When you think of addiction to stimulant drugs, cocaine and methamphetamine come to mind.
But more readily consumed substances such as caffeine, prescription medications for ADHA, even bath salts, are also considered stimulants and can be equally problematic.
Whether an illicit or prescribed drug, stimulants can be habit-forming with significant short and long-term effects.
What are stimulants?
Stimulants are a type of drug that alters activity within the central and peripheral nervous systems to increase neural activity in the brain. Most stimulants influence blood pressure, heart rate, and alertness.
Amphetamines were first produced in 1887 but weren’t used until the 1930s when they were clinically prescribed to treat nasal congestion soon followed by other conditions including asthma and other respiratory concerns, obesity, depression, and hyperactivity.
It wasn’t long before people discovered the performance-enhancing and euphoric effects of stimulants – also referred to as “uppers”. They found that the feelings of excitement and alertness could be pleasurable. As the potential for abuse and addiction became apparent, authorities began to control stimulants and medical use was restricted. Now, stimulants are only used for a small number of medical conditions such as ADHD, narcolepsy, and only occasionally depression.
While you may find the short-term effects of stimulants to be pleasurable, long-term abuse of stimulant drugs can have a significant effect on your health.
What are stimulants used for?
Doctors may prescribe stimulant drugs such as Adderall, Dexedrine and Ritalin to treat a range of conditions from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to narcolepsy and depression to impulse control disorders.
They also provide short-term treatment for obesity and asthma. Prescription stimulants often carry drug warnings as they can be habit-forming and potentially addictive, just as illicit stimulants are.
Both prescription and illicit stimulant drugs are used recreationally for their pleasurable and performance-enhancing effects. In addition, stimulants are commonly used as “study drugs” and a method of doping in sports. The effects differ from drug to drug. As such, you might use stimulants to help you concentrate, enhance affability when in social settings or increase your energy or endurance.
Types of stimulant drugs
Stimulants fall into two categories, prescription and illicit drugs. Despite some stimulants being available on prescription, both categories of drugs can be habit-forming. The most common stimulants that are abused are cocaine, methamphetamine, and prescription stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall.
Cocaine is an illicit drug, most commonly used recreationally, that is a short-acting central nervous system stimulant, extracted as a white crystalline powder from the leaves of the coca bush found in South America. The illicit “street” drug is a mixture of this pure substance and other ingredients such as talcum powder, flour, laxatives, sugar and anaesthetics. These cutting agents are added to increase a dealer’s supply.
Powdered cocaine is purchased in grams and snorted through the nose. Some users convert cocaine for injection into a muscle or vein while others into a smokable form of the drug called freebase.
Freebase is the result of a chemical process that converts cocaine hydrochloride to its base form by removing hydrochloride salt and other agents the drug has been cut with.
Another form of cocaine known as “crack” is a pellet of freebase cocaine. It is formed when powdered cocaine is melted in a glass tube with water. The liquid is mixed with baking soda and cold water, then cut into small pieces which harden.
The name crack originates from the crackling sound that comes from the drug being heated and then smoked. More.
Methamphetamine is a stimulant that comes as a pill or in powder form. In some countries, Methamphetamine is available on prescription to treat obesity and ADHD.
Crystal meth, also known by other names such as meth, speed, ice or tweak, is an illegally altered version of the prescription drug that is processed with over-the-counter drugs in what is known as meth labs. Methamphetamine is smoked, snorted or injected.
Adderall is a prescription central nervous system that alters chemicals in the brain by enhancing the effects of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine.
Adderall is a stimulant that improves alertness, focus and productivity and is most commonly used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or narcolepsy. Adderall is a brand name for the combination of dextroamphetamine and amphetamine.
Ritalin is a prescription drug for which the generic name is methylphenidate. Like Adderall, as a central nervous system stimulant, Ritalin is prescribed primarily for those with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder or narcolepsy.
Ritalin affects the brain’s levels of dopamine and norepinephrine, primarily in the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for functions like impulse control.
Ritalin is most effective when used as part of a comprehensive treatment program that involves monitoring and therapy.
Signs and symptoms of stimulant addiction
Because stimulants affect your brain’s reward response, if you are taking stimulants regularly over time, for medical purposes or recreationally, you are in danger of becoming addicted to them.
The signs and symptoms of a stimulant addiction vary from person to person. Symptoms that you display will depend on the stimulant being used, how long you have been using the drug, if you have a co-occurring disorder and your personality traits to name a few.
Some of the main signs and symptoms include deceptive behaviour (lying, stealing etc.), ordering stimulants online without a prescription, having an excessive amount of energy, and impulsive or risky behaviour.
You may find yourself becoming defensive or aggressive if confronted about or challenged on your consumption of stimulants, leading to social withdrawal or gravitation towards peer groups that normalise your use of stimulants.
Effects of stimulant addiction/abuse
Consuming a non-medical dose of a stimulant leads to the release of a large amount of dopamine in your brain, leading to pleasurable feelings or euphoria.
Continued intentional misuse of stimulants and subsequent release of dopamine lays the groundwork for addiction and negative physical, psychological, and behavioural consequences.
Physical effects include:
- raised blood pressure, sweating/skin problems
- jitters or involuntary twitches
- decreased appetite and loss of weight
- a rapid heartbeat/increased sweating
Psychological effects include:
- depression and anxiety/swings in mood
- paranoia/hallucinations or delusions
- enhanced sensory awareness
Behavioural effects include:
- lying, stealing and other deceptive behaviour
- acquiring prescriptions for stimulants from multiple doctors
- ordering stimulants online without a prescription
- excessive energy or motivation
- angry outbursts/risk-taking behaviours and poor judgement
Treatment for stimulant addiction and abuse
If you or a loved one are struggling with an addiction to stimulants, there is help available that is compassionate, safe and research-informed.
Prior to therapeutic treatment, depending on the frequency and level of stimulant use, a period of medical detox may be required. Stimulant withdrawal can be difficult and lead to challenging symptoms such as sleep disturbances, depression, and suicidality. The supervision and support given during a professional detox can help to keep you safe and as comfortable as possible.
Following a detox (if required), addiction treatment centres may offer you treatment for stimulant dependence or abuse on an inpatient or outpatient basis, depending on your needs and clinical recommendations.
Each has its advantages and disadvantages.
Inpatient treatment usually involves staying in a residential facility for a period of 30 to 90 days depending on the programme. These are safe, calming, and confidential environments where you can focus solely on your healing.
Treatment may include one-to-one therapy, peer support groups, and twelve-step meetings to help you understand your condition and behaviour, find freedom and prevent relapse.
Outpatient treatment for stimulant addiction will see you staying at home or a sober living centre and travelling to a facility during the day for therapy, group work and other services that mirror inpatient treatment. Outpatient treatment is often helpful if you feel uncomfortable with taking the time out of your daily life, away from work obligations or family commitments.
It is important to note that outpatient treatment won’t provide you with the same kind of protection from familiar triggers and access to drugs that may lead to relapse. The risk of relapse is immeasurably greater than if you were staying in a substance-free setting.
Recovery is a long-term process and so doesn’t end when your stay at a residential treatment centre or outpatient programme is complete.
Many aftercare programmes or sober companioning services are available, tools that can help you re-integrate back into your life, helping you to implement what you have learned whilst in treatment.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an addiction to stimulants, contact us today to find out what treatment options are available to you.