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By We Level Up NJ Treatment Center | Editor Yamilla Francese | Clinically Reviewed By Lauren Barry, LMFT, MCAP, QS, Director of Quality Assurance | Editorial Policy | Research Policy | Last Updated: February 16, 2023

What Are Psychoactive Drugs?

Psychoactive drugs are drug or other substance that affects how the brain works and causes changes in awareness, mood, thoughts, feelings, or behavior. Psychoactive drugs are drugs that affect the Central Nervous System (CNS), altering its regular activity. Examples of psychoactive drugs and substances include alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, marijuana, and certain pain medicines. In addition, many illegal drugs, such as heroin, LSD, cocaine, and meth are also psychoactive substances. Psychoactive drugs are also called psychotropic substances. This is according to the U.S. National Institute of Health (NIH) [1].

The effects of all psychoactive drugs occur through their interactions with our endogenous neurotransmitter systems. Most people associate “psychoactive” with illicit or controlled substances. However, a substance doesn’t necessarily have to be addictive to be considered psychoactive.

All it needs to do is act on the brain and transform how someone thinks, behaves, or perceives the world around you. Some drugs pose more dangers than others. 

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA) [2], in 2018, an estimated 16.9 million Americans misused prescription psychotherapeutic or psychoactive drugs at least once in the past year. This number of past-year prescription psychoactive drug misusers corresponds to the U.S. 6.2 percent of the population.

The most dangerous and strongest psychoactive drugs are the ones that usually need the intervention of professional help when they lead to dependence or addiction. Physical dependence involves changes in normal bodily functions—the person will experience withdrawal from the psychoactive drugs upon discontinuance of use. In contrast, someone who has psychological dependence has an emotional, rather than physical, need for the psychoactive drugs and may use the drug to relieve psychological distress. 

Tolerance is associated with physiological dependence, and it happens when someone requires more and more psychoactive drugs to achieve effects previously experienced at lower doses. Tolerance can cause someone to increase the number of drugs used to a critical level—even to the point of overdose and death. If this describes you or someone you love, seek professional help.

What is the psychoactive drugs definition?

If you are wondering, “what is a psychoactive drug?” or “what is psychoactive drugs?”, the answer is the nervous system’s normal operation is altered by a chemical substance known as a psychoactive drug, psychopharmaceutical, psychoactive agent, or psychotropic medication, which also has an impact on perception, emotion, awareness, cognition, or behavior.

5 Types Of Psychoactive Drugs

Psychoactive drugs are divided into five categories, and some drugs fall into more than one category.

Many legal and illegal substances contain psychoactive properties, so it’s important to know not only the benefits but also the risks associated with these psychoactive drugs.

Common psychoactive drugs include:

  • Depressants
  • Opioids
  • Stimulants
  • Hallucinogens
  • Designer Drugs


Depressants slow down the activity in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). They typically cause people to feel relaxed and sedated. Depressants reduce the person’s alertness and also slow down functions such as heart rate and breathing. Some people take prescribed depressants to help with anxiety or sleep. Others abuse these substances to get high.

  • Sedative hypnotics include medications like Ambien and Lunesta.
  • Benzodiazepines include medications like Valium, Xanax, and Klonopin.
  • Barbiturates include medications like Nembutal and Luminal.
Psychoactive drugs are dangerous to our health, our finances, our family, and our stability. If you have been caught in the cycle of dependence, don’t try to step down alone. Seek support now!
Psychoactive drugs are dangerous to our health, our finances, our family, and our stability. If you have been caught in the cycle of dependence, don’t try to step down alone. Seek support now!

Learn more:

Is alcohol a depressant? The answer is yes. When you first drink, you may feel happier and calmer, but excess alcohol can cause slurring and processing problems. It can make your feelings of anxiety and depression worse.

Psychoactive Drugs Fact Sheet

Are psychoactive drugs medication?

A chemical compound known as a psychoactive drug, psychopharmaceutical, psychoactive agent, or psychotropic drug alters nervous system functioning and affects perception, emotion, consciousness, cognition, or behavior.

The affect of psychoactive drugs

Any medication that alters behavior, emotions, thoughts, or perception is referred to as a psychotropic. It serves as a catch-all phrase for a wide range of drugs, including illicit and prescribed medications.

Psychoactive drugs action

Drugs that briefly alter neurochemistry do so in order to temporarily alter a person’s mood, cognition, perception, and behavior. Psychoactive substances have a variety of effects on the brain.

Psychoactive drugs side effects

Among the risks associated with psychoactive substances are:

  • Higher blood pressure, a quick heartbeat, difficulty sleeping or eating, nausea and vomiting, shakiness, or dizziness are a few short-term physical symptoms.
  • Long-term consequences such as cardiovascular disease, breathing problems, and kidney or liver damage.

Is caffeine a psychoactive drug? 

Caffeine is a psychoactive (mind-altering) substance that has an impact on our emotions and thoughts. It is a stimulant that quickens our heart rate, respiration, thinking, and behaviors. The seeds, leaves, and fruit of some shrubs, including coffee and tea plants, contain caffeine. Additionally, it can be created in a lab.

Psychoactive Drug Statistics

An estimated 35 million people are thought to be affected by drug use problems, and roughly 270 million people (or 5.5% of the population of the world between the ages of 15 and 64) used psychoactive drugs in the preceding year (harmful pattern of drug use or drug dependence).

270 Million

In the previous year, almost 270 million people used psychoactive drugs.

Source: WHO

35 Million

Drug use disorders are thought to impact roughly 35 million people.

Source: WHO

0.5 Million

An estimated 0.5 million deaths per year are thought to be related to drug usage.

Source: WHO

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Depressants’ Effect On The Brain

Depressants inhibit the central nervous system (CNS), increasing the activation of the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) neurotransmitter. This increased activity reduces brain function, resulting in the relaxing effect of these drugs. Other symptoms of taking depressants include:

  • Slow brain function
  • Poor concentration
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Slurred speech
  • Visual disturbances
  • Lack of coordination
  • Depression
  • Addiction

When taking depressants, individuals can develop drug tolerance fast. Tolerance means a person has to take a higher and higher dose to feel the same effects as the first time they used or ingested the drug. As tolerance increases, so does the risk of drug dependency, addiction, and withdrawal.


Opioids also act as depressants. When used as prescribed, opioids can help someone with moderate or severe pain. When abused, they can produce feelings of relaxation and euphoria.

Opioids include drugs like:

  • Heroin
  • Fentanyl
  • Vicodin
  • Morphine
  • Oxycodone

The strength of each opioid varies, so it’s not always evident how much you’re taking. And if you get pills off the street, you never know exactly what you’re getting. For instance, you may assume you’re getting Vicodin, but a dealer may lace the pill with fentanyl, which is highly addictive and deadly.

If you stop using opioids abruptly, you may undergo withdrawal symptoms. These withdrawal symptoms range in severity. You could feel sick for several days before your body starts to heal. During that time, you’re at risk of relapsing. That’s because you may experience increased cravings. Most people benefit from a medically assisted detox throughout this stage and then professional opioid addiction treatment once the drugs are out of their system.

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Opioids Effect On The Brain

Opioids have become a national epidemic. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) [3], in 2019, nearly 50,000 people in the United States died from opioid-involved overdoses. The misuse of and addiction to opioids—including heroin, prescription pain relievers, and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl—is a serious national crisis that affects public health as well as social and economic welfare.

The use of psychoactive drugs without medical supervision is associated with significant health risks and can lead to the development of drug use disorders.
The use of psychoactive drugs without medical supervision is associated with significant health risks and can lead to the development of drug use disorders.

Opioids work by binding to specific receptors in the spinal cord, brain, and gastrointestinal tract. In doing so, they reduce the body’s perception of pain. However, opioids can also have an impact on other systems of the body, such as slowing breathing, altering mood, and causing constipation. Opioid receptor binding causes the signs and symptoms of overdose as well as the euphoric effects or “high” with opioid use [4]. 

Opioids are particularly addictive because long-term consumption changes the way nerve cells work in the brain, even when a person is taking them as prescribed to treat pain.


Stimulants increase the activity of the central nervous system, making the person more alert and aroused. Examples of stimulants are nicotine, caffeine, cocaine, ecstasy and methamphetamines, speed drug, and ice.

Stimulants increase brain activity. As a result, it enhances energy and alertness. Some individuals have been prescribed stimulants for symptoms related to narcolepsy (sleep disorder) and ADHD. 

Common stimulants include:

When stimulants are abused, they can produce a euphoric rush, but a “crash” soon follows, making the person want to continue taking more drugs.

Long-term abuse can result in several health complications, including:

  • Stroke
  • Heart attacks
  • Tissue damage

Heavy stimulant users may develop withdrawal symptoms after stopping drug use. 

Common symptoms can include:

  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

Stimulants Effect On The Brain

Like all drugs that may lead to abuse and addiction, stimulants affect the limbic reward system of the brain. Stimulants increase the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain that regulates the feelings of pleasure and alters the control of movement, motivation, cognition, and euphoria. 

When there are high levels of dopamine, a person will feel their mood enhanced (feelings of euphoria) and increased motor activity. However, when there is a dopamine surge, people may become nervous, aggressive, irritable, or paranoid. 

Other effects of stimulants include hallucinations as well as bizarre thoughts and paranoia that approaches schizophrenia. Like depressants, stimulants can lead to increased tolerance, dependence, and addiction.


Hallucinogens include several drugs that alter your consciousness. It makes someone hear, smell, or feel things that aren’t there. Classic hallucinogens (psychedelics) interfere with specific serotonin-receptor activities and produce hallucinations. Substances in these groups imitate the effects of traditional drugs such as 2C-B, LSD, and DMT but may also possess residual stimulant activity [5].

Hallucinogens disrupt the connection between brain chemical systems. When abused by the body, hallucinogens can result in sensory issues, mood problems, and sleep disruptions. They can also trigger delusions and hallucinations. Sometimes individuals experience a “bad trip.” When this happens, they may feel stuck in a panicked state for hours or days. Eventually, they may experience flashbacks syndromes, where they relive the panic over and over again.

Hallucinogens include drugs like:

Most people take these drugs orally. They might eat them or brew them into tea. 

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Hallucinogens Effect On The Brain

Hallucinogens primarily affect the neural circuits in the brain that produce serotonin (a neurotransmitter) and produce perception-altering effects in the user.

These experiences are unpredictable and vary from person to person. While these drugs do not produce the physical symptoms of addiction and withdrawal that opioids, depressants, and stimulants cause, they do significantly alter the way the brain functions.

Long-term effects of hallucinogens include paranoia, persistent visual disturbances (flashbacks), disorganized thinking, and mood disturbances. Flashbacks (formally termed Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder), produce intense hallucinations that are nearly impossible to predict.

Designer Drugs

Designer drugs are drugs that have been formulated to imitate the effects of illegal substances while still trying to be sold legally. They are often produced in homes or secret illegal labs. They can be made from plant substances or entirely synthetic chemicals that can be legally purchased to attempt to create a new “legal” substance.

There are many different kinds of designer drugs. 

Common ones include:

  • Bath salts
  • Spice/K2 (synthetic marijuana)
  • Krokodil
  • MDMA/Ecstasy/Molly
  • MXE
  • Flakka
  • W18

These drugs are synthesized. That means they are manmade. Their chemical composition remains unknown. Because of that, it’s impossible to know what you’re actually taking when you take a designer drug. Often, manufacturers use many different chemicals to create these drugs.

Designer Drugs Effect On The Brain

Designer drugs are dangerous because the combinations used to create them are untested. As a result, designer drugs’ effects on the body are often unknown, as are the effects on the brain and the user’s overall health and behavior. Moreover, because drugs are created so quickly with chemicals that are not meant for human consumption, there is little known about the long-term health effects for users.

Dangers Of Psychoactive Drugs

All drugs aid a reaction within your body. Some of those reactions are positive and expected; others cause significant and long-lasting complications. Those complications and difficulties are increased when the drugs are abused. Some of the dangers of psychoactive drugs include:

  • Short-term physical effects include rapid heartbeat, higher blood pressure, problems with eating and sleeping, vomiting and nausea, shakiness, or dizziness.
  • Long-term effects such as respiratory difficulties, cardiovascular illness, kidney or liver damage
  • Physical dependence, which involves a change of brain chemistry, leading to poor judgment and uncharacteristic risk-taking, as well as financial problems
  • Cognitive difficulties in terms of the ability to think clearly and make informed decisions.

The most severe effects are tied to more dangerous drugs such as heroin, fentanyl, and cocaine, or even legal drug such as alcohol. But even psychoactive drugs that are widely found in foods, such as caffeine, can also cause problems with dependence.

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Psychoactive Drugs Withdrawal Symptoms

If someone uses psychoactive drugs regularly and stops, the person is likely to experience withdrawal. Withdrawal can cause symptoms that could last for several weeks or even months.

Common withdrawal symptoms:

  • Vomiting
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Agitation
  • Sleep problems
  • Low mood
  • Diarrhea
  • Heavy sweating
  • Anxiety
  • Headaches
  • Low energy
  • Poor concentration
  • Mood swings
  • Aches and pains
  • Nausea
  • Low appetite
  • Craving drugs

More extreme withdrawal symptoms:

  • Extreme panic and anxiety
  • Anger
  • Depression
  • Hallucinations
  • Paranoia
  • Racing heart
  • Aggression and violence
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Ongoing diarrhea and vomiting
  • Confusion and memory problems

These withdrawal symptoms can be very distressing and risky for people to try and manage by themselves. However, drug abuse treatment can help people manage these symptoms.

  1. Is Ethanol a psychoactive drug?

    People all throughout the world drink alcoholic beverages because they contain ethanol, a psychoactive substance that has calming and pleasurable effects.

  2. What is a psychoactive drugs list?

    If you are wondering, “what is the list of psychoactive drugs?” or “what are all types of psychoactive drugs?”, the answer is alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, marijuana, and some painkillers are psychoactive drugs examples. Numerous illegal chemicals, including heroin, LSD, cocaine, and amphetamines, are also psychoactive.

  3. What are the positive effects of psychoactive drugs?

    Drugs that affect brain function cause momentary changes in mood, perception, and behavior. These substances can be used as entheogens for ritual or spiritual purposes, recreationally to purposely alter consciousness, or as medication.

  4. Is CBD a psychoactive drug?

    One of the principal substances in cannabis that is active is CBD. Although it is a psychoactive substance, it does not have the same intoxicating “high” as THC. At some dosages, CBD can reduce anxiety while promoting sleep.

  5. How do psychoactive drugs affect the brain?

    Serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine are the three neurotransmitters that the medication impacts in the brain (or noradrenaline). These neurotransmitters are released from synaptic vesicles in neurons when the medication reaches the brain. As a result, neurotransmitter activity is boosted.

  6. What do psychoactive drugs do?

    A medication or drug that alters the way the brain functions and results in modifications to mood, consciousness, thoughts, feelings, or behavior. Alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, marijuana, and some painkillers are examples of psychoactive drugs.

  7. Did Colorado legalize psychoactive drugs?

    It also makes it lawful for adults over 21 to own, consume, and share psilocybin, psilocin, and three other psychedelic substances: mescaline, ibogaine, and dimethyltryptamine (DMT). There can be no retail sales.

  8. Which psychoactive drugs slow down mental and physical activity?

    Alcohol, barbiturates, tranquilizers, and opiates are some of the most often utilized depressants.

  9. Why do psychoactive drugs make people feel good?

    They can lessen stimulation and excitement, resulting in a person feeling sleepy or relaxed. All of the senses are affected by psychedelics, which change a person’s thinking, perception of time, and emotions. A person may also experience hallucinations, in which they perceive or hear distorted or unreal objects.

  10. What is the cactus psychoactive drug?

    The hallucinogen mescaline is the primary component of peyote. Peyote has been a part of indigenous peoples’ sacred rituals in northern Mexico and the southwestern United States since the beginning of recorded history. Peyote can be used to extract mescaline, or it can be made synthetically.

Rehab Center and Detox Treatment In New Jersey

Psychoactive drugs that lead to addiction are a difficult problem to address. In most instances, it’s not safe to end addiction alone. You need the help and support of medical and counseling professionals in a rehab treatment facility. 

During your rehabilitation, the staff will help you identify what caused your substance abuse disorder and teach you skills that will help you change your behavior patterns and challenge the negative thoughts that led to psychoactive drug abuse [6]. 

If you or someone you love is struggling with psychoactive drug dependence and abuse, get them the safest help they need and deserve. Our team at We Level Up NJ specializes in creating an ideal environment and providing effective therapies to help individuals who struggle with drug abuse. We will develop a personalized addiction treatment plan and lead you to recovery. Get started today!

The role of a good medically monitored detox program is to make sure the client is safe while going through withdrawal.
The role of a good medically monitored detox program is to make sure the client is safe while going through withdrawal.

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[1] NIH –

[2] SAMHSA –

[3] NIDA –

[4] SAMHSA –

[6] We Level UpDrug Abuse Treatment Center

U.S. Department of Justice. Drug Enforcement Administration. Title 21 United States Code (US) Controlled Substances Act (Section 829).

Graziano S, Orsolini L, Rotolo MC, Tittarelli R, Schifano F, Pichini S. Herbal Highs: Review on Psychoactive Effects and Neuropharmacology. Curr Neuropharmacol. 2017;15(5):750-761. doi:10.2174/1570159X14666161031144427

U.S. Department of Justice. Drug Enforcement Administration. Drugs of Abuse: A DEA resource guide. 2017 edition. 2017.

Weis S, Sonnberger M, Dunzinger A, et al. Intoxication: Street Drugs. In: Imaging Brain Diseases. Vienna: Springer; 2019:1243-1260. doi:10.1007/978-3-7091-1544-2_50

Soyka M. Treatment of Benzodiazepine Dependence. N Engl J Med. 2017;376(12):1147-1157. doi:10.1056/NEJMra1611832