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What is a Psychoactive Drug

If you’re unfamiliar with the vocabulary and lingo associated with drug abuse and recovery, you may find yourself confused by number of terms. One term you’ll come across regularly is “psychoactive drug.” But what exactly is a psychoactive drug?

What do they Do?

Simply put, psychoactive drugs are substances that directly influence your nervous system – generally by speeding up neural impulses or slowing them down, though some may have other effects. While there are a number of categories (which we’ll get into shortly), the one thing that they all have in common is that they change the chemistry of your of your brain. And yes, that does make alcohol a psychoactive drug (and so is caffeine!).

There are a number of different categories of psychoactive drugs depending on the organization doing the categorizing, but the following are a few of the most common. While all psychoactive, they each affect your nervous system very differently.


Depressants, as the name implies, slow down your nervous system. They decrease reaction time in your brain, which lead to cognition problems and memory loss. Recreational use of depressants is generally due to the relaxed nature of this sedation a loss of inhibitions.

Some of the most common depressants are alcohol, anti-anxiety medications like Xanax, Valium, and Prozac, Rohypnol (roofies), and barbiturates like phenobarbital.


Stimulants are basically the opposite of depressants. They speed up the nervous system, heightening alertness and often giving a sense of euphoria and wellbeing, sometimes to a manic extreme. This often leads to over-stimulation, spikes in blood pressure, and unsafe jumps in heart rate.

Common stimulants include caffeine, nicotine, cocaine, and amphetamines (including “meth”).


Hallucinogens are often called “psychedelics,” and alter the user’s perception of reality. They create delusions of great insight and can make the user see things that aren’t there.

Hallucinogens include LSD, psilocybin (commonly found in “shrooms”), MDMA (ecstasy, molly), peyote, and mescaline.


Narcotics simulate endorphins in the nervous system, giving the user a feeling of euphoria and pain relief. They are commonly prescribed as pain killers in western medicine, and are some of the most abused drugs today. They can be legally obtained, unlike many of the other drugs mentioned here, but can be just as addictive.

Common narcotics are opium (and all opiate derivatives, called opioids), heroin, morphine, Vicodin, oxycontin, codeine, Demerol, and darvon.

What about Marijuana?

There’s an ongoing debate about where marijuana fits into these categories. While there is little disagreement over whether or not it’s psychoactive (it is), its categorization proves to be a trickier subject. Most commonly it’s considered in the cannabis or cannabinoid category, and it’s the only drug in that class.

So aren’t all drugs psychoactive then?

If a drug does not create a notable change in the nervous system (under normal doses), then it is considered non-psychoactive. Common over-the-counter drugs like ibuprofen (Advil), acetaminophen (Tylonol), vitamins, and the like are non-psychoactive.

Why does this matter?

If you’re here reading this, it’s likely you’re either struggling with addiction or know someone who is. It’s important in either case to familiarize yourself with the vocabulary and understand the differences between different substances. This understanding is just a small step, but ultimately a very important one toward recovery.