Inhibition is defined as an internal impediment to free expression, activity, or functioning. These may be mental processes that impose restraint on a person’s behavior or another mental expression, like desire, or restraining of the function of an organ or agent, like an enzyme.

Typical discussion around inhibitions involves mental or emotional responses to environmental situations. People who are described as “inhibited” typically do not speak, emote, or express themselves freely; they are restrained in their approach to others in certain situations. Inhibitions are beneficial in some situations, like professional or legal scenarios, but when a person experiences inhibitions in social situations, this can be detrimental. The person may not be able to express their feelings about a situation to friends, or they may not be able to express affection for loved ones.

Lowered Inhibitions: A Gateway?

In social situations, people may use alcohol or drugs to loosen up or reduce their inhibitions. Alcohol is the most common intoxicating substance used to “lubricate” social situations, but other substances, like marijuana or ecstasy, are also widely used to help a person relax around others. However, lowered inhibitions and greater relaxation induced by intoxicating substances, whether they are legal to ingest or not, can lead to dangerous situations.

Drugs That Lower Inhibitions

Most substance abuse lowers a person’s inhibitions, at least during the initial high. Drugs that are often used to lower inhibitions include:

  • Alcohol
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Opioids
  • Marijuana
  • Sedative-hypnotics like Ambien
  • Stimulant-based drugs like ecstasy and meth
  • Gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB)

Although consuming alcohol is legal for people ages 21 and older in the US, it is also one of the most abused and dangerous substances. The drink is sometimes called a “social lubricant,” meaning it helps people have more fun in social situations. Unfortunately, lowered inhibitions combined with poor memory and dulled mental processes associated with drinking too much can lead to serious problems – most often, drunk driving and risky sexual activity. Recent studies have shown that a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.05 is enough to cause problems while driving, although the legal limit in the US is 0.08. At 0.05 BAC, a person’s inhibitions are lowered and cognitive abilities are mildly impaired; although they may not be slurring their speech or stumbling (signs that they are definitely drunk), the impaired mental processes can cause an accident, but the lowered inhibitions allow them to believe they are not too impaired. Some US states are considering tougher drunk driving laws because of this research.

People who struggle with anxiety disorders are two to three times more likely to develop a dependence on alcohol compared to the general population. They are also more likely to struggle with alcohol use disorder than other drug addictions.

Alcohol is also one of the most frequently used date rape drugs because it lowers inhibitions, impairs memory, and reduces cognitive ability in victims.

These drugs were developed to treat intense, immediate anxiety-based panic attacks. Benzodiazepines like Xanax, Klonopin, and Valium are still widely prescribed, but they are primarily prescribed for a short period of time – usually two weeks or less of regular use. The body rapidly develops a tolerance to, and dependence on, these substances, so they are no longer used as a long-term pharmacological treatment for anxiety or panic disorders.

They can also be very addictive since they act on a similar part of the brain as alcohol. Like alcohol, benzodiazepines cause relaxation and lower inhibitions, which can lead to risky behavior.

Although heroin, one of the most potent opioids, is rarely used specifically to lower inhibitions, prescription opioids like hydrocodone and oxycodone may lead to dependence and addiction by lowering inhibitions. The relaxing euphoria is more often sought after when a person struggles with opioid addiction, but some people with PTSD or an anxiety disorder may develop an addiction to these drugs if they receive a prescription to manage pain and experience lowered inhibitions as a side effect.

The psychoactive effects of marijuana lead to relaxation, some changes in sensory perception, and lowered inhibitions. Since marijuana is becoming more socially acceptable in the US, people relate anecdotally that their lowered inhibitions primarily lead to eating too much (“the munchies”), binge-watching television, or writing music or poetry. However, lowered inhibitions typically lead to taking risks, including engaging in risky sexual behavior.

Sleep aids like Ambien or Lunesta were developed to help people suffering from serious insomnia. While they do not force a person to sleep, these drugs induce a sense of relaxation so intense that it helps the individual fall asleep. However, these medications also lead to daytime drowsiness, dizziness, lightheadedness, and physical impairment; even after a regular night’s sleep, sedative-hypnotics can lead to impaired judgment and motor skills, which can be dangerous.

People who abuse sedative-hypnotics for nonmedical reasons are more likely to experience this kind of impairment. These medicines have also been used as date rape drugs, to reduce memory, cognitive ability, and inhibitions in the victim.

Many stimulants, including all kinds of meth, reduce inhibitions and judgment. This leads to risky activities, such as driving while intoxicated, engaging in unprotected sex, or sharing needles or other drug-using paraphernalia.

Although cocaine increases anxiety and paranoia, it also increases libido and lowers inhibitions. Sometimes, cocaine can induce delusions of grandeur: a false belief that the person has higher qualities of intelligence or omnipotence. This can lead to dangerous behaviors due to a belief in one’s invincibility, luck, or skill.

Cocaine also inhibits the time between decision-making and the ability to stop a response. In a PLoS One study, researchers at the University of Amsterdam used a stop-signal test to determine how cocaine affected a person’s ability to inhibit a physical response. During the trial, the green arrow might turn red; when it did, participants aborted their “go” response. People who used cocaine recreationally and those who did not responded similarly, but those who abused cocaine regularly needed more time to process the signal to abort their “go” response. This was true for participants who used very small amounts of cocaine.

3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, the base chemical in MDMA and ecstasy, increases libido and lowers inhibitions. This can lead to risky sexual behavior and other dangerous behaviors, like going home with a stranger, driving while intoxicated, or consuming other substances while high on MDMA.

Chemically similar to cocaine, synthetic cathinones like bath salts are designed to mimic the stimulation associated with crack or cocaine while bypassing legality in the US and other countries. Many synthetic cathinones are sold legally in the US because the specific chemical can be changed to bypass regulations. Because the chemistry keeps changing, effects of synthetic cathinones are unpredictable; however, they consistently lower inhibitions, at least for a small amount of time. They can also induce paranoia and hallucinations, which can lead to violence toward oneself or others.

GHB has been used as a date rape drug because it induces a mild high and lowers a person’s inhibitions. While people do take GHB recreationally, it is not used this way often; instead, sexual predators often use this drug to lure victims into unwanted sexual activity.

Inhibitions and Mental Health

Different types of mental health conditions are characterized by changes in societal norms around inhibition. Some of these involve raised inhibitions while others are greatly reduced inhibitions. Substance abuse and mental health are tied together, and people who struggle with one condition are at a greater risk of struggling with the other.

Anxiety Disorders

While a lack of inhibitions can indicate a mental health disorder, like schizophrenia or sociopathic personality disorder, too many inhibitions can also indicate a mental health issue. Feeling too inhibited may be a symptom of an anxiety disorder or social phobia. More than one in four adults has a co-occurring mental health and substance use disorder, and the most common disorder featuring a drive to lower inhibitions is anxiety.

Paradoxically, drugs that initially lower inhibitions may end up inducing anxiety disorders, which increase inhibitions. The chemicals in drugs like marijuana, cocaine, benzodiazepines, opioids, and hallucinogens can all cause a rise in anxiety while the person is intoxicated or change brain chemistry to induce anxiety when the drug leaves the system, creating a physical dependence that necessitates the drug to feel emotionally well.

Lowered Inhibitions as a Symptom

Lowered inhibitions are a symptom of some psychiatric disorders. Impulse control disorders, bipolar disorder, and ADHD all involve low inhibitions and poor control over impulses. The many kinds of bipolar disorder, for example, involve cyclical changes between depression and either mania or hypomania. People going through a manic period will experience few inhibitions around behaviors, including sexual behaviors, public displays, gestures, and verbal expressions. Lowered inhibitions, when seen as a symptom, can help with diagnosing the type of bipolar condition. People who struggle with bipolar disorder may begin to abuse substances like alcohol and stimulants in an attempt to even out their brain chemistry, reduce the impact of manic episodes, and increase energy during depressive episodes. However, substance abuse typically makes episodes of mania and depression more intense and destructive.

People who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), especially children, will display impulsivity; they are not able to stop themselves from performing behaviors when they have the impulse to do so, regardless of whether the behavior is acceptable or not. This is a disinhibition in the brain, which a combination of prescription medication and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has been proven to treat.

The Gateway Drug Theory

The term gateway drug has been used so much in popular media that many people no longer accept the idea. For example, marijuana has so frequently been called a gateway drug to heroin and other, “harder” drugs without evidence showing a direct line between the two substances. However, the theory behind the idea of gateway drugs may suggest a more serious pattern of polydrug abuse or co-occurring disorders.

The three gateway drugs in the theory are, in order:

A 2014 study surveying 6,624 people showed that those who used marijuana as their first substance of abuse were over 44 percent more likely to use other illicit drugs later in life. However, other factors like environment, family history, and mental health greatly influenced the outcome of additional substance use. This suggests that people with high levels of stress, including cultural or emotional inhibitions, are more likely to develop substance abuse problems than those who do not have high stress levels.

The need to lower inhibitions, due to various pressures in environment or mental health, appears to drive the risk of substance abuse higher. People who are introduced to substances that lower inhibitions – with gateway drugs like cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana being the most available – are more likely to continue to seek out benefits from intoxicating substances to balance their brain chemistry. This puts this demographic at a greater risk for following the stereotypical gateway drug theory, in which they use more potent drugs or combinations of drugs to maintain feelings of relaxation or happiness.

However, people can also struggle with addiction if they take prescription drugs like benzodiazepines or narcotics and then find they are unable to stop compulsively ingesting these substances because they feel more relaxed, with lower inhibitions. Regardless of how a person’s addiction develops, it is important to get help as soon as possible to avoid health risks, overdose, and death.