cover bar Title: Downers: A New Look at Depressant Drugs
Author: Jim Parker
Publisher: Do It Now Foundation
Date: October 2009
Catalog Number: 137

..The Slowdown

The world can be a pretty scary place. And that's never been more true than it is today.

Because even before a global economic meltdown and international terrorism made panic a rational response to the day's events, the pace, pressures, and perceived dangers of everyday life put more than a few of us on edge.

It's no wonder, then, that our collective desire for instant escape and automatic oblivion put chemical "cures" for anxiety and insomnia at the top of almost every drug manufacturer's "Most Wanted" list for much of the 20th Century.

In earlier times, humanity had little besides alcohol with which to numb itself. But here in Century 21, we can choose from dozens of new drugs to tranquilize, trivialize, and otherwise make the world go away -- or to at least stop bugging us for a while.

This anti-anxiety pharmaceutical magic act hasn't exactly been playing to an empty house, either.

Downer drugs consistently rank among the most widely used and abused drugs in the United States and Canada -- and, for that matter, most of the rest of the world. In fact, over the past decade, an estimated 600 million prescriptions were processed for minor tranquilizers in U.S. pharmacies alone.

Obviously, downer drugs are a force to be reckoned with. And they're certainly worth a closer, careful look.

Because even though the drugs can be useful as a temporary treatment for anxiety and insomnia, they can also pose a big threat to users when misused.

In fact, downers can cause more problems than anyone should ever have to face, with or without a prescription.

..The Lowdown

The term "downers" itself refers to the entire class of drugs known as depressants -- chemicals which depress, or slow down, the functioning of the brain and central nervous system (CNS).

Although many downers are available today (and more are in the works), all fall into one of two main categories: tranquilizers and sedative-hypnotics.

Tranquilizers do just what their name says they do: They tranquilize, or reduce physical and emotional tension. Sedative-hypnotics take things a step further and induce sleep. A common name for sedative-hypnotics is sleeping pills.

In general, the short-term effects of all downers are similar. Main effects include increased muscular relaxation and decreased anxiety. In the process, they decrease inhibitions, slow reflexes, and impair coordination.

Further down the downside, downers also tend to dull thinking, reduce judgment, and interfere with memory, all serious liabilities on the road, at work, or other settings that call for clear thinking and fast reactions.

Still, as much as they are alike, depressants are also very different, particularly in the way they achieve their effects.


Fifty years ago, when people talked about "depressants," chances are they were talking about a single type of drug: barbiturates.

Widely used as sleeping pills, barbiturates (such as Seconal® and Tuinal®) were as available as prescription drugs could be. Not any more.

Because along the way, barbiturates earned a reputation for being unpredictable and downright dangerous -- even at prescribed doses. Problems linked to barbiturates include:

  • Tolerance. The body adjusts to their effects quickly -- so fast, in fact, that users must take increasingly-large doses and face increasingly-deadly overdose risks.
  • Lethality. The drugs act on all areas of the central nervous system, including areas of the brain that regulate respiration, raising the risk of fatal overdose.
  • Side effects. Barbiturates disrupt normal REM (rapid-eye movement, or dreaming) sleep, resulting in "hangover" irritability and anxiety.

Another reason for the declining use of barbiturates is the sheer addictiveness of the drugs.

That's because barbiturates can produce intense physical and psychological dependence, making withdrawal an unpleasant process, indeed. In fact, due to the serious risks linked to withdrawal -- including hallucinations and seizures -- detoxification should be attempted only under a doctor's supervision in a medical facility.

..Other Sedatives

The dangers linked to barbiturates haven't exactly been a secret in the past, and neither have drug makers' efforts to find a safer alternative.

Over the years, a string of substitutes (Placidyl®, Doriden®, Quaalude®) enjoyed brief runs of popularity. But all eventually fell from favor -- because each carries the same negatives as barbiturates.

Still, time marches on. Consider the popular non-barbiturate sleeping pill, Halcion®. It's the most widely-used sedative in the world today, racking up worldwide sales of a quarter-billion dollars.

Halcion's chief selling point is its short half-life, which is less than three hours. This means that it breaks down in the body so quickly that it causes less morning-after grogginess than other drugs.

But Halcion has a downside, too, one that's become better known as the drug's become more widely used.

For one thing, it wears off so fast that some users experience anxiety as the drug's effects wear off. Unusual reactions to Halcion have also been reported, including amnesia, hallucinations, and violence -- even murder and suicide.

That's one reason experts today advise those taking the drug to use only the lowest possible dose for the briefest possible time.

That's great advice, and not just for Halcion. It just as easily applies to all the downer drugs.


Although tranquilizer use has declined in recent years, there are still millions of people out there who take the worry out of being alive with a few well-timed daily hits of Xanax®, Serax®, Ativan®, or any one of a dozen or so other "minor" tranquilizers. Millions more take one of the so-called "major" tranquilizers.

But don't be misled by names. The terms "major" and "minor" only serve as a means of classifying their effects and medical uses, not as a way of ranking their potential for abuse.

'Major' Tranquilizers

These drugs (Thorazine®, Mellaril®, Prolixin®) are used to reduce the hallucinations, delusions, and emotional intensity of severe cognitive-affective disorders, such as schizophrenia.

Since major tranquilizers don't produce effects that most people experience as pleasurable (and often produce a number of distinctly unpleasant side effects), they're rarely abused.

'Minor' Tranquilizers

In contrast, "minor" tranquilizers are a big problem. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association estimates that more than 60 million prescriptions are issued for the drugs in the United States each year.

What all those people are gulping down is a group of drugs known medically as anxiolytic, or anxiety-reducing, agents.

Main types include the benzodiazepines (BZD's), meprobamate, and the sedating antihistamines.


The benzodiazepine family includes old favorites like Valium and Librium®, and such newcomers as Xanax® and Ativan®.

The BZD's reduce stress by selectively turning on the body's internal tranquilizers, known as endorphins. In a way, the drugs are chemical "keys" that fit relaxation "locks" inside the brain.

And while BZD's generally are safer than barbiturates and other tranquilizers (especially since they don't unduly disrupt thought processes or interfere with breathing), that doesn't mean they're safe.

Side effects can include drowsiness, confusion, dizziness, weight gain (from reduced activity), and memory loss.

And as if that isn't bad enough, continued use can cause psychological dependence, even at low doses. Withdrawal can be agonizing, involving severe anxiety, insomnia, and seizures.

Further complicating BZD withdrawal is that symptoms may not be recognized (even by the user) as withdrawal symptoms at all, due to their similarity to the same problems -- tension, anxiety, or insomnia -- that the drugs are prescribed to treat in the first place.

Other Tranquilizers

Other chemical "keys" to internal relaxation "locks" are meprobamate (Miltown®, Equanil®) and the sedating antihistamines (Vistaril®, Atarax®, Benadryl®).

Although these drugs are similar in many ways to the benzodiazepines, they're prescribed less often as tranquilizers due to dangers associated with their use, especially the risk of overdose.

Still, it's important to keep in mind that there are risks linked to all minor tranquilizers, and to underscore the point that they're all, at best, temporary treatments for anxiety -- not long-term cures.

Tranquilizers -- and sleeping pills, for that matter -- aren't "medicine." They don't cure any underlying cause of nervousness or insomnia.

Instead, they only conceal symptoms -- hopefully until the user can deal with the real problem more effectively.

That can be a big help, but there's a big difference between hiding a problem and making it go away.

..Facing Facts

Of all the facts and figures we've presented so far, one fact about downers stands out clearly: There's no such thing as a totally safe one.

This isn't meant to alarm people who take depressant drugs for long-standing physical or emotional problems. Sometimes all that stands between health and disease are prescription medications, and for some people these medications are depressants.

Still, if you have any questions or doubts about drugs you may be taking, bring them up with your doctor.

Because of all the wonder drugs developed in all the years we've been trying to fight off tension with pills, none is as miraculous as people taking control of their own lives and making things happen for themselves.

And when people are really making things happen, they're rarely strung out on pills -- especially downers.

Think about it. And if you need to, do something about it.

..Sidebar | The New You, Part Two: Coping Without Chemicals

If you think that downer drugs are turning into a problem for you, they already are a problem - -one that you should give serious thought to dropping immediately.

It's not just that downers are addictive -- they're usually that and more. The worst part of a downer addiction is that they take away personal power and initiative and freedom, and never give it back. To get it back, you have to take it back.

If you're strung out on tranquilizers or other downer drugs, start now. Don't put off quitting another day. The world is littered with the wrecks of people who were going to do something important tomorrow. Flush your stash down the nearest toilet, then take a deep breath. You've taken the first step out of a nightmare.

Because of the physical risks of withdrawal, it's a good idea to get yourself checked out by a doctor. Then put together a recovery plan that will work for you.

Don't know where to begin? Start where you are. Check the telephone directory for a Narcotics Anonymous or Pills Anonymous chapter or similar group in your area.

And don't be stopped -- by anything. Kicking downers isn't easy. If you've been taking them for years to control anxiety, expect anxiety -- lots of it, even -- when you quit. But you can learn to handle it through changes in diet, exercise, and sleeping habits, if you refuse to let it beat you.

It might seem tough, but tens of thousands of recovering ex-downer addicts swear that it beats the alternative.

This is one in a series of publications on drugs, behavior, and health by Do It Now Foundation.
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