Title: Downers: A New Look at Depressant Drugs
Author: Jim Parker
Publisher: Do It Now Foundation
Publication 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.

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.

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

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.


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.


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


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

— 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

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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