Substance Abuse

What is a Depressant?

A depressant tranquilizes, or "depresses" the normal activity in the brain and spinal cord (National Institute of Drug Abuse, 2015). Moderate doses of depressants can make people relaxed, drowsy, reduce concentration, and impair thinking, judgement, and coordination (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2014). Taken in heavy doses, depressants can lead to unconsciousness and death (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2014).

Types of Depressants


Alcohol is the most widely consumed drug worldwide (Gowin, 2010). Although people use alcohol for its stimulating effects, it is ultimately a depressant that causes fatigue, decreased motivation, sleep disturbances, depressed mood, and confusion (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2014). When people become intoxicated by alcohol, they slur their words, walk unsteadily, have trouble paying attention and remembering things, have slowed reactions, and may become angry or rude (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2014).

Normal drinking is characterized by no more than two 5 oz drinks a day for men and no more than one 5 oz drink a day for women (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2014). Any amount of alcohol above this is considered "heavy" drinking (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2014).

Benzodiazepines & Barbituates

Benzodiazepines (i.e. Xanax, Valium, Klonopin) and Barbituates (i.e. Seconal) are prescribed to patients who experience acute stress, anxiety, panic attacks, convulsions, and sleep disorders (National Institute of Drug Abuse, 2015). However, many of these medications are abused by people who use them to get high. These drugs cause a decrease in blood pressure, respiratory rate, and heart rate; when mixed with alcohol, the risk for overdose increases (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2014).

Sleeping pills

Ambien and Lunesta are common sleeping medications prescribed to patients who complain of insomnia (AddictionCenter, 2015). Many people believe they cannot get addicted to sleeping pills, but some find themselves unable to sleep without the help of a pill (AddictionCenter, 2015). Others abuse sleeping pills to experience the same calming effects of benzodiazepines and alcohol (AddictionCenter, 2015). Some effects of sleeping pills include reduced anxiety, dreamless sleep, lack of coordination, dizziness, feeling lightheaded, and hallucinations (AddictionCenter, 2015).

Possible causes

Biological factors of addiction to depressants results in the drugs replaces the neurotransmitter, GABA, in the brain (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2014). With the repeated use of drugs, the brain stops producing GABA because it is being supplemented by the drugs (National Institute of Drug Abuse, 2015). When the drugs are depleted in the brain, the GABA is no longer produced, resulting in symptoms of withdrawal (National Institute of Drug Abuse, 2015). Family history and twin studies suggest that genetics play a role in determining who is at risk for substance abuse (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2014).

Psychological factors that attribute to substance abuse disorder suggest that children learn substance use behaviors from their parents and other adults they look up to (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2014). Alcohol is the most common substance that can impact children's thoughts and make them more susceptible to developing an alcohol dependence (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2014). Children who see their parents intoxicated and driving impaired teaches them that these are acceptable behaviors and thus are more likely to engage in them (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2014).

People who expect alcohol to reduce their distress and help them cope with situations are more likely to drink alcohol when they are upset (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2014). Personality characteristics related to an increased risk of substance abuse include the lack of control of their behavior, impulsivity, sensation-seeking, and prone to anti-social behaviors (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2014).

Sociocultural factors contribute to the prevalence of substance abuse. Substance use disorders are higher among people living in poverty, women in abusive relationships, and children whose parents fight violently and frequently (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2014). Some cultures and religions discourage any use of alcohol, therefore there are less alcohol-related disorders in these societies (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2014).

Treatment options

Medications and psychosocial treatments can help patients with substance use disorders.

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be treated with benzodiazepines to reduce tremors, anxiety, decrease pulse and respiration rate, and stabilize blood pressure (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2014). Naltrexone is also prescribed for alcohol abuse, which decreases the craving for alcohol (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2014). Antabuse is another medication prescribed to those suffering from alcohol addiction by punishing the patient while drinking (and taking the medication) (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2014). The patient can feel sick, dizzy, vomit, and even faint after drinking just one alcoholic beverage (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2014).

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a 12-step support group that people with an alcohol dependency take toward recovery (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2014). AA members provide support and encouragement to others and make themselves available to others in times of crisis (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2014).

For Benzodiazepines & Barbituates, detoxification and reducing the dose of the drug is the first goal of treatment (, n.d.). Treatment programs seek to motivate the individual to stop using the drug, to teach them new coping skills to deal with stressful and negative thinking, reduce exposure to those who continue to abuse the drugs, and enhance their support system (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2014).

Myths about depressants

MYTH #1: Sex is better when drunk.
Alcohol lowers inhibitions and may make you feel sexy, but it impairs sexual functioning (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2014)

MYTH #2: You cannot become addicted to sleeping pills.
FACT: Many people treat short-term insomnia with sleeping pills, but many others can become dependent of them (AddictionCenter, 2015). Some people find themselves unable to fall asleep without the pill and need to increase their dose to fall asleep (AddictionCenter, 2015).

MYTH #3:
Addiction is for life.
FACT: This is untrue and can place a burden on recovering addicts (Jaffe, 2012). According to the National Institute of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse, 75% of alcoholics recover without treatment (Jaffe, 2012).

Finding a professional to treat your substance abuse

Appropriate licensing, quality of care during the program, follow-up services, and staff credentials are all aspects to consider when finding a substance abuse treatment program (Smith & Segal, 2015). The patient should make sure the treatment program is accredited by the state and the program is run by licensed, well-trained mental health and addiction specialists, it has great success rates on treatments provided, and the staff collaborates with the patient on a discharge plan when they leave the program (Smith & Segal, 2015).


AddictionCenter. (2015, November). Sleeping pill addiction and abuse. Retrieved from (n.d.). Substance abuse (Depressants or sedative-hypnotic drugs). Retrieved from

Gowin, J. (2010, June 18). Your brain on alcohol. Retrieved from

Jaffe, A. (2012, September 13). 5 damaging myths about addiction. Retrieved from

National Institute of Drug Abuse. (2015). Prescription depressant medications. Retrieved from

Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (2014). Abnormal psychology (6th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Smith, M., & Segal, J. (2015, August). Choosing a drug treatment program. Retrieved from