Stimulants are classified as drugs that produce feelings of increased energy, alertness, and euphoria after consumption. In addition to the energy they produce, stimulants also boost metabolism and override the effects of depressant substances, such as benzodiazepines and alcohol. Stimulants include cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA, which is also known as ecstasy. These are among the most commonly abused drugs in the world, and they also are some of the most difficult to quit.
While the drugs listed above are usually associated with stimulant use, other prescription drugs can be abused as well, such as Adderall, Ritalin, and Vyvanse. These are popular prescriptions that have the same base ingredient–amphetamine–that are found in illegal street drugs such as methamphetamine.
Prescription stimulants are used in the treatment of disorders such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy. While these are prescribed and serve a useful purpose for those who need it, they still carry a high risk for recreational use, creating the probability for potential abuse and addiction. Instead of taking the medication as prescribed, individuals can crush, snort, or even inject these drugs to exploit the stimulating properties for a high.
The problem with prescription stimulants is that they’re readily available for children to abuse. Why should this be a concern? Children and young adults are still experiencing development in their brains, and this is the demographic with the observed highest level of stimulant abuse. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), young adults in the United States aged 18-25 are twice as likely to use cocaine as other adult age demographics, and more than 2.5 million people reported misusing prescription stimulants.
Stimulant abuse is growing in the United States, and that figure is magnified in our younger communities. The thought that it will increase academic performance or aid in weight loss is a driving force behind those who seek out stimulants. Unfortunately, because a doctor prescribes these, someone thinks these drugs are safe to take, but that is only true if the medications are taken as prescribed by the person they are prescribed for. Once stimulant users enter into the threshold of abuse, the outcome can be deadly.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse classifies stimulants as a class of substances that increase alertness, attention, and energy, but also elevate blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration.
There is a wide range of stimulants with different strengths, chemical structures, and half-lives.
The commonality shared from all stimulants is how they enter the brain and alter levels of a neurotransmitter known as dopamine.
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that helps to control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Dopamine additionally is responsible for regulating movement and emotional responses. Not only does it allow us to see rewards, but it’s the driving force behind proceeding forward toward them. Those who have low dopamine activity are actually more prone to becoming addicted to drugs.
Under normal circumstances, the brain releases regulated doses of the chemical in response to external stimuli. When feelings that are produced because of dopamine are no longer required, it is then absorbed until its next use in a process known as reuptake. The process of reuptake measures accurately how much of a neurotransmitter remains in the brain and central nervous system at all times.
To follow that, stimulants are classified as “reuptake inhibitors” meaning they operate by blocking the reuptake process. This allows for dopamine to remain in the system for an extended period and build up levels that aren’t naturally produced by the body. Over time, this causes damage to receptors in the brain that can take months, and in some cases years, to reverse.
The effects of stimulants can vary depending on the drug that is consumed and the way in which it is consumed. In the short-term, however, effects can include:
It is important to remember that no two people are the same and that the symptoms exhibited by one person may be entirely different from another. There are some who can hide substance abuse disorders very well, but if you suspect that you or a loved one has a stimulant addiction, there are symptoms to look out for. As dependence grows, signs to look for include:
Once stimulant abuse has been established, there will be other signs that start to affect the user’s life. Obtaining and using stimulants will be the highest priorities, and as a result, the user will put stimulants ahead of their education, job, friendships, relationships, and family. While there are many warning signs associated with substance use disorders, there are some that should raise concern such as:
Not everyone who has a stimulant addiction will experience the same withdrawal symptoms. Several unique factors can come into play, such as a person’s tolerance, metabolism, and history of use. These all have a different role, and some individuals are at a higher risk of not being able to produce the dopamine necessary upon cessation of use. With all of that said, common symptoms and signs of stimulant withdrawal include:
Because stimulants are reuptake inhibitors, it’s important to mention that stimulant withdrawal-related depression can be severe in those who have a history of clinical depression. The withdrawal symptoms that are related to stopping stimulants resemble a near-opposite effect of the substance’s primary effects. The energy and euphoria one comes to expect is often followed by feelings of anxiety and depression. Due to this, it is recommended that someone looking to stop using stimulants seek medical detoxification to transition into sobriety with more ease.
Generally, stimulant withdrawal does not produce life-threatening symptoms, but the acute nature of the symptoms can be difficult to cope with and adapt to for the user. This is why medical detox should be sought out for a greater chance of success. Symptoms will begin immediately after use has been stopped, but longer-lasting symptoms have the potential of persisting for up to five months afterward. Here is a course of what to expect:
Right after a person stops using stimulants, they could feel anxious, sad, agitated, and have intense cravings for the drugs.
FOLLOWING THE INITIAL PHASE
This is when the mental and physical exhaustion symptoms will be magnified, and while the person in question may feel exhausted and lethargic, symptoms of insomnia will make sleep impossible. Depressive symptoms will also be exaggerated at this stage.
12 HOURS AFTER (THE CRASH)
The symptoms listed above will continue to worsen, and this could last anywhere from 96 hours to multiple weeks. Symptoms of drug cravings will also be present.
The first step to a better and healthier life is by accepting there is a problem and beginning the process to look for treatment options. If you or a loved one is suffering from a stimulant addiction, then it is well-known how overwhelming this process could be. Seeking out the right treatment center is vital for the long-term success of the person.
Initially, a substance user will enter into medical detoxification program. This allows for around-the-clock medical supervision to manage withdrawal symptoms safely and comfortably. The person will meet with a team of medical professionals that will create a plan of recovery. This plan will include the medications needed during detox and recommendations for treatment after detox is completed. Medical detox typically can take place three to 10 days, depending on the severity of one’s addiction. Once the drug(s) have been cleared from the person’s system, they should consider treatment afterward.
In most cases, the patient will enter into an inpatient/residential addiction treatment center. While detox allows for a safe transition into sobriety, the process is far from over. Through this type of program, the patient will go through intense therapy to address the reasons they began using in the first place. The patient will explore methods with trained therapists on how to identify triggers before they occur, and what ways to carry on unscathed and developing healthy coping skills.
For some, the prospect of going away for treatment for up to 90 days does not work well with their job or school obligations. In those cases, recovering users may opt to start an outpatient treatment program. This type of treatment offers the same intensive therapies you’d expect from an inpatient center, but the patient will have the freedom to come and go to fulfill their roles in society.
Upon successful completion of treatment, aftercare should be a priority. Looking for a center that specializes in aftercare is just as important as taking the first step. Alumni programs and interacting with other newly sober individuals will help allow the continued path to sobriety. As time moves forward, you will learn to love your life sober and instill confidence from within to carry on.
Psychology Today. (n.d.). Dopamine. from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/dopamine
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018, January). Misuse of Prescription Drugs. from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/misuse-prescription-drugs/which-classes-prescription-drugs-are-commonly-misused
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2016, March 2). Stimulants. from https://www.samhsa.gov/atod/stimulants