Mindfulness has become an umbrella term for a set of behavioral techniques we can use to alter our consciousness, whether meditating to relax the mind or practicing yoga to manage stress. But, mindfulness is not the only or the most common way to modify consciousness.
Stimulants and Depressants
In a bid to reduce our conscious awareness, most people use some type of a psychoactive drug on a regular basis to change how we think and feel. Roughly two-thirds of Americans drink coffee, and many more drink other stimulants, such as soft drinks or caffeinated tea. We may, on occasion, use prescription drugs, such as narcotics, to manage serious pain, such as following recovery from surgery.
More than one in 10 of Americans are using anti-depressants at any one point in time, and that number is one in five for older Americans. And many more people use some type of depressant—such as alcohol or antianxiety drugs—to reduce stress, anxiety, and sleeping problems.
Depressants trigger the central nervous system to suppress or slow down normal physiological processes, including neural activity. At relatively low levels, this reduced responsiveness feels good. We feel less stressed and better able to sleep. These drugs also reduce self-awareness and self-control, leading us to feel less socially inhibited, more confident.
Depressants Help Us Feel Good?
Researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands conducted a study to illustrate the benefits of reduced social anxiety on people’s ability to speak a foreign language.
The study had participants who were native German speakers in college who had recently learned Dutch. Some of the students were then randomly assigned to drink an alcoholic beverage; others were given a non-alcohol drink.
After waiting for about 15 minutes, all students chatted for a few minutes in Dutch with the researcher. These conversations were recorded, and two native Dutch speakers then evaluated their foreign language skills. People who had consumed alcohol were rated by the native speakers as having significantly greater language fluency and better pronunciation than those who did not drink.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to Psychology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Drink Coffee to Avoid Dementia?
Stimulants basically operate in the exact opposite way of depressants; they basically speed up the central nervous system. This can lead, at least at relatively modest levels, to positive effects: increased alertness and energy, reduced appetite, even exhilaration.
This is why people drink coffee when they are trying to stay awake when driving late at night or studying for an exam. Some evidence even suggests that people who regularly drink coffee are less likely to develop dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease.
But other stimulants—legal and illegal—can have serious short- and long-term consequences. Nicotine, provided either through smoking or vaping, can temporarily increase alertness and improve mood. But smoking leads to major health problems: heart disease, cancer.
Nicotine apparently also de-sensitizes the receptor for acetylcholine, which is involved in alertness, making people even more dependent on nicotine for future alertness.
Illegal Stimulants: Good or Bad?
The long-term consequences of illegal stimulants—amphetamines, meth, cocaine, ecstasy—are even more severe. These drugs cause almost instant positive effects—energy, alertness, even euphoria—which are then followed by an intense crash—anxiety, depression—when the drugs wear off.
This roller-coaster of highs followed by lows leads people to keep using these drugs, even when the costs are, personally and professionally, really high.
There’s, however, some evidence suggesting that illegal stimulants may play a valuable role in treating certain serious psychological disorders. Among people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who had not responded to other treatment approaches, 54% of those who received MDMA (or ecstasy) along with traditional psychotherapy no longer met the criteria for PTSD after just two sessions. They also showed decreases in symptoms of depression.
Stimulants and depressants basically just speed up or slow down the nervous system. But hallucinogens—such as PCP and LSD—actually cause sensory or perceptual distortions, a more drastically altered state of consciousness.
These drugs can lead users to see, hear, smell, or even feel things that aren’t actually real. People who’ve used hallucinogens describe an altered sense of time, blending of the senses, and even spiritual, mind-expanding, experiences.
Hallucinogens are believed to cause their effects in part by affecting particular neural pathways in the brain, such as those for serotonin and glutamate.
Marijuana is technically classified as a hallucinogen because, at high doses, it can lead to hallucinations and paranoia. But at lower doses, it can also act as a depressant, slowing down the nervous system, creating tiredness, but also producing euphoria and reducing pain.
Research showing these benefits of marijuana use has led to pretty substantial legal changes allowing greater access, at least in some states. It’s clear that the altered state of consciousness created by marijuana use can allow people with chronic pain or experiencing severe side effects from chemotherapy to feel better.
Opiates work in part by depressing the central nervous system, just like depressants. But they also excite parts of the central nervous system and in particular, they increase dopamine activity in a reward center of the brain, elevating mood and numbing pain.
Over time, the brain becomes reliant on these drugs for stimulation and stops producing its own natural pain-killing neurotransmitters, endorphins. This is what makes opiates so addictive and the withdrawal process so difficult.
Reducing Conscious Awareness
Given these problems associated with the use of psychoactive or chemical substances, it’s often safer and wiser to choose other approaches to reducing our conscious awareness.
Many simple daily-life activities—reading an engrossing novel, watching a funny movie, exercising, or working on a favorite hobby—can alter consciousness just by re-directing our attention and fully engaging our mind.
We can also learn, with training and practice, to use other techniques to alter our conscious awareness, such as hypnosis, meditation, and mindfulness.
Common Questions about Psychoactive Drugs
Depressants trigger the central nervous system to suppress or slow down normal physiological processes, including neural activity.
Hallucinogens—such as PCP and LSD—actually cause sensory or perceptual distortions, a more drastically altered state of consciousness.
Marijuana, at lower doses, can also act as a depressant, slowing down the nervous system, creating tiredness, but also producing euphoria and reducing pain.