How Sedatives, Hypnotics, and Anxiolytics Affect the Brain and Body

Posted on May 29, 2023

Brain on sedatives graphic.

Sedatives, hypnotics, and anxiolytics are technically different types of drugs but are, in many ways, related. These drugs are often simply called “depressants.” They have similar effects on the human brain and body and are used to calm the central nervous system, reduce anxiety, and induce sleep. Some have even been used as surgical anesthetics.


While they have many legitimate medical uses, these drugs are also related in the fact that they can be addictive and dangerous when misused. Sedatives, hypnotics, and anxiolytics are so closely related in their actions that many addiction experts call their abuse “SHA”-related disorders (SHA intoxication, SHA withdrawal, and SHA use disorder, etc.).


What Are Sedatives?

Sedatives calm the central nervous system and induce sleep. They are commonly prescribed to treat anxiety and sleep disorders. They enhance the activity of a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. GABA is an “inhibitory” neurotransmitter, which slows down the activity of neurons, reduces their excitability, and promotes relaxation.


Sedatives can cause drowsiness, dizziness, and impaired coordination. They can also cause memory problems, confusion, and agitation in some people.


What Are Hypnotics?

Hypnotics are drugs used to induce sleep and are commonly used to treat insomnia (and sometimes anxiety or mood disorders). Hypnotics work by binding to specific receptors in the brain that are involved in regulating sleep. They also enhance the activity of GABA, further promoting sleep.


Hypnotics can cause drowsiness, dizziness, impaired coordination, and “rebound” insomnia and daytime sleepiness in some people.


What Are Anxiolytics?

Anxiolytics treat anxiety, stress disorders, or other mood problems. Like sedatives and hypnotics, anxiolytics enhance the activity of GABA in the brain, helping to reduce the activity of neurons involved in stress response.


Anxiolytics can cause drowsiness, dizziness, and impaired coordination, similar to sedatives and hypnotics. They can also cause memory problems, confusion, and depression.


Mostly Commonly Used Sedatives, Hypnotics, & Anxiolytics

Some of the more well-known “SHA” drugs include:

  • Ativan
  • Lorazepam
  • Fentanyl
  • Phenobarbital
  • Chloral hydrate
  • Prosom
  • Halcion
  • Lunesta
  • Ambien
  • Oleptra
  • Diazepam
  • Zolpidem
  • Valium
  • Xanax
  • Rohypnol
  • Nembutal
  • Seconal
  • Methaqualone (Quaaludes).


How Do Sedatives, Hypnotics & Anxiolytics Affect The Brain & Body?

Sedatives, hypnotics, and anxiolytics profoundly affect the brain and body. These substances, commonly referred to as central nervous system depressants, work by altering the activity of neurotransmitters in the brain. They primarily target the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) system, which is responsible for brain inhibitory signaling. Enhancing the effects of GABA, sedatives, hypnotics, and anxiolytics promote relaxation, sedation, and sleep induction. They reduce neuronal excitability, dampen the transmission of signals, and produce an overall calming effect.


In the body, these substances can cause muscle relaxation, reduce heart rate, and lower blood pressure. While they can effectively treat anxiety and sleep disorders, they also carry risks. Prolonged use can lead to tolerance, dependence, and withdrawal symptoms. Additionally, sedatives and hypnotics can impair cognitive function, coordination, and memory.


Generally, SHA drugs have similar general effects on the brain and body, including:

  • decreased heart rate and blood pressure
  • slowed breathing rate
  • reduced muscle tension/muscle relaxation
  • Increased appetite and weight gain
  • impaired cognitive function and memory
  • mood changes, including depression and irritability


At high doses, SHA drugs can seriously slow mental and physical reaction time, making a user appear as if they were drunk. Like alcohol, sedative-hypnotic-anxiolytic intoxicated individuals may display slurred speech, impaired judgment, sudden mood changes, inappropriate behavior, impaired memory, or problems with coordination, balance, and walking. In extreme cases, the person may lapse into a stupor.


In very high doses, these drugs can reduce blood pressure and heart rate enough to lead to coma. They can also cause respiratory arrest, which may be fatal.


Regularly using these drugs often leads to tolerance as the body adjusts to their presence, meaning it takes larger or more frequent doses to achieve the same effects. Dependence can also develop, and withdrawal symptoms will occur if drug use is suddenly stopped. Withdrawal reactions can be extremely uncomfortable, although they usually are not deadly. Prolonged use can lead to addiction.


Can Sedatives, Hypnotics & Anxiolytics Cause Withdrawal?

Withdrawal symptoms can include:

  • Anxiety
  • Tremors
  • Insomnia
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Sweating
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Abnormal blood pressure
  • Hallucinations,
  • Dangerously high fever
  • Seizures.


Combining or using these drugs with alcohol can be dangerous or lethal.


How Is SHA Addiction Treated?



Treatment for SHA addiction begins with detoxification (purging all traces of the drug from the body), usually by gradually reducing the drug dose. Depending on the severity of the dependence and other factors (such as other medical or mental health conditions), detox may need to occur in a hospital or inpatient clinic.


Behavioral Counseling & Therapy

After detox, a rehab program that includes behavioral counseling and therapy begins. Drug use is usually not an isolated problem—most addicts live with other mental disorders, such as anxiety or depression. Recovery programs should be custom tailored to the individual. These programs usually teach stress management, relaxation, and coping techniques while they attempt to uncover and resolve the causes of the addiction. Self-help groups, peer support groups, and 12-step programs can provide long-term support and help prevent relapse.


If you, or a loved one, is battling an addiction, seek help immediately. Like alcoholism, a substance use disorder is a real illness, not a sign of weakness or poor character. Fighting SHA drug addiction is difficult, but with proper support, you can win and complete your journey back to a sober and fulfilling life.


Why Choose Rising Phoenix?

The impact of sedatives, hypnotics, and anxiolytics on the brain and body is a complex interplay between pharmacological effects and individual physiological responses. These substances enhance the inhibitory actions of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), resulting in sedation, sleep induction, and muscle relaxation. However, using these substances carries risks, including tolerance, dependence, and potential adverse effects on cognition and motor coordination. The good news is that our treatment programs can help individuals overcome an addiction to these substances.


Contact us today to learn more.

Ready to get started?

Toll-Free Call

100% Confidential