More often called downers or benzos, depressants are some of the most commonly abused prescription medications on the market. Typically, users will use them alone, or in conjunction with stimulants, alcohol, opiates, and even hallucinogens. What usually starts with a simple doctors prescription or a pill given by a friend, can easily lead down the road of addiction. With depressants, the withdrawal process can be perilous, and even sometimes deadly.
When people think of dangerous and addictive prescription medications, they usually think of opioids. Depressants, on the other hand, can be just as addictive and dangerous. Some of the most well-known depressants are prescriptions drugs such as Xanax, Klonopin, Librium, Seroquel, and other benzodiazepines and barbiturates. The most common short-term effects are:
- Intense Relaxation
- Slurred Speech
- Slow Brain Functioning
- Poor Concentration
- Lack of Coordination
How it Happens
The purpose of drugs like benzodiazepines, antipsychotics, and barbiturates is to decrease the levels of anxiety, slow thoughts, and act as muscle relaxants. Studies show that people who develop an addiction to a depressant such as Xanaxnax or Klonopin, usually get their start from a prescription from a doctor or psychiatrist. Mental disorders have been much more researched and “acceptable” over the last few decades, so with that, there have been an increase in medications related to counteracting those feelings of anxiety, or insomnia.
On the other hand, there is a large percentage of people struggling with addiction to depressants who were first introduced to someone else’s prescription. This has been reported by young adults whose parents gave them “medications” to calm them down, or by people who have just gone rummaging around in medicine cabinets.
Many people also resort to buying illegally sold depressants, such as Xanax and Klonopin, to help with withdrawal from other drugs like alcohol or heroin. Primarily to help soothe the anxiety and the cravings, as well as the general unease that comes along with those two other drugs. However, when taken in conjunction with each other, they can lead to slowed breathing and heart rate, and sometimes even death.
How Depressants Work in the Brain
Despite the fact that many people believe that depressants such as these are not dangerous or habit forming, these are the most prescribed class of pharmaceuticals in the world.
They work through a neurotransmitter in the brain called Gaba-aminobutyric acid, or more commonly known as GABA. In the brain, this neurotransmitter functions as somewhat of a sedative, which creates that anticonvulsant, anti-psychotic, muscle relaxant effect that many people take the medication for.
Over time, and with extended exposure to these drugs, the brain becomes accustomed to having these higher levels of relaxation and de-stimulation, which actually causes the brain to modify its own chemistry. Even after taking these medications for only a month, a person drastically increases their chances of an increased tolerance and even addiction, especially if these medications are being used alongside other drugs.
If a person who frequently uses these medications decides to suddenly stop, it can send a shockwave through the brain, as it has become tolerant to the medication being present. This is what commonly sends people into psychosis or even leads people to suicide.
What to Expect from the Withdrawal
If you or someone you know has been abusing depressants such as barbiturates or benzodiazepines, it is actually very important that the person seeks professional medical detox.
Tolerance to these drugs can occur pretty quickly, and they build up in the brain chemistry over time, so if a person who has been using them daily for extended periods of time decides to just stop, it can actually be pretty dangerous.
Over the long term, some of the effects that taking these drugs can have on a person are:
- Chronic fatigue
- Difficulty breathing
- Increased Anxiety
The most common withdrawal symptoms of these medications are depression, anxiety, panic, insomnia, and nausea, and can even result in hallucinations and convulsions.
In a study conducted by USA Today, over a four year period, depressants such as benzodiazepines and barbiturates were the prime suspects in over forty five deaths that were caused by heart problems, choking, liver failure, and suicide.
It is easy to assume that since a physician or psychiatrist wrote a prescription for these medications, that they will not be harmful or addictive. Many people felt that way about their opioid pain killer medications, and look where we are now!
The crux of the issue with depressants, is that some people really and truly need them, and are helped by them. However, a large percentage of the population that does take them, abuse them in one way or another. Either through selling them to others, over using themselves, or by playing doctor with them and going on and off suddenly.
For those who are helped by them, and who do really need them but still struggle with the addictive aspect, there are other medications that can help, that do not have as extreme withdrawal symptoms and side effects. Speak to your prescriber about this if you would like some more information.
It is absolutely crucial that people who are planning to stop using a depressant seek a professional medical detox, or speak with their provider beforehand, so that they can be guided into the best route of action for themselves. For those who are not using other drugs, a simple taper protocol can sometimes suffice, especially if the level of addiction has not gone beyond control.
However, as it is much better to be safe than sorry, still seeking medical attention can help alleviate a lot of the stress, anxiety, and cravings that can come along with the withdrawal process of removing drugs.