What Does Psychoactive Mean?

Learn About 6 Groups of Psychoactive Drugs

woman drinking bloody mary cocktail
Alcohol is the psychoactive drug people most commonly use to alter their mental state. Doug Schneider Photography/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Psychoactive, also called psychotropic, is a term that is applied to chemical substances that change a person's mental state by affecting the way the brain and nervous system work. This can lead to intoxication, which is often the main reason people choose to take psychoactive drugs. The changes in brain function experienced by people who use psychoactive substances affect their perceptions, moods, and/or consciousness.

 

Psychoactive substances are found in a number of medications as well as in alcohol, illegal and recreational drugs, and some plants and even animals. Alcohol and caffeine are psychoactive drugs that people most commonly use to alter their mental state. These drugs are legally available, but can still be physically and psychologically harmful if taken to excess.

Usually, people decide when and how they want to use psychoactive drugs. In some situations, however, psychoactive drugs are used to alter someone's mental state in order to exploit the person. A common example of this is the date-rape drug Rohypnol, which is illegal in the U.S. You should also be aware that taking prescribed psychoactive drugs in ways other than intended, for example, taking drugs which have been prescribed for someone else, even if they have been given to you, is illegal.

Natural substances, such as hallucinogenic mushrooms and cacti, and the leaves, flowers, and buds of certain plants may also be psychoactive.

 Some people think that, because these substances occur naturally, they are less harmful than manufactured drugs. However, that is not the case.

For example, someone who uses a psychoactive plant to alter his or her mental state may have a higher risk of overdose or poisoning. The reason for this is because the person taking the substance has no control over the strength of the plant's psychoactive substance or toxicity, as there is in manufactured drugs.

The same is true of street drugs purchased from a drug dealer, which are typically cut with a variety of other psychoactive and filler substances, some of which may be harmful.

A drug or medication that's termed "psychoactive" isn't necessarily addictive, although many are.

How Are Psychoactive Drugs Classified?

There are four ways in which psychoactive drugs are classified:

  • By their common effects (effects they all have) in the brain and body -- for example, antidepressants, hypnotics (sleep aids), and medications used to treat conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • By their likelihood to cause addiction (high to low)
  • By their chemical structure
  • By U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration schedules I-V, which classify these drugs by the potential for abuse ("I" is highest, "V" is lowest)

This article provides detail on psychoactive drugs' common effects.

The five groups of psychoactive drugs are stimulants, depressants, narcotics (opioids), hallucinogens, and, marijuana (cannabis).

Stimulants. Examples of effects include heightened alertness, greater energy, excitability, improvement in mood that can reach euphoria, and bodily responses such as increased heart rate and blood pressure.

 

Examples of stimulants include caffeine, nicotine, amphetamines, and cocaine. Examples of the effects of excessive use of cocaine may include irritability, mood swings, hallucination, heart palpitations, chest pain, and even death.

Depressants. Examples of effects include reduced feelings of tension, relief of anxiety, and muscle relaxation. With excessive use, effects may include clammy skin, slow and shallow breathing, a rapid and weak pulse, coma, and death.

Examples of depressants include alcohol and tranquilizers such as benzodiazepines and barbiturates.

Opioids. Almost all the drugs in this group are derived from morphine.

Examples of their effects include pain relief, drowsiness, euphoria, confusion, and respiratory depression (slowed breathing that keeps the lungs from expanding fully and providing enough oxygen to the body).

With excessive use, effects may include nausea and vomiting, convulsions, respiratory arrest, coma, and death.

Examples of opioids include some painkillers, such codeine, morphine, oxycodone, and heroin. Other over-the-counter painkillers, such as aspirin, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen, may not contain opioids. However, they can still cause health problems and overdose if taken excessively.

Hallucinogens. Examples of effects include paranoia, depersonalization (a sense of not being real), hallucinations, erratic behavior, and increased blood pressure and heart rate. Effects of excessive use may include problems thinking and speaking, memory loss, depression, and weight loss. Medical emergencies seldom occur. 

Examples of hallucinogens include psilocybin from mushrooms, "acid" (LSD), ketamine, phencyclidine (PCP), dextromethorphan, and peyote (mescaline).

Marijuana (cannabis). Examples of the psychoactive effects af marijuana include changes in sensory perception; euphoria; relaxation; appetite changes; impaired memory, concentration, and coordination; and changes in blood pressure. Marijuana is the only drug in its class.

Legal Highs (designer drugs). Legal highs are psychoactive substances which are sold as legal and safe ways to get high. They can be sold as stimulants, hallucinogenics, sedatives or a combination. As their chemical composition is often unknown, they present clear challenges to toxicologists, medical staff, and society. They include bath salts, mephedrone, W18, MXE and many others.

Sources:

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, American Psychiatric Association. 2013.

Beynon CM, McVeigh J, Leavey C, Bellis MA. The Involvement of Drugs and Alcohol in Drug-Facilitated Sexual Assault. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 9(3):178-188. 2008. doi: 10.1177/1524838008320221.

Smith DE, Fort J, Craton DL. Psychoactive drugs. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. 1(1): 127. 2007.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Drugs of abuse. 2011.

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