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Depressants vs Stimulants

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Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

November 17, 2023

Table of Contents

Looking at depressants vs. stimulants is interesting as they are both large categorization of legal and illegal drugs. This distinction is based on whether the substance in question depresses or stimulates the CNS (central nervous system).

Although these two categories of drugs deliver effects at opposite ends of the spectrum, there are also some commonalities between uppers and downers. They both impact your CNS, they can both lead to addiction, and they can both alter the way you feel, think, and behave.

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Before that, though, what is the difference between a stimulant and a depressant?

Difference Between Stimulant and Depressants

The mechanism of action is the way a drug works. In the case of stimulants and depressants, they both interact with the central nervous system. Your CNS consists of your brain and your spinal cord. This system serves three core functions:

  1. Motor input
  2. Information processing
  3. Sensory input

Your brain plays an obviously key role in many body functions, including:

  • Movement
  • Reactions
  • Awareness
  • Speech
  • Memory
  • Sensations
  • Thought process

The brain and the spinal cord, then, work in harmony and as well as independently.

It’s very easy for the brain to become addicted to the rewarding effects of both stimulants and depressants. As dependence sets in, physical tolerance will build, and you’ll need more of the substance in question to achieve the desired effect.

Stimulants or uppers increase activity in the CNS, stimulating it. Downers or depressants, by contrast, slow the CNS down and inhibit the way it functions.

The way in which these substances impact the CNS then leads to other effects in different bodily systems. For example, uppers can interact with your cardiac system by causing your heart rate to accelerate and your blood pressure to spike. With depressants, on the other hand, the effect is precisely opposite. Your pulse will slow down and your blood pressure will tumble.

You’ll notice similar opposing effects when uppers and downers hit your digestive system. While stimulants will boost your metabolism and could even trigger diarrhea, depressants slow things, so you’ll gain weight more easily, and you could also find yourself experiencing constipation.

When it comes to the respiratory system, stimulants won’t trigger any changes. Downers, though, will potentially even cause respiratory depression, perhaps the greatest risk of using CNS depressants.

It’s in the brain, though, that the core mechanism of action for both depressants and stimulants take effect. Again, this occurs in different ways. Stimulants increase activity of the chemical messengers (neurotransmitters) norepinephrine and dopamine. Depressants increase GABA activity. GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is a chemical known to inhibit activity in the brain.

So, depressants and stimulants are used for different reasons and with different consequences. A glimpse now at some of the most common types of uppers and downers.

Types of Stimulants and Depressants

Stimulants and depressants are among the most frequently abused drugs.

Each of these categories of drugs includes both prescription medications and illicit drugs, and both impact the CNS, but in very different ways.

Some of the most common stimulants include:

  • Meth
  • Cocaine
  • Molly
  • Ritalin
  • Adderall
  • Dexedrine

Some of the most common depressants include:

We’ll look now at each of these categories in more depth.


Stimulants accelerate the CNS, leading to:

  • Increased alertness
  • Hyper-focus
  • Acute awareness
  • Heightened attention
  • Increased brain function

Stimulants are used in many legal applications:

  • Epinephrine is used during cardiac arrest for the purposes of heart resuscitation
  • Dextroamphetamine, amphetamine, pseudoephedrine, and methylphenidate are found in some common cold medications

You can find many prescription stimulants used to treat ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder). These include:

  • Ritalin
  • Adderall
  • Concerta
  • Vyvanse

These medications are commonly abused for weight loss, improving academic performance, or for recreational purposes.

Cocaine, meth, and MDMA (Molly) are among the most commonly abused illicit stimulants. All can be remarkably damaging when abused. Stimulant abuse can hit your heart and respiratory function hard, triggering long-term health issues. Sustained stimulant abuse also often leads to:

  • Paranoia
  • Dramatic mood swings
  • Hostility
  • Hallucinations


Depressants, often referred to as downers, slow down the central nervous system, delivering both tranquilizing and sedating effects. They will make you feel sluggish, relaxed, and sleepy, while decreasing overall brain function at the same time.

When used to treat panic disorder, anxiety disorder, or sleep disorders and taken exactly as prescribed, depressants are effective and generally considered safe in the short-term.

CNS depressants can be subdivided as follows:

  • Benzodiazepines: Benzos are mainly used to treat anxiety, panic, and sleep disorders. This class of medication is highly addictive. If you withdraw abruptly from sustained benzo use, it can be dangerous, possibly even deadly. Xanax, Valium, Ativan, and Halcion are the most commonly prescribed benzos
  • Barbiturates: Routinely prescribed for seizures or following surgical procedures, barbiturates are effective, but they’re also highly addictive. The most common examples include Nembutal and Phenobarbital.
  • Hypnotics: Hypnotics or Z-drugs deliver similar effects to benzos, but they are believed to have less potential for addiction. Ambien, Sonata, and Lunesta are the most common Z-drugs

As well as the above medications, opioids and alcohol are also CNS depressants.

If used to excess, depressants can wreak havoc on the functionality of the body, debilitating the respiratory system and causing vital body parts to shut down entirely.

What can you do if you’re struggling with either depressants or stimulants, then?

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Stimulant and Depressant Rehab at Renaissance

Here at Renaissance Recovery, we specialize in outpatient treatment programs for all types of alcohol use disorder and substance use disorder. Whether you’re addicted to stimulants, depressants, or both, we can personalize a treatment program to help you get back on track.

We offer virtual IOPs (intensive outpatient programs) and PHPs (partial hospitalization programs) as well as traditional outpatient programs. All offer you access to the same services, but with varying levels of time commitment.

Our evidence-based programs offer medication-assisted treatment in combination with psychotherapy like DBT and CBT to help you get to the root of what’s causing you to use uppers or downers.

We’ll also ensure you have the right aftercare in place when you finish up your treatment program.

To get started, reach out to the Renaissance Recovery admissions team right now at 866.330.9449.



At Renaissance Recovery our goal is to provide evidence-based treatment to as many individuals as possible. Give us a call today to verify your insurance coverage or to learn more about paying for addiction treatment.

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Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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