Depressant Abuse, Addiction, And Treatment

Depressants like opioids, benzodiazepines, and alcohol can have deadly effects when taken in high quantities, and have other harmful effects when abused. The most effective treatment for overcoming depressant abuse and addiction is an inpatient treatment program.

Thousands of Massachusetts residents struggle with some form of substance abuse, including the misuse of depressants. Over time, the chronic misuse of depressants such as alcohol and opioids can lead to serious health problems, as well as addiction, and in severe cases—death.

Addressing depressant abuse and addiction in the Greater New England area has become a key initiative for public health. From 1999 to 2017, the rate of overdose deaths involving depressants such as heroin and prescription opioids nearly quadrupled in the United States, with several New England states at the center of this crisis.

During that time, the opioid epidemic claimed the lives of more than 400,000 individuals in the United States, as a result of fatal drug overdose. Nearly 800,000 people have died as a result of fatal drug overdoses since 1999, and more still struggle with additional consequences of living with addiction.

Finding treatment for depressant abuse and addiction in Massachusetts can be life-saving. Inpatient and outpatient treatment programs for addiction can help individuals heal from the effects of drug or alcohol abuse and learn supportive strategies for a more fulfilling future in recovery.

What Are Depressants?

A depressant is a type of drug that slows down the central nervous system (CNS), which is made up of the brain and spinal cord. Depressants have the primary function of slowing down brain activity, which can result in drowsiness, dizziness, and sedation among other effects.

Common types of depressants (downers) include:

Prescription depressants—such as Xanax or Lunesta—may be prescribed to treat a variety of health concerns, including insomnia, anxiety, and moderate to severe pain. Acquiring alcohol, of course, does not require a prescription, and does not serve any medical purpose.

Several depressants, such as common sleep medications, can be purchased over-the-counter. Synthetic opioids like fentanyl—which can be prescribed by a doctor or acquired from a drug dealer—have posed one of the greatest threats to national public health, as the primary driver of fatal drug overdoses across the nation.

While prescription drug depressants may offer certain benefits for individuals when taken as prescribed, they are not meant to be used long-term. Long-term use of depressants can lead to drug tolerance, a chemical dependency, and addiction. It can also increase the risk of abusing substances and other physical and mental health problems.

Commonly Abused Depressants

The term ‘depressants’ encompasses a broad range of substances. The most commonly abused depressants in the United States are alcohol and opioids like heroin.

Learning more about the most frequently misused depressant drugs can help individuals and their loved ones better understand the signs, symptoms, and dangers of depressant abuse.

Alcohol Abuse And Addiction

Alcohol is the most widely abused substance in the United States. Drinking alcohol can cause various effects throughout the body, including drowsiness, slowed reflexes, and changes in vision. Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can also cause sedation and blackouts.

While most people who drink alcohol are able to do so in moderation, others may become reliant on alcohol and abuse it to self-medicate and cope with stress. Excessive drinking on a regular basis may cause the body to develop a dependence on alcohol, which can make it hard to go more than a day without drinking. This can lead to both a physical and psychological addiction.

In 2014, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that 6.7 percent—or 383,000—Massachusetts residents aged 12 and older struggled with alcohol dependence or abuse. Chronic alcohol abuse can cause a whole host of health issues, including kidney and liver damage, insomnia, and increased risk for heart and liver disease.

Opioid Abuse And Addiction

Opioids are a type of CNS depressant drug that can relieve moderate to severe pain. Opioids have historically been prescribed to treat acute and chronic pain, although they have a high-risk potential for abuse and addiction.

While some opioids—such as morphine and heroin—are naturally-occurring, common prescription opioids like oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone, and fentanyl are what’s known as synthetic, or semi-synthetic, opioids. This means that they are fully or partially man-made.

Opioids cause depressant effects in the body by binding to the body’s opioid receptors. The strength of opioids, their addictive potential, and dangers can vary according to the type of opioid that is taken. Fentanyl, for instance, is up to 100 times more potent than heroin and morphine and is involved in about 70 percent of opioid overdose deaths.

Taking opioids for more than a few weeks may cause drug tolerance and dependence. Due to the high abuse and addiction potential of opioids, it’s critical to take opioids exactly as they have been prescribed by a doctor. Taking opioids in larger doses than prescribed, taking them more often, or using illicit forms of opioids may risk overdose—and in severe cases—death.

Benzodiazepine Abuse And Addiction

Benzodiazepines are a type of prescription drug sedative primarily used to treat insomnia, anxiety disorders, and panic attacks. Benzodiazepines, also known as “benzos”, work in the body by slowing brain activity and can relax the muscles.

Common benzodiazepines include:

  • alprazolam (Xanax)
  • diazepam (Valium)
  • clonazepam (Klonopin)
  • lorazepam (Ativan)
  • chlordiazepoxide (Librium)
  • temazepam (Restoril)
  • triazolam (Halcion)

Like opioids, benzodiazepines can cause drug tolerance and dependence within a few weeks of regular use. Taking benzodiazepines for long-term use may increase the risk for abuse, addiction, and may require a tapering process to avoid serious withdrawal effects.

Benzodiazepines are commonly misused with other substances, including alcohol and opioids. Mixing benzodiazepines with other depressants without medical guidance can cause severe side effects in some people, including stopped breathing, overdose, and death.


Barbiturates, or prescription drug tranquilizers, such as phenobarbital and mephobarbital were widely prescribed during the early and mid‒20th century to treat anxiety and seizures.

However, they are now known to be highly addictive and have a high risk for overdose. Since the development of benzodiazepines, barbiturates are less often prescribed.

Sleep Medications

Common sleep medications available by prescription and over-the-counter can also be abused and may become addictive with frequent misuse, particularly for those with sleep disorders.

Common sleep medications that are known to have an abuse potential include drugs like zolpidem (Ambien), eszopiclone (Lunesta), and zaleplon (Sonata). These depressant drugs are also referred to as “z-drugs” or sedative-hypnotics.

Effects Of Depressant Abuse

Central nervous system depressants work in the body by increasing the amount of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter, in the brain. This chemical slows brain activity, which can cause both physical and mental side effects.

Physical and mental effects of depressants include:

  • drowsiness
  • dizziness
  • foggy thinking
  • slurred speech
  • lowered blood pressure
  • dilated pupils (except opioids as they stimulate the parasympathetic portion of the autonomic nervous system and constrict rather than dilate the pupils)
  • confusion
  • headache
  • dry mouth
  • slowed reflexes/movements
  • slowed breathing
  • difficulty urinating

When abused, depressants can cause more intense symptoms, as well as additional consequences from drug dependence and psychological addiction. This may include symptoms of withdrawal with reduced or stopped use, and other long-term effects of use.

Side effects of long-term depressant use may include:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • chronic fatigue
  • changes in weight and appetite
  • sexual dysfunction
  • sleeping too much or too little

The side effects a person experiences from depressants will depend on the type of drug they’re taking, how much, how long they’ve been taking it, and other factors related to physical and mental health.

If someone with a mental health disorder is abusing depressants, their drug abuse may cause worsened symptoms, including suicidal thoughts and panic.

How Are Depressants Misused?

Most depressants come in pill, capsule, or tablet form—with the exception of alcohol and certain forms of illicit depressants. Although the reasons why a person misuses drugs can vary, drug misuse can often be driven by biological, environmental, genetic, and other personal factors.

Common methods of drug misuse include:

  • taking prescription depressants in higher doses or more frequently than prescribed
  • crushing and snorting depressants
  • heavy drinking
  • taking someone else’s depressants (e.g. from a friend or family member’s prescription)
  • taking multiple substances at the same time (including alcohol)

Signs Of Depressant Addiction

The primary sign of depressant misuse is taking or using depressants without medical direction. In addition, a person may hide or lie about their drug or alcohol misuse.

Abusing drugs can change how a person behaves, their thinking, and may visibly affect their appearance and physical health.

Over time, depressant abuse can cause both a physical and psychological reliance on the drug. People may experience withdrawal symptoms—such as tremors, extreme agitation, and insomnia—or feel unable to get through a day without taking it.

Signs of depressant addiction may include:

  • withdrawal symptoms with stopped or reduced use
  • being unwilling or unable to stop taking the drug
  • unexplainable changes in weight or appearance
  • financial troubles
  • secretive behavior
  • changes in work productivity or employment
  • stealing drugs from others
  • avoiding friends and other loved ones
  • having difficulties at work or in relationships

Addiction to depressants can become a vicious cycle. Even if a person wants to stop using the drug, they may feel unable to due to their psychological reliance or uncomfortable symptoms of withdrawal. This can affect a person’s social life, their ability to work or take care of children, and cause mild to severe effects on health.

Treatment For Depressant Abuse

Overcoming drug addiction can be one of the greatest challenges a person ever faces, but recovery is possible. More than 100,000 residents in the state of Massachusetts alone seek substance abuse treatment each year.

Even still, the vast majority of those who struggle with substance abuse do not receive treatment. Seeking treatment for depressant abuse—through counseling, support groups, or a formal inpatient rehab program—can be life-saving.

For most, conquering addiction and rebuilding a healthier life in recovery may require treatment at multiple levels of care, beginning with detox.

Drug And Alcohol Withdrawal And Detox

Drug addiction can make it very difficult for a person to stop using the drug they’ve become addicted to. Trying to stop or reduce drug use may result in symptoms of withdrawal. This process, although notoriously uncomfortable, is the body’s way of recovering from drug dependence.

Depending on the type of drug and the severity of the addiction, withdrawal may be mild or severe in nature and can begin within 12 to 24 hours after a person’s last dose.

Symptoms of depressant withdrawal may include:

  • agitation
  • anxiety
  • insomnia
  • excessive yawning
  • overactive reflexes
  • increased heart rate, body temperature, and blood pressure
  • nausea and vomiting
  • shaking
  • severe cravings
  • hallucinations
  • confusion
  • chills
  • body weakness

Alcohol and benzodiazepine withdrawal in particular can become dangerous and potentially life-threatening without medical supervision and support. For this reason, medically managed detox in an alcohol and drug detox center is highly recommended for people with addiction.

Undergoing detox in a safe, supervised environment offers many benefits, including a reduced risk for relapse. In addition, medical professionals within a detox center can administer supportive medications to ease symptoms of withdrawal and reduce drug cravings.

Detox programs for depressants may last between three to 10 days depending on the type of drug, addiction severity, and other personal factors.

Inpatient Treatment

Getting sober is only the first step towards overcoming addiction. While detox can help a person stop using, or begin tapering their drug of abuse, it doesn’t address why a person started misusing drugs in the first place or provide therapeutic guidance for remaining sober.

After detox, a doctor may recommend that you enter an inpatient rehab or residential treatment program. This is a type of recovery program that provides 24/7 medical and behavioral support within a safe and supervised environment.

Inpatient treatment may integrate a variety of treatment services shown to be effective for treating depressant abuse. Primary forms of treatment for depressant abuse include medication-assisted treatment and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

These are evidence-based treatments that are shown to help reduce the risk of relapse, promote positive health behaviors, and teach useful life skills for a future in recovery.

Outpatient Treatment And Aftercare

After completing an inpatient program, many people in early recovery will continue to attend weekly counseling and support groups on an outpatient basis. This provides more flexibility for individuals as they transition back into a normal routine.

After living with chronic or severe addiction, however, making this transition can understandably be a challenge. Depending on how much progress you’ve made in your treatment and other needs, your treatment team may recommend a more intensive step-down recovery program, like day treatment or intensive outpatient treatment. This can offer greater support and structure.

Overcoming the physical, mental, and psychological effects of addiction is a journey that can take more than a few weeks or even a few months.

Ongoing support through an outpatient treatment program or community-based recovery resources can serve significant use for managing everyday stressors and maintaining a strong commitment to recovery.

Find Treatment For Depressant Addiction At Spring Hill Recovery

If you or a loved one in the Greater New England area is struggling with depressant abuse or addiction, look no further than Spring Hill Recovery Center in Ashby, Massachusetts.

Our Ashby rehab center offers a range of treatment programs to help residents overcome addiction and begin the path towards a healthier and more fulfilling future in recovery.

At Spring Hill, you’ll find:

  • customizable treatment options
  • evidence-based treatment for addiction
  • a peaceful, secluded environment
  • dual diagnosis treatment
  • an array of traditional and holistic therapies
  • medication management
  • relapse prevention planning
  • aftercare support

From our Ashby location, our primary drug treatment programs include residential rehab and intensive outpatient treatment. Spring Hill also belongs to a network of treatment centers across the state of Massachusetts, which together offer a full continuum of care for residents overcoming substance abuse and addiction.

Don’t wait to seek help for yourself or a loved one stuck in the cycle of addiction. Call us today to learn more about our addiction recovery programs at Spring Hill and the types of treatment services we offer.

  1. What are prescription CNS depressants?

Written by Spring Hill Recovery Editorial Team

© 2024 Spring Hill Recovery | All Rights Reserved

* This page does not provide medical advice.

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