A tranquilizer is a drug that acts on the central nervous system and is used to calm, decrease anxiety, or help a person to sleep. Often called depressants because they suppress the central nervous system and slow the body down, they are used to treat mental illness as well as common anxiety and sleeplessness. Available only by prescription, they can cause dependence and certain ones can easily be abused.
There are two types or classes of tranquilizers: major tranquilizers and minor tranquilizers. The former are antipsychotic drugs and the latter are considered antianxiety drugs. Antipsychotic drugs are used to treat patients with a severe mental illness, like schizophrenia (pronounced skit-zo-FREH-nee-uh). Antianxiety drugs are given to patients with emotional problems, like anxiety. Both types of tranquilizers were first introduced in the 1950s. At the time, they revolutionized psychiatry for they seemed to offer physicians a way to manage psychoses (pronounced sy-KOH-sees), which are severe forms of mental illness, and to make their patients emotionally calm and quiet. They also seemed to offer an alternative to people simply trying to cope or put up with the everyday anxieties, tension, and sleeplessness that many experience in their normal lives.
The major tranquilizers were first developed in the very early 1950s when scientists discovered that the organic compound called phenothiazine (pronounced fee-no-THY-uh-zeen) had a strong sedative effect, meaning it calmed or relaxed the person taking it. In 1952, a phenothiazine derivative called chlorpromazine (pronounced klor-PRO-muhzeen) was seen to make highly agitated patients quiet and calm without making them unconscious. However, it also made them much less aware mentally, as they seemed to have little or no interest in anything going on around them. These calming effects led doctors to begin giving this new drug (whose trade name was Thorazine) to severely disturbed, psychotic patients, since for the first time, science had found a drug that specifically targeted the central nervous system.
Anxiety: A feeling of uneasiness and distress about something in the future.
Insomnia: Inability to go to sleep or stay asleep.
Psychosis: A major psychiatric disorder characterized by the inability to tell what is real from what is not real.
Schizophrenia: A serious mental illness characterized by isolation from others and thought and emotional disturbances.
About the same time, another compound called reserpine became useful as a major tranquilizer. It was found to reduce the delusions and hallucinations of schizophrenics. However, it eventually was replaced by another class of drugs since it had several physical side effects. Although antipsychotic drugs or major tranquilizers have side effects—such as increased heart rate, dry mouth, blurred vision, and constipation—they are not addictive and patients seldom build up a tolerance for them. Since they do not give the user any of the good feelings that stimulants do (instead they cause drowsiness), they do not lend themselves to recreational use. They will not make a person feel "high."
Minor tranquilizers are quite different, however, and although these antianxiety drugs are called "minor," there is in fact nothing minor or mild about these drugs. Nor is there anything minor about their effects or their potential for abuse. This class of drugs is the most common type of drug today. More prescriptions are written for these compounds than for any other type of drugs. Minor tranquilizers include the well-known brand names of Valium, Librium, Xanax, and Ativan. Unlike major tranquilizers, which are used by doctors to try and manage severe psychiatric illnesses, minor tranquilizers are given fairly liberally by doctors to patients who complain about anxiety, depression, and sleep disorders. Minor tranquilizers work by reducing tension without heavily sedating the patient. Although they relax tense muscles, they produce less sleepiness during the day than major tranquilizers, although at night they do help with sleep.
Though they should be taken in prescribed doses for short periods of time, many people take these minor tranquilizers regularly, and they can cause dependence and tolerance. This means that the patient may experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms if they suddenly stop taking them, and that they eventually need to take larger doses to maintain a feeling of well-being. Minor tranquilizers are the most widely abused drug in the United States and are regularly involved in suicide attempts and accidental overdoses. Called "downers" on the street, they can give a feeling of calm and relaxation (some say a "floating" sensation) that can, however, turn into more serious and unpleasant side effects. Over-use of downers can make people hostile and aggressive, and leave them with blurred vision, memory loss, disorganized thinking, headaches, and depression.
Whether major or minor tranquilizers, these two classes of drugs are not a cure for any of the conditions they treat. They are given by doctors to relieve symptoms that are associated with other problems. Neither type of drug should be taken with alcohol, as both are depressants and can therefore compound or exaggerate the effect of the other. People who take tranquilizers also should not drive a car or operate anything mechanical for several hours after taking the pills, since they interfere with the control of a person's movements. Although technically there are major and minor tranquilizers, the word "tranquilizer" has commonly come to refer only to the minor class of drugs that treat anxiety and insomnia—probably because they are the most frequently prescribed type of drug in the world.