What You Need to Know About Sedatives

When most people hear the word “addiction,” they think of cocaine, meth, heroin and other illicit substances. It’s rare for prescription medications to come to mind, especially sedatives. These drugs are central nervous system depressants, often prescribed to manage anxiety or insomnia in patients. However, with misuse or prolonged use, it is possible to become addicted to these doctor-recommended medicines.

About Sedatives

Sedative drugs slow brain activity, moderating excitement and providing a sense of calmness or relaxation to the person taking them. Specifically, they increase the amount of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) activity in the central nervous system. Hypnotics operate in a similar way; these result in drowsiness and are used to facilitate the onset of sleep.

There are three primary categories of drugs with sedative properties. These are… 


Common benzodiazepines (“benzos”) include alprazolam, diazepam and lorazepam. You may know them better by their brand names: Xanax, Valium and Ativan. These drugs are often prescribed for the treatment of anxiety and panic disorders: conditions that send your central nervous system into overdrive.


Barbiturates like pentobarbital sodium (Nembutal) and phenobarbital (Luminal) are most typically used for anesthetic purposes.


Ambien, generically referred to as zolpidem, is used to induce drowsiness for those suffering from insomnia and other sleep disorders.

Side Effects of Prolonged Sedative Use

Sedatives can significantly impact your health in the short and long term. Immediately after taking them, it is common to experience dizziness, drowsiness, blurred or worsened vision, impaired reaction time, difficulty thinking, slowed breathing rate and slurred speech. Someone who has taken these drugs over time may experience liver failure, significant memory problems (amnesia), along with symptoms of poor mental health. These include anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, along with a physical and mental dependency on sedatives.

Are Sedatives Addictive?

Sedatives are heavily regulated by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) precisely because they can be highly addictive. But how do you know if you’re addicted to sedatives?

Dependency can be indicated by taking medication more often or in higher amounts than prescribed – a when-you-need-it pill becomes nightly, or you may take two instead of one. This may begin on a whim, but it can also be a sign that you need an increased dosage to experience the same effects.

The clearest sign of addiction is the presence of withdrawal symptoms. When they take a nightly sleeping pill or a daily Xanax, people with a sedative dependence will feel anxious, irritable and unable to sleep. They may feel sick or even experience seizures after cessation of the medication. People who are addicted to sedatives experience cravings for these drugs: thinking compulsively about the medication and feeling sure that it is the only way to address one’s current situation. They may feel frustrated or experience negative mood swings after finding out that they cannot take a sedative.

Other signs of addiction:

  • Using sedatives when it is unsafe to do so (ex: while driving or drinking)
  • Continuing to take sedatives even after negative repercussions
  • Trying and failing to taper/stop use
  • Impaired judgment
  • Shallow breathing
  • Mood swings
  • Paranoia
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Stealing someone’s pills or prescription
  • Low blood pressure
  • Drug-seeking behavior like doctor shopping (visiting multiple doctors for prescriptions)
  • Seeming more argumentative than usual
  • Slurred or slowed speech
  • Lying or being secretive about activities and substance use
  • Lack of coordination
  • Confusion or disorientation

Should People in Recovery Take Sedatives?

Individuals who have already begun to pursue recovery should exercise great caution about many substances, and sedatives are of particular concern. It is not recommended for those in recovery to take these controlled substances. Even over-the-counter sleep aids, like Benadryl, should be avoided unless expressly recommended by a physician who understands your history of substance use.

It is vital for a recovering person’s physician and medical team to have a full knowledge of their history with addiction. This should be marked clearly in your chart so that no unsafe medicines will be prescribed. When in doubt, contact your recovery center for comprehensive advice about any new prescriptions. They will be able to advise you about these substances with your recovery as their top priority.

Find Health and Healing at Cumberland Heights

Anxiety and sleep disorders can drastically impact your quality of life, but they pale in comparison to the negative physical, mental and spiritual effects of sedative addiction. If you know someone who is struggling with a dependency on these medications, we encourage you to reach out to Cumberland Heights today. Our team of experts can help safely detox from sedatives while managing any withdrawal symptoms that may arise. Break the cycle of addiction today. Contact us to speak with a member of our compassionate admissions staff.