What Are Stimulants?

Humans first discovered stimulants in the form of coffee centuries ago in what is now Ethiopia. Meanwhile, indigenous peoples in the Americas were cultivating tobacco, which includes another naturally occurring stimulant, nicotine.

Although it was noted that these substances had addictive properties, they paled in comparison to the addictive nature of cocaine, which was first isolated from coca leaves by European scientists in the mid-19th century. Cocaine was touted as a cure-all throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, until it was outlawed as part of a public outcry over alarming addiction rates.

In the early 1930s, a California chemist discovered another stimulant, amphetamines, while trying to develop a new treatment for asthma and allergies. This discovery jump-started the development of numerous drugs, both prescription and illegal, containing amphetamines. These drugs were used to treat a variety of maladies, including depression and overeating. In the 1970s, amphetamines, along with the offshoot methamphetamine, were classified as Schedule II controlled substances by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Methamphetamine, also known as meth, ice, or crystal, is a much more potent form of amphetamine.

Prescription stimulants usually come in pill form, although some can be taken in liquid form, or as a transdermal patch. Prescription stimulants are categorized by how long they last. There are short-acting, intermediate-acting, and long-acting stimulants.

Common short-acting stimulants include:

  • Adderall
  • Ritalin
  • ProCentra
  • Dexedrine
  • Focalin
  • Zenzedi

Intermediate-acting stimulant drugs last longer, but still need to be taken at regular intervals to be effective. Some common intermediate-acting stimulants are:

  • Ritalin SR
  • Methylin ER
  • Metadate ER
  • Evekeo

Long-acting stimulants are effective for hours or even days, so they do not need to be taken in regular doses. Common long-acting stimulants include:

  • Adderall XR
  • Metadate CD
  • Focalin XR
  • Adzenys XR-ODT
  • Concerta
  • Mydayis
  • Ritalin LA
  • Daytrana
  • Quillivant XR

Causes of Stimulant Abuse and Addiction

Today, amphetamines are commonly used in prescription medications used to treat conditions like hyperactivity and narcolepsy. Amphetamines are beneficial to these individuals because they stimulate receptors in the brain, and increase the activity of neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine, which regulate a person’s alertness, movement, emotional responses, and feelings of reward and pleasure. When taken as prescribed by a doctor, they are generally helpful, not harmful.

However, there is still significant potential for abuse of prescription and illegal stimulants. When a person with normal brain function takes stimulants, they change the way the brain works. Rather than producing dopamine and norepinephrine naturally, the brain starts to rely on  stimulants to trigger the release of those chemicals. With prolonged use, the brain may stop producing these neurotransmitters organically, creating dependence and addiction. Additionally, with prolonged use, the brain will develop a tolerance, demanding higher and higher doses of the drugs to produce the same effects.

Individuals abuse stimulants in an attempt to increase their energy, focus, and productivity. This is particularly common among students, who use prescription stimulants illicitly to help them focus and study longer. They may use prescription stimulants because they are accessible from peers who have prescriptions for the drugs, and because of the perception that they are safer than meth or cocaine. Prescription stimulants still carry a risk of addiction, especially when abused, and can cause serious side effects like high or low blood pressure, increased heart rate, weight loss, nausea, seizures, mood swings, insomnia, and anxiety. Addicted individuals may turn to illegal stimulants if they are no longer able to obtain prescription stimulants, or if they need more potent drugs to achieve their high.

Stimulant Abuse Signs, Symptoms, and Side Effects

There are a number of physical, behavioral, and psychological symptoms that are present in individuals who are abusing stimulants.

Physical signs of stimulant abuse:

  • Increased concentration and energy
  • Insomnia or sleep disturbance
  • Increased heart rate
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Reduced appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Circulation problems
  • Increased body temperature
  • Trembling

Psychological signs of stimulant abuse:

  • Mood swings
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Paranoia
  • Memory loss
  • Psychosis
  • Suicidal thoughts

Behavioral signs of stimulant abuse:

  • Neglecting personal and professional obligations because they are high or preoccupied with obtaining stimulants
  • Displaying increased confidence, delusions of grandeur, and talking excessively
  • Stealing money, or committing other illegal acts, to obtain drugs, or money to pay for drugs.
  • “Doctor shopping,” or visiting multiple physicians to obtain prescriptions for stimulants
  • Avoiding social interactions with family and friends to hide drug use
  • Acting aggressively or violent, particularly when confronted about drug use.
  • Losing interest in relationships, work, and hobbies not related to drugs.

Stimulant abuse can have very serious long-term effects as well, including:

  • Cardiovascular issues
  • Strokes
  • Seizures
  • Psychosis
  • Mania
  • Memory loss
  • Dental problems
  • Anxiety and panic attacks
  • Legal and financial trouble

Individuals who are addicted to stimulants also run the risk of overdose. A stimulant overdose usually triggers a heart attack, stroke, or seizure, and can lead to permanent brain damage or death.

If you or someone you know displays any of these signs of stimulant addiction, it is important to seek help as soon as possible.

Stimulant Detox, Withdrawal, and Treatments

When an individual decides to seek treatment for stimulant addiction, the first step in the recovery process is detoxification, during which the body will rid itself of any drugs in its system. The intensity and length of the detoxification process varies depending upon the length of addiction, the type of drug, and the amount the person was using. For example, cocaine is a fast-acting stimulant that will leave a person’s body quicker than a long-acting prescription stimulant like Adderall.

During detoxification, the person will experience withdrawal symptoms, as the body readjusts to the absence of the stimulants. Stimulant withdrawal symptoms can include insomnia, vivid dreams, restlessness, depression, anxiety, agitation, and headaches.

Generally, stimulant withdrawal symptoms are not life-threatening, and can last a few days to a few weeks. Under a doctor’s supervision, individuals who are addicted to prescription stimulants may slowly wean themselves off the drugs by lowering their dosage, helping to ease the withdrawal process.

Individuals who are addicted to more powerful stimulants like methamphetamines may require an inpatient, medically supervised detoxification, as withdrawal symptoms can be more severe and include dangerous psychological effects like mania, paranoia, violent outbursts, and suicidal thoughts.

Once an individual has undergone detox and withdrawal, they can begin the treatment and recovery process. There are several different options for treatment for stimulant addiction, including:

The individual needs of the patient will dictate what type of treatment and recovery setting and program is best. The patient should decide how to approach their recovery in consultation with a doctor, counselor, and trusted friends and family. Treatment may also include treat co-occuring health issues, like gastrointestinal issues from malnourishment, cardiovascular issues stemming from the stimulant abuse, and mental health or psychological issues underlying the abuse.

Individuals who participate in an inpatient recovery program may move to a sober living facility after completing the program, the help facilitate the transition back to a drug-free life.

The road to recovery can be challenging, and not without obstacles, such as relapse. For individuals recovering from stimulant abuse, it’s important to remember that help is available, and living a healthy, sober life is always possible,

Disclaimer: The information contained on Help.org is for informational and educational purposes only and should not be relied upon for any medical or diagnostic purpose. The information on Help.org should not be used for the treatment of any condition or symptom. None of the material or information provided on Help.org is not intended to serve as a substitute for consultation, diagnosis, and/or treatment from a qualified healthcare provider.