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CNS Depressant Addictions

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Around 18 million people misuse prescription drugs like central nervous system depressants (CNS depressants) each year. Misuse of these types of substances puts you at risk for physical and mental issues as well as overdose and death.

Central nervous system depressants are substances that slow down brain activity. This happens in several ways. Most often, CNS depressants increase inhibitory neurotransmitters in the brain like gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).

Some central nervous system depressants have important medical uses like:

  • Controlling the experience of pain
  • Reducing anxiety
  • Blocking seizure activity
  • Assisting with sleep

People with substance use disorders may take CNS depressants other than prescribed or purchase them to use as recreational drugs.

Types of CNS Depressant Drugs

The major drug classifications of central nervous system depressants include:

  • Opioids – primarily designed to address pain.
  • Tranquilizers – used to treat anxiety disorders or treat seizures.
  • Sedatives (or hypnotics) – typically designed to assist with sleep or treat muscle spasms with muscle relaxation properties.

There is some overlap in how these drugs are prescribed. For instance, certain tranquilizers cause drowsiness and may be used as sleeping pills, whereas certain sedatives may also be used to address anxiety and insomnia.

Alcohol is another central nervous system depressant. It can have similar effects to many of the drugs listed above. Both depressant drugs and alcohol are often misused.

#1 Opioids

Opioid drugs are derived from the Asian poppy plant (opium), or they are synthetic (man-made) substances that resemble the compounds that are extracted from opium.

Examples of prescription opioids include:

  • Morphine
  • Vicodin, Lortab, and Norco (acetaminophen and hydrocodone)
  • OxyContin (oxycodone)
  • Fentanyl
  • All substances containing codeine
  • Methadone

Illicit opioids like heroin have the same properties as these drugs, but aren’t deemed medically useful in the United States.

Opioid drugs work by attaching to the endogenous opioid receptors in the brain. These receptors are involved in your natural ability to deal with pain and stress.

The major medical use of prescription opioids is to control pain, although these drugs also have some other medical uses. When used as directed by a physician, people are less likely to develop opioid use disorders as those who obtain these substances without a prescription and use them as recreational drugs.

#2 Tranquilizers

Benzodiazepines and barbiturates are types of tranquilizers. These medications slow the functioning of the central nervous system (CNS) by increasing the availability of GABA. They are commonly used to treat:

  • Anxiety from mental health disorders
  • Seizures
  • Sleep problems

Tranquilizers may be prescribed to treat alcohol withdrawal symptoms or used on a taper schedule for tranquilizer withdrawal.

Barbiturates include:

  • Seconal (secobarbital)
  • Luminal (phenobarbital)
  • Mebaral (mephobarbital)
  • Nembutal (pentobarbital)

Barbiturates were once prescribed to treat anxiety disorders, but they became widely abused and caused significant numbers of overdose. When benzodiazepines were developed, barbiturates were prescribed less often. Today, barbiturates are mostly used in clinics or hospitals.

Benzodiazepines are considered a safer alternative to barbiturates, but they’re also abused.

Benzodiazepines include:

  • Valium (diazepam)
  • Xanax (alprazolam)
  • Klonopin (clonazepam)
  • Halcion (triazolam)

#3 Nonbenzodiazepine Sedatives

Sedatives (hypnotics) are primarily used as sleep aids, although benzodiazepines like Xanax are also used for this purpose. Like benzos, sedative drugs also work on GABA and have actions

similar to benzodiazepines. They aren’t as potent as benzodiazepines and are not useful in treating seizures or alcohol withdrawal. In some cases, sedatives are used for decreasing mild levels of anxiety, but they are not commonly prescribed for this purpose.

Some of the most popular sedative drugs include:

  • Sonata (zaleplon)
  • Lunesta (eszopiclone)
  • Ambien (zolpidem)

#4 Alcohol

Ethyl alcohol (EtOH), the alcohol that is contained in alcoholic beverages, is also a powerful central nervous system depressant that has many actions similar to the prescription drugs above. Alcohol can:

  • Reduce the sensation of pain
  • Decrease anxiety
  • Initiate sleep

Taking Depressants With Stimulants

Mixing stimulants and depressants can be dangerous. For instance, some people drink alcohol, a CNS depressant, while using cocaine, meth, or ADHD medications like Adderall. This is a trend that’s especially popular among college students. For example, because Adderall is a stimulant, some people combine it with binge drinking in the hopes of “canceling out” the sedating effects of alcohol, making them feel more energized and upbeat while partying. This thinking is misguided. Instead of canceling out the other substances’ effects, depressants and stimulant drugs can compete for your brain’s attention, putting more stress on your central nervous system (CNS). When you mix stimulants and depressants, you’re at risk for both the effects of each drug as well as their combined impact.

The dangers of mixing stimulants and depressants depend on the types of substances, quantities, and your individual physical make-up, but may include:

  • Taking more than normal doses of a drug (ex, drinking more alcohol when using stimulants)
  • Confusion and incoherence
  • Coordination problems
  • Blurred vision
  • Insomnia or sleeplessness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Paranoia
  • Heart issues, including stroke or heart attack
  • Respiratory depression or failure

Signs of Abuse and Addiction

Misuse of a medication is using the medication for a reason other than its medicinal or prescribed purpose. Abuse is a chronic pattern of misuse. Addiction is a physical dependence on a substance. Sedatives and tranquilizers are usually abused in conjunction with opioid drugs or alcohol.

Signs of misusing or abusing a CNS depressant medication:

  • Taking prescription medications in larger doses than instructed.
  • Taking prescription drugs in ways other than instructed like crushing and snorting the powder or consistently taking the medication with alcohol.
  • Doctor shopping for more prescriptions.
  • Taking someone else’s prescription medicine.
  • Buying the drugs illegally.
  • Taking medication to deal with stress or get high.

Self-Assessment: Am I Addicted?

Detoxing from CNS Depressants

People who develop substance use disorders with CNS depressants often experience withdrawal symptoms if they suddenly stop taking them. Withdrawal symptoms associated with stopping alcohol, barbiturates, or benzodiazepines can be fatal because of the potential to develop seizures or from dehydration, which can cause several issues.

When you’re abstinent from using these drugs for a short period of time, your tolerance level decreases. This puts you at risk for overdose if you relapse. Overdoses on any CNS depressant can be fatal. That’s why you should always detox under the care of medical professionals.

The first step in the recovery process is typically a medical detox program. In the case of opioid drugs, you’re often prescribed an opioid replacement medication like Suboxone (naloxone and buprenorphine). These drugs can control withdrawal symptoms. Over time, your physician will slowly taper down the dosage as symptom severity declines. In the case of tranquilizer abuse, sedative abuse, or alcohol abuse, you will most likely be given a long-acting benzodiazepine on the same type of tapering schedule.

Treatment for CNS Depressant Abuse

Detoxing from drugs and alcohol without participating in addiction treatment sets you up for relapse. While medical detox rids your body of substances, drug and alcohol rehab helps you address the reasons behind your addiction. You’ll participate in individual and group therapy and get involved in peer support groups like 12-step meetings.

Addiction to CNS depressants affect your body and mind. It usually takes a structured treatment program and medical and behavioral therapy to begin repairing this damage. Treatment for alcohol and drug abuse teaches you the skills to remain sober, acquire tools to deal with triggers, and create a relapse prevention plan. It also helps you begin building a sober network of peers to lean on in recovery.

Footprints to Recovery provides evidence-based addiction treatment. We’ve helped thousands of people take back their lives from drug and alcohol abuse. We can help you too. Contact us today for a free confidential consultation.

Questions about treatment options?

Our admissions team is available 24/7 to listen to your story and help you get started with the next steps.

Jenna Richer
Medically Reviewed by Jenna Richer, MSW, LCSW
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