How do depressants work?

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.

Depressant Overdose

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:

  • Shallow breathing
  • Weak pulse
  • Clammy skin
  • Gray, ashen, colorless, or bluish tint to skin
  • Drowsiness or extreme fatigue
  • Confusion, agitation, anxiety, and mood changes
  • Dizziness
  • Slurred speech or acting drunk
  • Amnesia
  • Physical weakness or lack of coordination
  • Hypotonia (lack of muscle tone)
  • Blurry vision
  • Difficulty breathing or depressed breathing
  • Stupor or unresponsiveness
  • Hallucinations
  • Hypotension (lowered blood pressure)
  • Coma


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.

Depressant Withdrawal

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.