Depressants and stimulants, two types of mood-altering drugs, change your brain chemistry. Although often effective for short-term medical conditions, both depressants and stimulants can be extremely dangerous when misused.
For centuries, people of almost every culture have used chemical agents to improve sleep, relieve stress and calm anxiety. While alcohol is one of the oldest and most common nervous-system depressants, hundreds of other substances yield similar effects.
Depressants are also called downers, sedatives, hypnotics, minor tranquilizers and antianxiety medications. Unlike many other drugs, depressants are rarely produced in illegal warehouses, but rather legally developed by pharmaceutical companies.
Even though these medications can help certain people, people often abuse them for their effects – with dangerous results, such as:
- Euphoria and reduced inhibitions, leading to risky behavior.
- Slurred speech, poor reflexes and loss of motor coordination.
- Confusion and memory problems.
- Coma or death, especially if mixed with alcohol or other depressants.
Stimulants are sometimes called “uppers” and can make you feel less tired physically and mentally. Two common stimulants are nicotine, found in tobacco products, and caffeine found in coffee, tea and many nonprescription medicines. Therapeutic amounts of stimulants can produce exhilaration, extended wakefulness and loss of appetite. These effects are greatly intensified if you take a large dose.
Used in moderation, these substances tend to relieve general discomfort and increase alertness. Although nicotine and caffeine use is widely accepted, their negative health effects have created a market for caffeine-free products and anti-tobacco programs.
Other stimulants include:
- Diet Pills
- Methamphetamine (meth)
Some stimulants are legally obtained; others are manufactured illegally. Stimulants can be taken by mouth, or they can be sniffed, smoked or injected, producing a sudden sensation known as a “rush” or a “flash.” Abuse is often seen in a pattern of binging; that is, using large doses of stimulants. Heavy users may inject themselves every few hours until they use up their supply or reach delirium, psychosis and exhaustion.
During heavy use, all other interests fall away to the goal of getting high. Tolerance can develop rapidly, leading to addiction and dependence on the drug. Stopping abruptly, even after a weekend binge, is commonly followed by depression, anxiety, drug craving and extreme fatigue (“crashing”).
Stimulant Side Effects
Physical side effects from stimulants include:
- Flushed skin.
- Chest pains with palpitations.
- Excessive sweating.
- Vomiting and abdominal cramps.
Psychological effects include:
- Agitation and panic.
- Hostility and aggression.
- Suicidal or murderous feelings.
- Paranoia, sometimes with hearing or seeing things that aren’t there.
Without medical intervention, a stimulant overdose can cause:
- High fever.
- Heart collapse.
Because accidental death is partly due to stimulant’s effects on the body’s heart and heat-regulating systems, excessive physical activity or exercise increases the danger of stimulant use.
- Drug Guide from the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids and the Center for Addiction.
Last reviewed: February 2020