How Safe Are Tranquilizers?

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The term "tranquilizer" is a somewhat misleading one. The word is typically used in popular culture to describe sedatives, or substances used to induce sedation or reduce anxiety. The term "tranquilizer" is used less commonly today as it suggests that the drugs induce tranquility, a somewhat vague and inaccurate description of how they work.

It was only in 1953 that the term "tranquilizer" was coined to describe the effects the drug reserpine appeared to have on animals. Today, we would more accurately classify reserpine as an anti-hypertensive since its aim is to reduce high blood pressure rather than to induce a tranquil state.

These days, when doctors used the word "tranquilizer," they may be doing so to classify the drugs into one of two groups:

  • Major tranquilizers are typically antipsychotic drugs used to treat psychotic features of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other mood disorders.
  • Minor tranquilizers are typically anxiolytic drugs used to reduce anxiety.

Understanding Minor Tranquilizers

When people refer to tranquilizers, they usually mean it to suggest that the drugs can calm nerves, alleviate symptoms of stress, or assist with sleep. These types of drugs are broadly classified as anxiolytics. The medications are sometimes further broken down into other classes of drugs:

  • Antidepressants are able to treat anxiety by regulating neurochemicals in the brain, particularly serotonin. While it may seem counterintuitive to treat anxiety with an antidepressant, these agents impact neurotransmitters involved in the regulation of both mood and anxiety.
  • Barbiturates were once widely prescribed to treat insomnia and anxiety. They are seldom used for this purpose today due to the high risk of abuse and dependence as well as their narrow therapeutic index, the dose required for the desired effect and the dose that can result in coma or death. While they have been largely replaced by benzodiazepines, barbiturates are sometimes used as an anticonvulsant (to treat seizures) or as a general anesthetic.
  • Benzodiazepines are prescribed to treat anxiety, insomnia, seizures, muscle spasms, agitation, alcohol withdrawal, and panic attacks. There are no less than 15 benzodiazepines approved for use in the U.S., including Ativan (lorazepam), Valium (diazepam), Klonopin (clonazepam), and Xanax (alprazolam).
  • Sympatholytics are anti-hypertensive drugs that work on the body’s sympathetic nervous system (essentially the "fight-or-flight" response). This class of drug is effective in treating anxiety disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Informed Use of Minor Tranquilizers

When used appropriately and under the supervision of a qualified physician, minor tranquilizers such as benzodiazepines can be both effective and beneficial. While it may seem reasonable to assume that some of these drugs are "safer" than others, all benzodiazepines have the potential to cause dependence and addiction if misused.

In fact, because drugs like Xanax or Valium are so commonly prescribed, people will underestimate their potential for addiction compared to more "dangerous" drugs like Oxycontin (oxycodone) or Vicodin (hydrocodone).

Minor tranquilizers are generally taken for a short time. Overuse can also cause side effects that lead to a worsening of symptoms, including:

  • Agitation
  • Aggression
  • Confusion
  • Depression
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Grogginess
  • Headaches
  • Lack of coordination
  • Memory loss
  • Paranoia
  • Slurred speech
  • Suicidal thoughts

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

If you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of addiction, speak with your doctor about treatment options. Going "cold turkey" is usually not a good idea given the potential for withdrawal symptoms, sometimes severe. Some health insurance plans today provide partial or full coverage of addiction treatment.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Partnership for Drug Free Kids. "Prescription Sedatives & Tranquilizers." 

  2. Weaver MF. Prescription Sedative Misuse and Abuse. Yale J Biol Med. 2015;88(3):247-56.

Additional Reading

By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.