What are prescription drugs?

Depressants, sometimes referred to as central nervous system (CNS) depressants or tranquilizers, slow down (or “depress”) the normal activity that goes on in the brain and spinal cord. Doctors often prescribe them for people who are anxious or can’t sleep.

When prescription depressants are taken as prescribed by a doctor, they can be relatively safe and helpful. However, it is considered misuse when they are taken not as prescribed, to get “high,” or when you take some prescribed for someone else. This can lead to dependence and addiction are still potential risks. Addiction means you continue to seek out and take the drug despite negative consequences.

Depressants can be divided into three primary groups: barbiturates, benzodiazepines, and sleep medications.

How Prescription Depressants Are Misused

Depressants usually come in pill or capsule form. People misuse depressants by taking them in a way that is not intended, such as:

  • Taking someone else’s prescription depressant medication, even if it is for a medical reason like sleep problems.
  • Taking a depressant medication in a way other than prescribed—for instance, taking more than the prescribed dose or taking it more often, or crushing pills into powder or opening capsules to snort or inject the drug.
  • Taking a depressant to get “high.”
  • Taking a depressant with other drugs or to counteract the effects of other drugs, such as stimulants.
  • Mixing them with other substances, like alcohol or prescription opioids.

Read more about prescription drugs and what happens to the brain and body when someone misuses them.

The brain is made up of nerve cells that send messages to each other by releasing chemicals called neurotransmitters. Most depressants affect the brain by increasing the activity of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). The increased GABA activity in turn slows down brain activity. This causes a relaxing effect that is helpful to people with anxiety or sleep problems. Too much GABA activity, though, can be harmful.

Yes, you can die if you misuse depressants.

In fact, the risk for overdose and death increases when depressants are combined with other drugs or alcohol. The number of deaths involving benzodiazepines or antidepressants in combination with opioids has increased steadily since 2014, while deaths from these drugs not mixed with opioids has remained steady.

They can be. Depressants work by slowing the brain’s activity. During the first few days of taking a depressant, a person usually feels sleepy and uncoordinated. With continuing use, the body becomes used to these effects and they become less noticeable. This is known as tolerance, which means a person has to take more of the drug to get the same effects.

People can become physically dependent while taking prescription depressants, and to avoid uncomfortable symptoms of withdrawal, they can work with their doctor to stop taking the drugs on a slow timetable. If you have been using depressants regularly and try to suddenly stop, your brain activity might race out of control to the point where it causes seizures. It is important to note that misusing depressants can lead to both physical dependence and addiction, which is when a person continues to use a drug despite negative consequences.

If you, or a friend, are in crisis and need to speak with someone now:

  • Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (they don’t just talk about suicide—they cover a lot of issues and will help put you in touch with someone close by)

If you want to help a friend, you can:

Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.