Depressants work on the nervous system, “depressing” the nervous system and lowering the body’s basic functions and brain activity. They slow down the neurotransmitters that allow your brain to communicate with the rest of the nerves in your body. This usually results in a feeling of relaxation, drowsiness, or mellowness. Depressants can be beneficial when used as prescribed and are often prescribed to help with anxiety, insomnia, depression, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, muscle spasms, or seizures.
Alcohol is a depressant, and it is the most commonly abused depressant. Alcohol slows the body’s sympathetic nervous system, the system that helps you respond to emergency situations. Alcohol abuse can impair your vision, judgment, and alertness while slowing down your reaction time and coordination.
When alcohol is combined with another depressant drug, the effects are multiplied. This can be very dangerous and can cause serious harm to the body. The greatest immediate risk of using alcohol and another depressant drug is the risk of overdose. Because both drugs are acting on the same functions of the brain and body, the risk of overdosing increases.
Overdosing on depressants can damage the heart, brain, and lungs. Heavy use can cause organ failure. A user may experience a rapid onset of dizziness, stumbling, loss of sphincter control, memory loss and even death.
Signs of a depressant overdose include:
Gray, ashen, colorless, or bluish tint to skin
Drowsiness or extreme fatigue
Confusion, agitation, anxiety, and mood changes
Slurred speech or acting drunk
Physical weakness or lack of coordination
Hypotonia (lack of muscle tone)
Difficulty breathing or depressed breathing
Stupor or unresponsiveness
Hypotension (lowered blood pressure)
If you think someone is experiencing a depressant overdose:
Call 911 immediately.
Stay with the person
Keep them awake and talking, if possible
Roll them to the side to make sure they don’t choke on their own vomit, but don’t try to induce vomiting
Do your best to make sure they do not ingest alcohol or drugs while waiting for emergency help to arrive.
Because of the way depressants affect brain chemistry, withdrawal symptoms can be sudden and severe.
A sort of “rebound” effect occurs. The nerves in the brain that have been depressed now become overexcited. This results in elevated heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature. Symptoms that were treated with the drug, such as anxiety or insomnia, may come back stronger than before.
Download this Depressant Fact Sheet as a handy reference for the signs of depressant overdose and what to do in case of an overdose.