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What is the Difference Between Stimulants and Depressants?

Nicole Madison
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The difference between stimulants and depressants is their effects on the body. Stimulants, which are often referred to as uppers, have a stimulating effect on the body as well as the mind. Depressants, on the other hand, have the opposite effect and are sedating to the body. Depressants work to slow the heart rate and breathing and have a relaxing effect on the mind.

Stimulants and depressants are the exact opposite of each other. To understand the differences, it helps to consider how they affect the body. Stimulants usually work to excite or arouse the body while depressants work to sedate it. Interestingly, both types of substances also affect the mind. A person who is taking a stimulant may feel alert and confident, while a person who is taking a depressant may feel calm and free of mental stress.

There are many types of stimulants and depressants. Often, people think of these substances in terms of medications. For example, barbiturates, tranquilizers, and benzodiazepines are among the medications that are used for their depressant qualities. Doctors may recommend barbiturates, for instance, to help a person sleep, help lower blood pressure, and relieve anxiety. Benzodiazepines may be used in treating people who have difficulty sleeping or are suffering from anxiety, and tranquilizers are useful for calming a patient or inducing sleep.

Among the most common stimulants a person may take are amphetamines, which may be used to treat disorders in which a person falls asleep when he shouldn’t as well as for treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. A drug called methylphenidate may be used to stimulate the central nervous system. Additionally, anorectics are medications that are classified as stimulants and often used for appetite suppression.

Some of the stimulants and depressants a person may encounter are not traditionally used as medications. Examples of such stimulants include cocaine, an illegal drug, and caffeine, which people commonly consume in coffee, chocolate, and tea. Alcohol is an example of a depressant; marijuana has some of the effects of a depressant but can also be classified as a hallucinogen.

Unfortunately, many of the substances that are used as stimulants or depressants are associated with a range of negative effects. For example, stimulants often are associated with poor impulse control, violent behaviors, paranoia, and "crashing" when the drug wears off. Depressants, on the other hand, may lead to sluggishness, depression, confusion, and slurred speech. Clumsiness and loss of consciousness may also result from depressant use.

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Nicole Madison
By Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a The Health Board writer, where she focuses on topics like homeschooling, parenting, health, science, and business. Her passion for knowledge is evident in the well-researched and informative articles she authors. As a mother of four, Nicole balances work with quality family time activities such as reading, camping, and beach trips.
Discussion Comments
By JohnAngelo — On Jan 04, 2016

Great ideas. Thank you.

By aLFredo — On Aug 03, 2011

@geekish - There are a wide variety of inhalants so unfortunately there is not an easy way to label them, but they can most definitely known to be both depressant and stimulant inhalants.

This is one of the sad categories of drugs because so many young people abuse them and it is difficult for parents to know their child is using them.

In answer to your question about other types of depressant drugs, I don’t know many but I do know: Barbiturates (often these are prescribed medication for anesthesia and sedations) are another type of depressant drug and Gamma Hydroxybutyric Acid (interestingly this depressant is actually a treatment for narcolepsy) is a depressant as well.

By geekish — On Aug 03, 2011

Lots of my friends love having coffee in the morning it must be on the top of the list of stimulants and depressants that are used often as well as alcohol for the depressant side of things.

Another trend I see popping up more while I was in college and in graduate school, some people stopped using coffee as their stimulant to help them stay awake to study and instead replaced it with a energy drink.

I tried the energy drink route but I think they taste awful! And if you aren't careful just like if you drink the sugary coffee drinks, energy drinks can be loaded with calories (calories you don't need if you are just studying)!

I have always heard alcohol as a depressant but what are other depressants and are inhalants stimulants or depressants?

By amysamp — On Aug 02, 2011

I find the issue of stimulants an interesting category in the categories of legal drugs. This is because my husband has ADHD which means he actually has to take a stimulant to focus.

So the world of stimulants is turned upside down when it comes to this category of disorder, because just as alcohol technically depresses your system; stimulants seem like they would technically stop someone from focusing. So I wonder if there are some disorders in which depressants have the opposite effect as well.

My husband is very grateful for the prescription drug he uses for his ADHD, he describes not having it before as like not having glasses on and then taking the medicine makes him see his thoughts clearly.

Has anyone else had a good experience with these types of stimulants?

I know stimulants for children with ADHD often get a bad rap, but my husband tells me that even in adults they have to spend a bit of time adjusting the medicine to get the right dose for individuals.

This can be particularly tricky with kids since they are likely to be growing and their weight changing often (which in turn affects the medication's effects).

By manykitties2 — On Aug 01, 2011

Has anyone ever felt really sick after consuming stimulants such as coffee and chocolate?

For some reason if I have too much of caffeine I get a very acidic stomach and I get nervous and twitchy. Sometimes it even feels like I am a bit dizzy and I find that my hands shake a lot.

I have been trying to cut back on the amount of caffeine I take in but it is really hard. Without the caffeine in my system I feel like it is hard to get through the day. I am way too tired and even a good sleep schedule doesn't seem to help very much.

Does anyone have any advice for dealing with withdrawal from a simple stimulant like caffeine.

By letshearit — On Aug 01, 2011

It has always amazed me the number of people that can't get through a day with their morning stimulant. I think coffee is by far the biggest addiction in the western world. I personally don't drink coffee, not for any moral reason, but I have just never liked the taste of it.

My friends on the other hand, they love coffee and heaven forbid they don't get their morning hit. They tend to get grouchy and sluggish without the boost.

I really worry about a society that can't get by without a chemical boost, no matter how small. We should all be able to get through our days without needing an outside stimulant.

By strawCake — On Aug 01, 2011

One thing it's important to keep in mind is the danger of mixing stimulants and depressants. I've heard stories about people who do illegal drugs that are a mix of a stimulant and a depressant and dying because their bodies can't take it.

However, there is another, legal danger: mixing caffeine and alcohol. I know shots of alcohol mixed with energy drink are very popular, but I think they could have the same effect as illegal stimulant-depressant mixes. I would definitely caution people not to drink too many of these or not to drink them at all!

By Monika — On Jul 31, 2011

@ceilingcat - I agree with you, I don't think many people give much thought to the emotional effects of consuming alcohol. I've recently had a different revelation about caffeine though!

My friends mom went to the hospital a few weeks ago because her heart was racing. She thought she was having a heart attack! Luckily, it didn't turn out to be a heart attack. Her heart was racing because she had drank too much caffeine!

I think we forget caffeine is a stimulant because consuming coffee is such a big part of office culture. I'm not saying all coffee is bad, but I know I'm much more vigilant about making sure I have only one cup per day instead of three!

By ceilingcat — On Jul 31, 2011

I think a lot of people forget that alcohol is a depressant. I know a lot of people who say, "Oh, I had a bad day. I need a drink!" Unfortunately, that's not going to make you any happier. All alcohol does in the long run is make you more depressed.

I know I for one feel much better when I don't consume alcohol at all. I can even tell the difference the next day when I have one or two drinks, and don't even get drunk. A few years ago I was working in a bar where it was the norm to have a few drinks every night. Eventually, I noticed that I was feeling "down" all the time and I did a little bit of research about alcohol. Imagine my surprise when I learned it was a depressant. Ever since I cut alcohol out of my routine, I feel much more upbeat!

Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a The Health Board writer, where she focuses on topics like...
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