What Are Central Nervous System Depressants? Are They Addictive?

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By Sandy Baker

A central nervous system depressant (CNS) is a drug that works by slowing down the function of the brain. Some CNS depressants can be helpful in treating conditions such as sleep disorders or anxiety. Some, if misused, can cause addiction.

How Do Central Nervous System Depressants Work?

Depressants impact the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) neurotransmitter in the brain. When this happens, the brain’s activity slows, often leading to relaxation, sleepiness, and reduced inhibitions.

There are three specific types of depressants: sedatives, hypnotics, and tranquilizers. Each type works in a slightly different way, but all reduce the activity in the brain. They also work to lower awareness in the brain.

Common Types of CNS Depressants

Take a look at some of the most commonly used CNS depressant drugs and how they may lead to risks for addiction.


Alcohol is a type of depressant that impacts the function of the central nervous system, often leading to a feeling of being relaxed and less reserved. The amount and type of alcohol consumed along with the body’s composition determine how significant this impact is. The more a person drinks (in amount and frequency), the more likely a person is to develop an addiction. In some cases, alcohol can cause anxiety and aggression.

Alcohol can lead to addiction and dependence. A person may be unable to stop using alcohol without professional treatment. That’s because this substance alters the function of the brain so much that the brain adapts to its presence and wants more of it to continue to feel reduced inhibitions and euphoria. Of course, as tolerance develops, the brain will require more and more alcohol to feel the effects. By the time addiction develops, the body is using alcohol not so much to feel pleasure as to avoid the pain of withdrawal.


Sometimes called barbs, dolls, tooties, and phennies, barbiturates such as pentobarbital, Amytal, Seconal, or Mebaral, are highly addictive when misused. They are sometimes prescribed to treat tension, anxiety, and sleep disorders. When initially used, these drugs create a sense of euphoria in the brain and create a sense of relaxation. But even a small dose can pose an addiction risk in some people. Newer forms of these drugs create less risk for addiction.


Opioids may seem safe to use because doctors prescribe them to treat acute or chronic pain. Yet they are some of the most addictive drugs when misused. Codeine and hydrocodone are two types of commonly misused prescription opioids. When people become addicted to prescription medications, they often switch to an illicit opioid like heroin because it is cheaper and easier to access.

Opioids cut off the pain signal sent from the impacted area of the body to the brain, helping to relieve the symptom of pain. However, they also create a sense of being high, which is why so many people misuse them. Opioids are very dangerous because of how easily addiction can form. Tolerance builds quickly, which means that the body needs more of the substance to feel the same relief. This increases the risk of overdose.


Benzodiazepines, often called benzos, are prescribed to treat sleep disorders, anxiety, and seizures. Some people also use them as a treatment for acute instances of high stress. Ativan, Xanax, and Valium are some of the most common forms. These drugs are effective at relaxing a person and inducing sleep. They work as a sedative with muscle-relaxing abilities.

Most benzos are designed for short-term use and in the smallest dose possible. That’s because they carry a significant risk of dependence, especially when used over time. Even when prescribed by a doctor, these drugs can put people at risk of dependence. Always follow prescriptions carefully to avoid overuse.

Sleep Medications

Numerous sleep medications carry the risk of addiction as well, including medications such as Lunesta, Sonata, and Ambien. These pills are typically very helpful for people struggling with insomnia or other sleep disorders. By stimulating the neurotransmitter GABA, they lead to an improved ability to fall asleep. Like other CNSs, sleep medications are intended for short-term use. Overusing sleep medications can lead to a variety of side effects, including dependence and addiction.

Addiction to Central Nervous System Depressants

If you have a dependence on or addiction to any of these drugs, it’s critical to seek help. You may have an addiction if you:

  • Use more of the medication than prescribed to you
  • Seek out a dose of the medication before it is time to do so
  • Run out of your medication before you can refill it
  • Use any of these drugs without a prescription
  • Feel intense pain, emotional upheaval, and cravings when you stop taking the drug

In each of these situations, help is available. The long-term use of these drugs may include increased risk for cognitive decline and overdose. At The Ranch at Dove Tree, we offer drug and alcohol treatment programs in Lubbock, TX, that can help you to stop using these drugs safely.

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Are you or a loved one looking for an alcohol detox center in West Texas? To learn more about our programs at Ranch at Dove Tree, please contact us today at 800.218.6727.