Stimulants vs. Depressants

Different types of drugs affect people differently. This can be due to the fact that each person’s body is made up differently, and situational differences can also have an impact. However, doctors have been able to categorize the vast number of drugs that exist by symptomologies and effects they most commonly induce. 

Two of these categories are stimulants and depressants. The commonalities between the two aren’t immediately obvious given they have opposite effects, which we’ll get into later—but they do both affect the Central Nervous System (CNS). If taken improperly and/or abused, both can lead to addiction. They also are mood/mindaltering substances; they can change how a person thinks, feels, and behaves. 


Central Nervous System 

It’s important to know what the Central Nervous System’s role in your body is to fully understand the way stimulants and depressants can affect you. 

The CNS consists of the spinal cord and brain. It has three main functions: sensory input, information processing, and motor input. The brain plays an important role in the way your body functions, including reactions, awareness, movement, sensations, speech, memory, and thought process. Our reflexes occur through the spinal cord pathways, sometimes without any input from the brain. So, in essence, they work both together and independently to make the whole machine that is your body, work. That’s how they can transfer information and coordinate activity. 

It is easy for the body and brain to becoming addicted to the effects brought on by stimulants and depressants. Once a dependence develops, their physical tolerance will increase, and they will require more of the drug to achieve the desired effect. 



Stimulants (sometimes called “uppers”) can accelerate the CNS. They have an ‘awakened’ effect, resulting in alertness, hyper-focus, acute attention/awareness, and increased overall brain function. They also increase a person’s heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure, stimulating the CNS as a whole. They also affect the brain chemistry by increasing dopamine in an accelerated manner, resulting in initial euphoria and feeling energized. 

Some types of stimulants are epinephrine (used for heart resuscitation during cardiac arrest), amphetamine, dextroamphetamine, methylphenidate, and pseudoephedrine (found in some cold medicines). 

There is a wide range of prescription stimulants often used to treat Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). This includes well-known names such as Adderall, Ritalin, Vyvance, and Concerta. Their misuse has increased in recent years for recreation purposes, losing weight/reduced appetite, or improved performance. It has become a problem on college campuses for students cramming for exams or writing term papers. 

Other stimulants include cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA. 


Abuse of Stimulants 

If a person is habitually using stimulants, it can cause a multitude of issues for their mind and body. Stimulants are especially hard on the body’s heart and respiratory function, which can lead to lifelong problems or fatalities. Heavy use of stimulants for extended periods of time can also elicit paranoia, hallucinations, hostility, and radical mood swings.

Signs that a person may be headed toward an overdose can result in the following: 

  • Chest pain 
  • Stomach pain 
  • Excessive sweating 
  • Paranoia 
  • Heightened body temperature 
  • Labored breathing 
  • Irritability

Lifethreatening symptoms of an overdose can include: 

  • Seizures 
  • Stroke 
  • Heart Attack 
  • Kidney failure and/or damage

Isituations of abuse use that do not lead to such immediate consequences, stimulants can still have a lasting effect on a person after stopping use for up to several months. This includes: 

  • Exhaustion, both mental and physical 
  • Depression 
  • Suicidal thoughts 
  • Insomnia 
  • Anxiety 
  • Listlessness or lack of feeling emotions such as pleasure or happiness 

Overall, stimulants put the body through extreme stress in quick bursts of time, ultimately causing the support systems to work faster and harder. The impact on your respiratory system and heart can lead to adverse health effects either right away or later in life, depending on the length and amount of consumption. 



Depressants (sometimes called “downers”) can decelerate the CNS. They have sedating and tranquilizing effects, resulting in feeling relaxed, sleepy, and slow, and having decreased overall brain function. They typically reduce the function and activity levels of the CNS by affecting the neurons, which makes a person feel drowsy and less aware. They can also lead to lowered inhibitions, slow respiration, and decreased blood pressure. 

Depressants essentially slow activity in the brain by increasing the activity of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). 

This class of drugs can be helpful when used as medically advised to treat anxiety, panic, or sleep disorders.  

There are three types of CNS depressant medications: 

  • Barbiturates: Often prescribed for seizures or used for surgical procedures, barbiturates induce sleepiness and relaxation but pose high risk of addiction. Common names are Pentobarbital (Nembutal) and Phenobarbital (Luminal). 
  • Benzodiazepines: Also called “benzos,” these induce calmness, relaxation, and sleepiness, and are primarily used for anxiety, insomnia, and panic disorders. Highly addictive and unsupervised withdrawal after heavy and habitual use can be fatal. Common medications include Valium, Xanax, Ativan, and Halicon. 
  • Hypnotics: Less used than the former two and also known as “Z-Drugs,” these induce a sleepy effect similar to benzodiazepines, but are believed to be less addictive. Common medications include Lunesta, Sonata, and Ambien. 


Non-Prescription Depressants 

The three classes of medications described above are not the only drugs under the CNS depression umbrellaalso in this category are opioids and alcohol. Both have extreme depressant effects and great potential for abuse. Opioids are pharmaceutical drugs, such as morphine. 

Heroin, morphine (Roxanol or “roxy”), and opium are all in the opioid drug class, and mimic the effects of opiates. 

Some of the other common painkillers that are in the depressant category include: 

  • Fentanyl 
  • Codeine 
  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin) 
  • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid) 
  • Oxycodone 
  • Oxymorphone  
  • Meperidine (Demerol) 
  • Methadone

Opioids can be used to treat pain, but they are also very dangerous for the respiratory system. They can also result in sedation and euphoria, which are usually the effects people are looking for. 


Abuse of Depressants 

As depressants cause the increase of GABA function, the hormones and neurotransmitters that usually cause excitement or stimulation are effectively lowered. This can lead to calming effects, drowsiness, and sluggishness. 

When depressants are used to excess, they can wreak havoc on the body’s overall functionality and operation. They can debilitate the respiratory system to dangerously low levels and cause other vital body parts to shut down completely. 

Some other signs that a person may be headed toward an overdose from depressants can result in the following: 

  • Blurred vision 
  • Blue, clammy, cold skin or extremities (signaling lack of circulation) 
  • Confusion, dizziness 
  • Plummeting blood pressure 
  • Labored breathing 
  • Inhibited mobility, lack of coordination 
  • Exhaustion 
  • Slower reflexes/reaction time 
  • Decreased brain function (speech problems, memory lapses) 
  • Vomiting, nausea 
  • Hallucinations 
  • Insomnia

The above signs can point to an overdose, which can lead to coma or death. If you witness an overdose displaying any of the above symptoms, it is important for you to call 911 as soon as possible. 

Addiction is not always immediately visible—it can still be a serious situation even if things appear ‘okay’ from the outside. It is also common for addiction to co-exist with mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, and emotional disturbances. Using substances can exacerbate these disorders, and vice versa.  

If you or someone you know is suffering from dependence on a drug, keep in mind that other notable symptoms—not those just listed above—include irritability, random bouts of anger or aggression, and withdrawal from loved ones. Read more about the signs to look out for here. 


Treatment for Depressants, Stimulants at Green Mountain Treatment Center 

People who develop an addiction to depressants and/or stimulants are at risk for organ damage, cardiac issues, cancer, and potentially death. These drugs, as they are highly addictive in nature, are difficult to break free from. As mentioned above, some of the drugs pose fatal danger if one attempts to quit on their own, which is why medical detox is strongly recommended. 

Addiction has an overwhelming ripple effect that begins with the person using the drugs and works its way out to affect their family, friends, employers, coworkers, and significant other. It is a straining detriment for all, and one that may progressively get worse if action is not taken and treatment is not sought. 

If you or a loved one is taking a stimulant or depressant and experiencing symptoms of dependenceplease know that help is out there. At Green Mountain Treatment Center, we have several different treatment options available that we would be happy to discuss with you. It is through our trained medical professionals and evidence-based treatment that we can begin to address substance use in your life and get the healing process going for you. Please give us a call today at (866) 597-1404. 

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