Stimulants are a class of drugs that, when taken, produce feelings of increased energy, alertness, and euphoria. Stimulants increase metabolism and mask the sedative effects of depressant substances such as benzodiazepines or alcohol.
When someone thinks of stimulant addiction, their immediate association is likely to be cocaine or possibly methamphetamines, but there are also prescription stimulants such as Adderall that people frequently abuse and become dependent on.
Stimulants like Adderall, as well as Ritalin and Concerta, have a proven medical use in helping to treat the symptoms of Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Unfortunately, like their illicit counterparts that are taken purely for recreational purposes, like cocaine and methamphetamines, still carry a high potential for both abuse and addiction.
Stimulants are particularly dangerous among young adults, whose brains are still undergoing development, and who are also the demographic with the highest levels of stimulant abuse. According to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 are twice as likely to use cocaine as other adult age demographics, and more than 2.5 million reported as having misused prescription stimulants.
Broken down within this age bracket, the majority of those struggling with stimulant addiction are overwhelmingly young adults and college students, abusing stimulants to try to increase their academic performance as well as suppress their appetites in an attempt to lose weight, and also to dull the effects of alcohol so that they can drink more.
Stimulant abuse, whether it is something with an already negative association like cocaine, or a prescription medication like Adderall that is widely viewed as “safe,” is extremely dangerous and can result in serious health consequences, including permanent brain damage, and even death.
What Are Stimulants?
Stimulants, as previously stated, are a class of drugs that provide energy and alertness and also alter mood with euphoric feelings of pleasure. It covers a wide range of different substances with wildly different strengths and half-lives. But, what they all have in common is that they work by entering the brain and altering the levels of the neurotransmitter known as dopamine.
Dopamine is a brain chemical that is responsible for regulating mood and also what is often referred to as the brain’s “pleasure center,” which controls our internal system or motivation and reward and the speed at which the body reacts to outside stimuli, which accounts for the increased feelings of alertness.
Typically, the brain will release a regulated amount of dopamine as a chemical response to an external situation, and then, when the feelings produced by dopamine are no longer needed, reabsorb until their next use in a process known as “reuptake.” Reuptake controls just how much of a neurotransmitter remains in the brain and central nervous system at any given time.
Stimulants are “reuptake inhibitors,” which means that they work by blocking the reuptake process and allowing the dopamine to remain in the brain and central nervous system for longer and build up past the levels the brain would be able to naturally produce.
This increase in the amount of dopamine and length of time it stays in the synapses are what causes the intense increase in feelings of alertness, energy, and euphoria. However, there are some differences between stimulants in how these effects are achieved.
Some stimulants, including methamphetamine and Adderall, not only act as inhibitors, blocking the dopamine in the brain and central nervous system from being reabsorbed, they also activate the brain’s dopamine receptors. This means that they increase overall production of dopamine as well as blocking it, creating a longer-lasting high that is more intense than just blocking reuptake.
On the other hand, cocaine and Ritalin do not stimulate the production of dopamine but only work as reuptake inhibitors, which is why the effects of cocaine do not last nearly as long. Even crack, which is just concentrated cocaine, works the same way, but even faster for a high, which is extremely powerful, but even shorter.
What Are the Effects of Stimulant Abuse?
The effects produced by stimulants when they are abused in excess or taken in unintended ways like snorting or via injection can be incredibly severe.
In the short-term, these include:
- Increased energy
- Increased alertness
- Increased blood pressure
- Increased heart rate
- Mood swings
- Irregular heartbeat
- Heart failure
- Dangerously high body temperatures
- Seizures (although these are rarer)
- Depression (as part of the post-high “crash”)
What Are the Signs of Stimulant Addiction?
Sometimes the growing signs of a stimulant addiction can be hard to spot if you are not looking carefully, but as stimulant abuse begins to blossom into stimulant addiction, there are many noticeable signs and symptoms of increasing dependency that can manifest physically and psychologically, including:
- Increased aggression
- Rapid and substantial weight loss
And as obtaining and using stimulants becomes the highest priority in someone’s life over their education, their job, and their personal relationships and family, there are many common behavioral signs that serve as a signal of not just stimulant addiction but also substance use disorders in general.
Some of these behaviors include:
- Missing money or valuables to pay for stimulants
- Inability to perform daily tasks
- A significant decline in work or school performance
- Lying or being secretive about stimulant use
- Noticeable lack of concern with personal hygiene and appearance
- Prioritizing use over hobbies, responsibilities, and relationships
- Trying to rationalize or make excuses for using stimulants
- Legal problems resulting from stimulant abuse
If you have observed these symptoms in someone you care about, or in yourself, understand that they are indicative of stimulant addiction.
As such, you need to seek out professional aid and treatment as soon as possible to put a stop to further abuse and the physical and psychological damage that may have already been caused.
What is Involved in Stimulant Addiction Treatment?
The first step in stimulant addiction treatment is essentially the same first step in any addiction recovery treatment, and that is detoxification. Detox is the process of flushing out harmful substances and toxins from the body to counteract their effects and ensure that someone is sober and in the proper mindset for starting the recovery process.
Stimulant detox and withdrawal is typically not a life-threatening process, and in the case of non-amphetamine stimulants like Ritalin, as well as addictions that are not particularly severe, can be handled on an outpatient basis. Still, there should always be some level of medical supervision when undergoing detox, specifically by a professional medical detox center.
For more severe stimulant addictions, someone undergoing detox can experience more intense withdrawal symptoms such as intense depression, mood swings, suicidal thoughts, and sometimes even seizures, which could easily prove deadly without inpatient medical monitoring.
A doctor at a medical detox center can also administer various medications to help ease withdrawal symptoms and lessen drug cravings.
Some common medications used stimulant addiction treatment include:
- Antidepressants to minimize the feelings of depression and suicidal thoughts
- Anticonvulsant medications in case of seizures during the initial withdrawal phase
- Mild sedatives to combat the symptoms of insomnia, restlessness, and exhaustion
- Anti-anxiety medication in order to keep stress levels low and lower the risk of panic attacks
Once someone has finished their detox and is through with their withdrawal period, the next step in stimulant addiction treatment requires transitioning into a recovery treatment program. Without some kind of follow-up care, the detox will not be particularly effective, as someone will still be dependent on stimulants. In order to properly address the underlying issues at the heart of someone’s addictive behaviors, it is essential that they continue with ongoing addiction recovery care.
Undergoing rehabilitation treatment and therapy will help provide the tools and skills needed to manage stimulant addiction in the long-term, as well as provide a network of support that can make all the difference in not only getting on the path to recovery but also staying on it.
In a typical recovery treatment program, the person undergoing addiction rehabilitation treatment will often work collaboratively with their therapist or counselor to create a treatment plan that will be most effective for them. They can pick from a wide range of treatment options that generally involves individual counseling, support groups, educational workshops, relapse prevention planning, and plenty of other different individual therapies.
How Dangerous Are Stimulants?
While, as previously mentioned, certain stimulants like Adderall may be considered safe relative to stimulants like cocaine, they are all dangerous and abusing them comes with extremely negative consequences.
When abused in the long-term, stimulant addiction can lead to stroke, blockage of blood vessels, and other serious cardiovascular problems. There have also been recent studies that have linked prolonged or excessive amphetamine use to an increased risk of Parkinson’s Disease.
Long Term Effects of Cocaine
If someone is regularly abusing cocaine by snorting it, they can expect to experience long-term effects such as:
- Difficulty swallowing
- Chronic sinusitis
- Loss of sense of smell
- Chronic nosebleeds
- Nasal cavity collapse
Long Term Effects of Methamphetamine
Long-term methamphetamine use has an even more grim list of consequences, including:
- Skin sores
- Severe dental problems or “meth mouth”
- Permanent brain damage to basic cognitive functions