Central Nervous System Depressants

The central nervous system includes your brain and spinal cord and controls the functions of your body. Through the spinal cord, signals from peripheral nerves travel to the brain to provide information about what is happening in other bodily regions. The brain sends signals back through the spinal cord and out to various areas of the body to control movement, speech, awareness, hearing, sight, taste, touch, and smell.

Central Nervous System Depressants

In some cases, doctors might prescribe central nervous system (CNS) depressants, which are a class of medications that slow the processes of the central nervous system. These drugs might be prescribed to people who suffer from insomnia, anxiety, seizures, or panic attacks to relax their muscles and provide a sense of calm by depressing the central nervous system. While these medications might offer some benefits to people suffering from these types of disorders, they also carry a high risk of drug dependence, abuse, and addiction.

What Are CNS Depressants?

CNS depressants include a broad range of drugs that slow the activity of the brain by acting on a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and causing lowered inhibition, drowsiness, and relaxation. There are three primary categories of CNS depressants, including tranquilizers, sedatives, and hypnotics. Hypnotics and sedatives are used to treat insomnia and other sleep disorders. Tranquilizers are prescribed to treat muscle spasms and anxiety disorders.

While many different medications are classified as CNS depressants, some of the most common include the following:

  • Alcohol
  • Benzodiazepines (Xanax, Valium, Klonopin, and others)
  • Sedative hypnotics (Lunesta, Sonata, Ambien, and other sleep medications)
  • Barbiturates (Luminal, Nembutal, Mebaral, and others)
  • Opioids (methadone, oxycodone, hydrocodone

While different types of CNS drugs work in different ways, they all share a common feature of depressing the central nervous system. Some CNS depressants are considered safer than others. However, they all carry the potential for dependence, abuse, and addiction.


Alcohol is among the most commonly abused drugs in the U.S. and around the world. Part of the reason is its easy availability and little social stigma attached to its use. How much effect alcohol will have on the central nervous system depends on how often, how much, and how quickly someone drinks. Initially, drinking alcohol will have some positive effects, including increased relaxation and greater sociability. However, when people continue to drink, their brains will be more affected, resulting in negative emotions. Alcohol abuse can increase stress, anxiety, depression, and anger. Chronic drinkers might also become dependent on alcohol and experience addiction and withdrawal symptoms when they attempt to stop drinking.


Benzodiazepines are used to treat seizures, anxiety, and other stress reactions. These drugs have multiple street names, including blues, benzos, trannies, planks, bars, zannies, and tranks. Benzodiazepines have muscle relaxant and sedative properties. While they are generally considered safe for short-term treatment of acute anxiety, using them illicitly or for long periods can cause people to develop tolerance, dependence, and addiction and to suffer withdrawal symptoms when they stop using them or rapidly decrease their use.

Sedative Hypnotics/Sleep Medications

Sedative hypnotics are commonly prescribed to people suffering from chronic sleep disorders such as insomnia. They work in a different way than other types of CNS depressants. They also do not help to reduce anxiety. They are believed to have a lower risk of addiction and fewer side effects than benzodiazepines, but people can still become dependent on these drugs when they use them on a long-term basis or illegally.

sleeping pills


Barbiturates are CNS depressants that might be prescribed to treat sleep disorders, tension, or anxiety. These drugs have several street names, including yellow jackets, barbs, red devils, reds and blues, goof balls, and others. In the past, doctors considered barbiturates to be generally safe. However, widespread barbiturate abuse and dependence during the 1970s quickly demonstrated these drugs have a high potential for addiction. Barbiturates can make people feel a sensation of euphoria and deep relaxation even in small amounts, and this can encourage people to abuse them. Barbiturates also negatively impact sleep and have been shown to suppress REM sleep, which is when people dream. Since benzodiazepines are considered to be less addictive and less likely to result in overdoses, barbiturates are no longer commonly prescribed for anxiety or sleep disorders.


Opioid medications are synthetic drugs that mimic the effects of opiates and are prescribed to treat pain. Some, like methadone, are also used to treat opioid and opiate addictions. While opioids vary in their addictive potential and strength, they all are highly addictive and are among the most dangerous drugs available. Over the past decade, the opioid epidemic in the U.S. has resulted in tens of thousands of overdoses and deaths and has left countless ruined lives in its wake.

Side Effects of CNS Depressants

CNS depressants increase feelings of drowsiness and relaxation while reducing inhibition. Some side effects of these drugs include the following:

  • Drop in blood pressure
  • Confusion
  • Dilated pupils
  • Trouble urinating
  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Memory loss
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Slowed reactions
  • Slurred speech
  • Poor judgment
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Loss of coordination

Benefits and Risks of CNS Depressants

When taken as prescribed, CNS depressants might help to address the symptoms of seizure disorders, sleep disorders, anxiety disorders, and pain disorders. However, these drugs also pose multiple risks, including dependence, addiction, overdose, coma, and death.

If you take a CNS depressant over the long term, your dose might need to be increased to provide the same benefits you initially received to receive the same benefits. If you increase your dose, you might feel like you depend on the medication or develop an addiction to it. If you take more medication than prescribed or use CNS depressants illegally, you can also quickly become addicted. These drugs can cause dangerous withdrawal symptoms if you try to abruptly stop taking them. You should not try to stop taking CNS depressants without a doctor’s supervision.

CNS depressants can also cause overdoses, coma, and death when abused. If you recognize signs of an overdose, you should immediately seek medical attention.

Overdoses of CNS depressants can disrupt the oxygen supply to your brain, cessation of breathing, seizures, coma, permanent brain damage, and death. If you believe that you might be addicted to a CNS depressant, you should speak with a treatment professional for help.

Withdrawal Symptoms

If you stop taking CNS depressants when you are dependent on and addicted to them, you can experience the following withdrawal symptoms:

  • Excessive sweating
  • Fever
  • Increased blood pressure and heart rate
  • Hallucinations
  • Anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Seizures
  • Insomnia
  • Overactive reflexes
  • Shakiness
  • Intense cravings

What Is CNS Depressant Misuse?

CNS depressant misuse occurs when you take these drugs in the following ways:

  • Taking more than prescribed
  • Crushing the drug and snorting or injecting it
  • Taking someone else’s medication
  • Buying the drug on the street
  • Trying to get high instead of addressing symptoms of your health condition

Misusing CNS depressants can cause you to experience the following side effects:

  • Slurred speech
  • Lack of concentration
  • Confusion
  • Chronic headaches
  • Light-headedness
  • Trouble moving
  • Dry mouth
  • Dangerously low blood pressure
  • Slowed breathing

What Are the Signs of CNS Depressant Abuse?

The signs of CNS depressant abuse include the following:

  • Taking more medication than prescribed
  • Running out of prescriptions early
  • Secretive behavior
  • Mood swings
  • Decreased productivity
  • Withdrawal symptoms when not taking the medication
  • Periods of apathy or low energy
  • Taking CNS depressants with alcohol or other drugs

The safest way to stop using CNS depressants is to go through a medically-assisted detox. Suddenly stopping these types of drugs can cause life-threatening complications. Doctors can gradually wean people from these drugs while also prescribing medications to safely help with withdrawal symptoms.

How CNS Depressant Addictions Are Treated

The treatment of addiction to CNS depressants starts with medically-assisted detox in a drug rehabilitation center or medical facility. Once the patient has completed detox, they will typically either go into an inpatient or intensive outpatient treatment program. In many cases, people who become addicted to drugs also have co-occurring mental health disorders that should also be treated, including anxiety or depression. People who go through rehab might receive treatment for any underlying mental health conditions as well as their addiction issues.

When people enter treatment, tailored treatment plans will be created and include all of the various therapies that can help the patients recover and make healthier choices. Many people benefit from cognitive-behavioral therapy to help them modify their thinking and learn new coping skills to manage stress.

Get Help

If you are struggling with an addiction to a CNS depressant or are concerned about your loved one’s misuse of these drugs, you should reach out to the drug treatment professionals at Long Island Interventions. Call us now for more information or help.

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