When you think of drugs that people use recreationally, you might imagine that they’re mostly the sort of thing that make you happy and energetic. If you’re using to have fun or because you’re trying to self-medicate away your problems, it makes sense that you’d want something to make you peppy. It might sound strange, then, that there’s an entire group of commonly abused drugs called depressants. Why would anyone want to take a drug called a depressant, you might be wondering? It turns out that these drugs aren’t quite what they sound. They’re central nervous system depressants, meaning they slow brain activity, and when used properly they’re helpful for anxiety, panic, stress, and sleep disorders. Sedatives, tranquilizers, and hypnotics are all depressants.

Your central nervous system involves the nerves in your brain and spinal cord. Anything that impacts the central nervous system affects awareness, movement, sensations, thoughts, speech, and memory. There are different classes of central nervous system depressants.

Benzodiazepines like diazepam (Valium), clonazepam (Klonopin), alprazolam (Xanax), triazolam (Halcion), and estazolam (Prosom) are primarily used to treat anxiety and insomnia. They can also cause a mild to moderate sense of euphoria, which is why people use them recreationally. These medications are classified by the Drug Enforcement Administration as Schedule IV drugs, meaning they have a low potential for abuse, although the possibility still exists. According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists in the United Kingdom, four out of every ten people who take benzos every day for more than six weeks will become addicted.

Non-Benzodiazepine Sedative Hypnotics, sometimes called Z drugs, have the same effects and risks as benzos, but they have a different chemical structure. Zolpidem (Ambien®), eszopiclone (Lunesta), and zaleplon (Sonata) are some examples of Z drugs. Doctors do not recommend taking nonbenzodiazepine hypnotics for more than 10 consecutive days. People who abuse these drugs are at risk for overdose, and there is some evidence that hypnotic sleeping aids are associated with an increased risk of cancer and mortality. According to one study, even people who take less than 20 pills per year are at a higher risk of death than those who do not take any.

Barbiturates can treat anxiety, insomnia, and seizures but are now mostly used for general anesthesia and epilepsy and migraine treatments. They have a significant potential for addiction and have largely been replaced by benzos. They can be so deadly at high doses that they’ve been used for euthanasia in animals, physician-assisted suicide, and capital punishment. Some examples of barbiturates are mephobarbital (Mebaral), phenobarbital (Luminal), and pentobarbital sodium (Nembutal).


Taking any central nervous system depressants long term, even according to directions, can lead to tolerance and dependence. When people overdose on these drugs, their breathing can slow or stop, leading to brain damage, coma, or death.

If you or a loved one need help with quitting drugs or alcohol, consider Asana Recovery. We offer medical detox, along with both residential and outpatient programs, and you’ll be supervised by a highly trained staff of medical professionals, counselors, and therapists. Call us any time at (949) 438-4504 to get started.