What’s the Difference between a Stimulant and Depressant?

Stimulants and depressants are types of substances that are often misused. Chronic misuse of these drugs can lead to addiction.

Due to the prevalence of recreational drug use, it’s important to be familiar with the effects of each type of drug in order to be able to recognize the signs of misuse, addiction, and overdose. Both stimulants and depressants claim lives every year due to overdose and other health problems related to long-term use.

Read More on Addiction

Commonly Used Stimulants and Depressants

patient talking to their doctor about stimulant and depressant addictionIn the following sections, we’ll list the most common stimulants and depressants and discuss the effects of these substances.

Common Stimulant Drugs

Stimulants, often called “uppers,” are the kinds of drugs that make people feel supercharged with energy and focus, even to the point of feeling invincible.

The most commonly used stimulants include:

  • Caffeine.
  • Nicotine.
  • Cocaine/crack cocaine.
  • Methamphetamine (meth).
  • MDMA (ecstasy).
  • Adderall.
  • Ritalin.

Caffeine and nicotine are, of course, legal and mild stimulants that many people use to get themselves going throughout the day, but they come with their own adverse side effects, especially if the drink or cigarette includes harmful additives. Cocaine, meth, and ecstasy are mainly considered to be “street” drugs that have few legitimate medical uses. Drugs like Adderall and Ritalin are stimulant medications that are mostly used legally to treat medical conditions, but they have been increasingly misused by individuals without a prescription.

Common Depressant Drugs

Depressants come in several different categories, including legal and socially approved intoxicants, highly illegal street drugs, and different types of prescription anxiety medications. They work by inhibiting the central nervous system and slowing the heart rate and respiratory and gastrointestinal systems.

Common depressants with misuse potential include:

  • Alcohol.
  • Valium.
  • Xanax.
  • Amobarbital.
  • Phenobarbital.

Prescription depressants include benzodiazepines (Valium and Xanax) and barbiturates (amobarbital and phenobarbital). These medications were prescribed for decades as supposed solutions to stress and anxiety disorders. Barbiturates came first, but it was soon found that these drugs were both highly addictive and had a high potential for overdose. Benzodiazepines were developed as a safer alternative, but they are still both addictive and dangerous.

While technically considered their own class of drugs, opioids like heroin have similar effects to central nervous system (CNS) depressants, slowing heart rate and breathing. Due to both their pain-relieving and pleasant relaxing effects, prescription opioids are some of the most commonly misused drugs of the modern age. They often end up restricted by governments after years of being overprescribed by doctors, resulting in them saturating black markets or simply being shared by friends and family. Opioids are incredibly addictive and carry a high potential for overdose, especially if someone uses them in conjunction with alcohol or other CNS depressants.

Differences between Stimulants and Depressants

person struggling with addiction to depressants and stimulantsStimulants speed up the central nervous system and depressants do the opposite, slowing it and all the parts of the body controlled by the central nervous system down.

As mentioned above, stimulants make the person using them feel more confident, alert, and energetic. They send the central nervous system into overdrive, increasing heart and breathing rates, suppressing appetite, and causing a spike in blood pressure. Certain stimulants can cause a rush of euphoria, especially if they’re taken via common misuse methods like snorting, smoking, or injection.

Depressants can also cause euphoria, but they slow down the central nervous system instead of accelerating it, resulting in a pleasurable, relaxing feeling. Depressants slow heart rate and respiration, which is incredibly dangerous in high doses.

Health Effects of Stimulants versus Depressants

Though stimulants may make individuals feel great temporarily, they typically include negative side effects and result in a “crash” when the drug leaves the system, causing symptoms like fatigue, inability to focus, and depression.

Because stimulants increase heart rate and blood pressure, taking them can be very risky for anyone with heart problems or who already has an increased risk of stroke. They can also cause very unpleasant psychological side effects, especially for those who have an underlying mental illness like anxiety, panic disorders, or issues with paranoia.

Stimulant overdose deaths are most often caused by sudden heart failure, heart attack, stroke, or hyperthermia – a condition in which the body becomes dangerously overheated.

In the long-term, continued stimulant misuse can result in a weakening of artery walls or inflammation of the heart muscle as high blood pressure wears them down. Stimulants also restrict blood flow to the gastrointestinal tract, leading to ulcers and tears.

Studies have suggested that long-term stimulant use may lead to significant permanent changes in the brain, including a reduction of the white matter that’s responsible for impulse control, stress management, and decision-making. Psychological symptoms related to stimulant misuse may also continue long after an individual quits, especially anxiety and depression. There’s even increasing evidence of a link between stimulants like cocaine and Parkinson’s disease.

Depressants are particularly dangerous when it comes to the potential for overdose, especially since these drugs are often mixed with one another to intensify the euphoric effects. Artificially slowing down the central nervous system always comes with risks as it controls the essential functions of the heart and lungs. An overdose of depressants can cause someone’s breathing to slow to the point that not enough oxygen can reach the brain and other vital organs. This can quickly lead to brain damage, coma, and death.

Depressant overdose symptoms can include:

  • Disorientation.
  • Unconsciousness.
  • No response to stimuli.
  • Floppy arms or legs.
  • Bluish lips or fingernails.
  • Cold or clammy skin.
  • Snoring or gurgling sounds.
  • Shallow or no breathing.

Overdose deaths from these drugs have claimed many lives and are only increasing, especially from prescription opioids.

Long-term effects of depressants can typically be found around the liver and digestive system. Alcohol in particular is very hard on the liver, and long-term, heavy misuse is closely connected to conditions like fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, and liver damage or failure.

Long-term use of depressant medications can also lead to psychological depression and increases the chance of experiencing paradoxical effects like anxiety and panic attacks. Some long-term users have developed chronic fatigue syndrome that lasts even after they’ve gotten clean. Insomnia and sexual dysfunction are also common. At the same time, withdrawal symptoms from certain depressants can be seriously dangerous.

Depressants versus Stimulants: Signs of Abuse

People who misuse stimulants may start out seeming like they’re in a better place than they were before, with more energy, an increased ability to get work done, and, in the case of some stimulants, a more positive attitude. However, over time, as users develop a tolerance and need higher and higher doses to get the same effect, people around them may begin to notice severe crashes, depression, irritability, and agitation. Excitability can turn to anxiety and paranoia, and as obtaining the drug becomes top priority, responsibilities may begin to fall to the wayside, resulting in overall diminished effectiveness in work or school.

Physical effects that can be signs of stimulant use include:

  • Dilated pupils.
  • Restlessness.
  • Weight loss.
  • Dental problems from teeth grinding or smoking.
  • Twitches or tics.

Insomnia can also become a serious problem as stimulants keep users awake, or they may develop strange sleeping patterns, such as staying up for days at a time followed by sleeping for 24 hours or more.

Depressant misuse, on the other hand, can make a person appear lazy. Unlike stimulants, depressants make a person slow down. Users are more likely to want to sit around and relax or sleep. They may lose interest in formerly loved hobbies, old friends, or even personal hygiene. Many of the symptoms may appear very similar to simple depression. These can include:

  • Poor concentration.
  • Slow or slurred speech.
  • Frequent drowsiness.
  • Impaired coordination.
  • Impaired memory.
  • Dizziness.

Physical signs like a slow or irregular heartbeat and low blood pressure are also hints that the problem is depressant misuse and not depression, as are side effects like constipation, itching of the skin, and difficulty urinating.

Similarities Between Stimulants and Depressants

While stimulants and depressants are essentially opposites, all drugs of misuse have certain key similarities. All drugs listed have the potential to be addictive and take over a person’s life, and all require professional treatment if an addiction disorder develops. The human brain will also adjust itself to any of these drugs, producing tolerance and the emergence of unpleasant withdrawal symptoms if an individual stops taking them all at once. There are both legal and illegal drugs in each class, and the legal ones can be quite beneficial if taken as directed by a medical professional.

Get Help for Stimulant and Depressant Abuse at Sunrise House

patients in counseling session for addiction treatmentWhether an upper or downer, there is no drug that is 100% safe to use, and misuse of a drug increases all risks of use. There are many specific drugs not listed here that could fit into either category that can be just as dangerous.

If you or a loved one struggles with a substance use problem, please reach out to an admissions navigator at Sunrise House, an inpatient facility in Lafayette, New Jersey, by calling . They will walk you through the different types of addiction treatment offered, the admissions process, using insurance to pay for rehab, and other ways to cover the cost of treatment.

You can also verify insurance by submitting the confidential .

Was this page helpful?
Thank you for your feedback.

American Addiction Centers (AAC) is committed to delivering original, truthful, accurate, unbiased, and medically current information. We strive to create content that is clear, concise, and easy to understand.

Read our full editorial policy

While we are unable to respond to your feedback directly, we'll use this information to improve our online help.