-term effects

  • Slowed pulse and breathing
  • Lowered blood pressure
  • Dilated pupils
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Sleepiness or fatigue
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Dizziness

Long-term effects

The effects of long-term use depend on the type of depressant and severity of use. In particular, abusers of depressants may develop a tolerance and require increasing doses to maintain the desired effects. Other potential long-term effects include:

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Weight gain
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Breathing and sleep difficulties
  • Depression

Signs of abuse

The first and foremost sign of abuse is taking depressants without medical direction, or outside the doctor’s prescribed guidelines. Examples include taking depressants recreationally, to escape your problems, or taking someone else’s prescription. Other warning signs include:

  • Secretive behavior
  • Mood swings
  • Decreased social activity or work productivity
  • Periods of depression or apathy
  • Withdrawal symptoms when not using depressants

Excessive consumption of depressants can lead to overdose and death. These abuse risks can be dangerously compounded if depressants are mixed with alcohol, or used to offset the effects of stimulants.

Withdrawal symptoms

Because of the way depressants affect brain chemistry, withdrawal symptoms can be sudden and severe. While a medical professional can best assess the risks and approach to ending depressant abuse, common symptoms include:

  • Insomnia
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Weakness
  • Confusion or hallucinations
  • Anxiety or panic attacks
  • Body pains and tremors
  • Seizures

Treatment and therapies

Medically assisted treatment for addiction to depressants is strongly recommended. While tailored to individual needs, a recovery program typically begins with addressing immediate symptoms of addiction and withdrawal. This is followed up by inpatient treatment and then transitional steps toward a healthy, sober life.


Many depressant addicts will require an initial period of detox to allow the drugs to exit their system. During this stage, medically supervised management of the withdrawal process helps ensure a safe cleansing of the body. Detox activities may involve:

  • Managing often severe withdrawal symptoms
  • Medication to assist with cravings and physical discomfort
  • A diet plan to support nutritional needs
  • Medical monitoring

Inpatient treatment

When detox is complete, a patient will typically step down to residential rehab. This stage affords patients the opportunity to focus on their recovery in a safe, supervised environment. Inpatient services include:

  • Medically supervised treatment
  • Diet and fitness plans
  • Individual and group therapy sessions.
  • Management of drug cravings
  • 12-step programs
  • Recovery and life skills education

Ongoing recovery

When a patient is ready to graduate from inpatient treatment, there are a number of personalized options available based upon their medical and clinical needs. These transitional programs are designed to help an individual take the necessary steps toward a healthy, long-term life plan:

Getting treatment for your loved one

The Recovery Village can assist you or your loved one begin the journey to recovery. Our expert, professional staff is available to get you the help you need. Reach out and get started today.


Are opioids depressants?

Opioids are depressants, including heroin.

Is codeine a depressant?

Codeine, like other opioids, is a central nervous system depressant. It is possible to feel high or a sense of euphoria when using codeine, particularly at higher doses. Still, this effect tends to be less pronounced compared to many other opioids.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.