Dependence on Depressants: Alcohol, Sedative-Hypnotic Drugs and Opioids

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  • 0:07 Depressants
  • 0:53 Alcohol
  • 2:41 Sedative-Hypnotic Drugs
  • 4:28 Opioids
  • 6:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Addiction to depressants, like alcohol, sedatives, and opioids, comes with many problems. In this lesson, we'll look at those three types of depressants, their side effects, and the treatment for dependence.


Jack is a retired captain in the military. He's survived many dangerous situations and still feels anxious and has trouble sleeping. His doctor prescribed sleeping pills to help with his insomnia, but lately, Jack has found that he needs more and more sleeping pills to help him sleep. Sometimes, he drinks alcohol with the pills, just to calm himself. Alcohol and sleeping pills are two types of depressant drugs.

Depressants slow down brain activity and help people relax and sleep. However, depressants do have a downside: They are addictive and can lead to serious health problems, including death, if abused. Let's look at three types of depressants and what happens when people become dependent upon them.


By far, the most commonly used depressant is alcohol. Though many people occasionally drink alcohol, when someone uses alcohol in an unhealthy way, it is considered to be an alcohol use disorder. There are two main alcohol use disorders - alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence.

Alcohol abuse occurs when a person drinks alcohol regularly despite the negative effects on their life. Alcohol dependence is more serious than alcohol abuse, and it occurs when a person needs alcohol to function and/or needs more and more alcohol to feel buzzed or drunk. Symptoms of alcohol dependence include cravings, loss of control and withdrawal symptoms when a person does not drink.

Treatment for alcohol abuse and dependence varies widely. Alcoholics Anonymous and other support groups are popular ways for people to utilize social support to help them stop drinking. However, these support groups are not led by mental health professionals and do not work for everyone. People who do not find support groups helpful might turn to other treatment. Working with a psychologist in one-on-one or group therapy can help people identify the issues that cause them to drink and find more productive strategies to deal with stress.

Behavioral therapy focuses on how to change people's behaviors by pairing negative consequences with the addiction. For example, behavioral therapists sometimes use a drug that, when mixed with alcohol, induces vomiting. As a result, the patient begins to associate alcohol use with vomiting and does not want to drink - kind of like when you get food poisoning and then don't want to eat the food that made you sick.

Sedative-Hypnotic Drugs

Remember Jack? He has trouble sleeping and his doctor prescribed sleeping pills. Sleeping pills, also sometimes called tranquilizers, are sedative-hypnotic drugs. Like alcohol and other depressants, sedative-hypnotic drugs slow down the central nervous system and relax muscles.

Also like alcohol, sedatives can be addictive. People with sedative dependency often develop a tolerance for the drugs and have to take larger and larger doses in order to relax. Remember, Jack had to increase the dosage of his sleeping pills because they weren't working anymore. This is a sign that he's developed a tolerance, and it might mean that he's dependent on the sedatives. Other signs of sedative dependence include agitation, withdrawal and the inability to sleep without them.

One issue with sedatives is that they are usually prescribed by doctors, so people do not believe that they are harmful or addictive. After all, if a doctor prescribes them, they must be safe, right? Well, sort of. In small doses - and used occasionally - sedatives can be helpful to people who struggle with insomnia. However, sedatives are highly addictive and people can become dependent on them. Just because they are prescribed by a doctor does not mean that a person can't abuse them. Sadly, that's just what happens to some people.

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