Stimulants and depressants affect the body’s central nervous system in very different ways. But both types of drugs have a high potential for abuse and addiction. 

Stimulants and depressants are almost opposites. The only commonality between the two is that they both have an altering effect on the body and mind.

But the effects they have on the body and the mind are expressed in profoundly different ways. While stimulants work to activate the central nervous system (CNS), depressants work to quiet it. That’s why stimulants are known as “uppers” and depressants are known as “downers.”  

The CNS is made up of the brain and spinal cord. It takes in information from the peripheral nervous system and sends information to the network of nerves outside the brain. It then integrates the information and coordinates and influences the activity of all parts of the body.

The brain and the body can easily become dependent on the stimulating or sedating effects of stimulants or depressants respectively. Over time, the individual might need to consume more and more of a drug — or mix the drug with other substances — to achieve the same initial effects. This process is known as developing a tolerance.

As a person’s tolerance increases, their risk of addiction and life-threatening overdose increases as well.

What Is a Stimulant?

Stimulants are substances that make people more alert and increase attention and focus by increasing brain function. They also raise the person’s blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rate. In other words, stimulants stimulate the CNS.

Stimulants might only affect a specific organ or organs, such as the heart, lungs, brain or CNS.

Types of Stimulants

Examples of stimulants include epinephrine — used to make the heart beat during cardiac arrest — as well as amphetamine, dextroamphetamine, methylphenidate, cocaine and methamphetamine.

Stimulants such as pseudoephedrine may even be found in some cold medicines.

Prescription stimulants, such as Adderall (a combination of dextroamphetamine and amphetamine) and Ritalin (methylphenidate), are generally used to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). These drugs are also commonly misused for recreational purposes, increased performance or extreme dieting.

Cocaine is also a local anesthetic, a medication that causes reversible absence of pain sensation. It is the only drug that is classified as both.

Methamphetamine is similar to amphetamine in its chemical composition, but more intense because of its stronger effects. Both drugs are also called psychoactive drugs, or psycho stimulants.

Most stimulants, including cocaine, methamphetamine, methadone, Adderall and Ritalin, are categorized as Schedule II drugs. Schedule II drugs have a high potential for abuse and are considered dangerous. These types of drugs can lead to severe psychological and physical dependence.

Effects of Stimulants

Stimulants act specifically on the brain chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine. The medications increase the activity of these neurotransmitters.

Dopamine and norepinephrine are involved in rewarding behaviors as well as the blood vessels and the regulation of blood pressure, heart rate, blood sugar and breathing, respectively.

After taking stimulants, users feel an initial rush of euphoria. This rush is the pleasurable high that drug abusers seek.

Users will also feel the effects of increased blood pressure, heart rate, breathing and blood sugar levels and decreased blood flow along with the opening of the breathing passages, or easier breathing.

Short-Term Effects of Stimulants Include:

  • Intense feelings of happiness or well-being
  • Increased energy, social performance and self-esteem
  • Improved attention, alertness, awareness or focus
  • Increased sexual desire and performance
  • Opened airways and easier breathing
  • Suppressed appetite

Abusing Stimulants

Stimulants are often abused for their euphoric and energizing effects. But these short-term pleasurable feelings can lead to long-term consequences.

People who regularly use stimulants are also at an increased risk of developing a tolerance to the medications. This behavior can lead to dependence and addiction.

Regular misuse of stimulants can cause psychosis, anger or paranoia. Stimulants, when taken at high doses, can also lead to dangerous side effects, such as high body temperature, irregular heartbeat, seizures and heart failure.

Those who use stimulants might experience withdrawal symptoms when they try to stop taking the drug. These symptoms can come on quickly and last for up to several months.

Stimulant Withdrawal Symptoms Include:

  •        Fatigue or mental and physical exhaustion
  •        Depression or suicidal thoughts
  •        Sleep problems
  •        Irritability, agitation or anxiety
  •        Intense hunger
  •        Inability to feel pleasure

What Is a Depressant?

While stimulants stimulate the central nervous system, depressants depress it.

Depressants reduce the function or activity of the central nervous system by affecting CNS neurons and increasing feelings of drowsiness and relaxation while lowering levels of awareness in the brain.

These drugs also lead to decreased inhibitions or restraint.

Types of Depressants

Since depressants are effective in slowing brain activity, they are useful as medications for various sleep disorders or anxiety. Prescription depressants are generally used to treat insomnia, panic disorders, acute stress reactions and muscle spasms.

Types of depressants include benzodiazepines, hypnotics and barbiturates.

Alcohol is also considered a depressant with a high potential for abuse. About 18 million adults in the United States have an alcohol use disorder (AUD) according to the National Institutes of Health.

Alcohol isn’t generally harmful when used in moderation and on occasion. But drinking too much alcohol can cause damage to the liver, brain and other organs.

AUD and binge drinking — drinking in excess within short periods — can increase a person’s risk of certain cancers and death from car crashes, injuries, homicide and suicide. In pregnant women, it can also cause harm or death to the fetus.

Alcohol abuse is not only a problem for adults. Nearly 61 million people in the United States over the age of 12 reported binge drinking, according to a 2014 survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.  

Effects of Depressants

Depressants act on the brain by increasing the activity of a chemical called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). This chemical works to inhibit brain activity, causing calming effects and drowsiness.

GABA’s main job is to counterbalance other chemicals, hormones and neurotransmitters that can cause overstimulation or excitement.

People who start taking depressants might go through an adjustment period where they are unusually sleepy or uncoordinated for the first few days on the medication.

Short-term effects of depressants include:

  • Slowed brain function and memory problems
  • Lack of coordination
  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Slowed or depressed heart rate and breathing rate
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Depression
  • Slurred speech
  • Dry mouth
  • Vision problems
  • Dizziness and fatigue    

Abusing Depressants

Most depressants have a high potential for misuse and addiction, especially when taken long term. Some depressants have a lower potential for physical and psychological dependence than others.

But tolerance to depressants can develop quickly, increasing the risk of experiencing a deadly overdose.

Taking these drugs to get high or mixing them with other substances can cause serious and dangerous side effects, even after just one instance of misuse. More than 8,700 people died from benzodiazepine overdoses in 2015, according to data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens.

Depressant misuse can also interfere with a person’s life resulting in negative consequences at work, school, home and concerning their health.

Additionally, people addicted to depressants may have trouble when trying to stop using the drug. Abruptly stopping the use of depressants can lead to uncomfortable and sometimes severe withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms may start as soon as a few hours after the drug was last taken.

Unlike stimulant, withdrawal from depressants can be life-threatening.  

Depressant withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Shakiness and overactive reflexes
  • Agitation and anxiety
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Insomnia or sleep problems
  • Increased heart rate, blood pressure and temperature with excessive sweating
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures

Because of these potentially life-threatening symptoms, seeking detox and treatment for an addiction to depressants should be conducted at a medical facility where the patient detoxes under the supervision of professionals. At The Recovery Village, we help people address their addictions to substances such as stimulants and depressants while also treating any co-occurring disorders. Contact The Recovery Village today and speak to a representative about what treatment will work best for you.

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Editor – Thomas Christiansen
With over a decade of content experience, Tom produces and edits research articles, news and blog posts produced for Advanced Recovery Systems. Read more

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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.