Stimulants are drugs that increase central nervous system activity in the brain and body. This class of drugs covers a wide variety of psychoactive substances from methamphetamine to caffeine, and their effects can vary in intensity.
Some stimulants are incredibly addictive and cause serious health risks. Though stimulant addiction is a chronic brain disease, it can be treated successfully. Learn more about stimulant drugs and how stimulant use and abuse are treated.
Commonly Abused Stimulants
Stimulants come in many forms with various effects. Many are used in medical treatments, and some are used recreationally as illegal drugs. Here are some of the most commonly abused stimulants and their effects:
Cocaine is one of the most common illicit stimulant drugs of abuse. It is sometimes referred to as the “rich man’s drug” because it’s typically expensive to buy, and maintaining a cocaine addiction can be a tremendous financial burden.
In the 1980s and 1990s, cocaine, and its freebase form crack cocaine, saw a surge in use. It spurred some societal consequences, including hardline political stances on drugs, particularly in lower class settings. It also spawned anti-drug campaigns like “Just Say No” and Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.).
Cocaine is a powerful stimulant that is insufflated (snorted) in its powder form and smoked as crack. Cognitive effects of cocaine include intense happy feelings, anxiety, agitation, and dysphoria.
It can also cause an increased heart rate, and in overdose, hyperthermia, and high blood pressure can lead to death. Addiction occurs when a protein called FosB alters functions in a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens.
Cocaine causes a state of psychological dependence, and withdrawal often comes with emotional and psychological symptoms, including paranoia, depression, and anxiety.
Methamphetamine, or crystal meth, is another powerful stimulant drug that gained notoriety because of the AMC TV show Breaking Bad. Meth peaked in popularity in the ʼ90s toward the end of the crack epidemic, because some used it as a cheaper alternative to crack.
Use of the drug declined in the early 2000s, but it still remains a significant drug that’s abused today. Meth production in illegal laboratories in and outside of the U.S. increased— and use with it. In 2011, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that more than 11 million people used meth at some point in their lives and that 133,000 used it for the first time.
As attention turns toward the epidemic of opioid addiction, meth remains a significant issue in the U.S. It comes with various dangerous side effects like blood pressure changes, high body temperature, gastrointestinal distress, blurred vision, dizziness, twitching, muscle cramps, insomnia, acne, and more.
Meth use prompts the brain to produce much more dopamine than normal and then blocks the reuptake (removing dopamine by reabsorbing it into the neuron) of it. The result is dopamine levels hundreds of times higher than normal. This can eventually destroy some dopamine receptors, which makes it difficult for you to feel pleasure outside of meth use.
MDMA, also known as ecstasy or Molly, is a popular club drug sold in the form of small pressed tablets. It is a unique drug in that its effects allow it to be several categories, including an empathogen and even a psychedelic. However, its effects in the brain are similar to other stimulants. It causes the release of serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine and prevents their reuptake.
Users experience heightened senses, color enhancement, increased empathy, and euphoria. Side effects can include memory issues, dehydration, increased body temperature, paranoia, insomnia, and increased heart rate. Fatalities because of MDMA are typically due to dehydration, though it can cause other medical complications.
The euphoric effects of MDMA can cause psychological addiction; however, it takes frequent use to build up moderate tolerance, and there is a low risk of physical tolerance.
Prescription stimulants are primarily used to treat ADHD (attention-deficit disorder hyperactivity disorder) and narcolepsy. Unlike other stimulant drugs, it’s rarely used recreationally. Instead, it’s abused, particularly on college campuses as a way to enhance academic performance.
Stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin are used to increase focus and the length of time that students can absorb information. Side effects can include hypertension, tachycardia, nausea, paranoia, restlessness, and insomnia.
How Stimulants Work
Stimulants affect the brain in a variety of ways, but most excite the central nervous system to increase wakefulness, alertness, movement, and energy.
Some cause euphoric effects by increasing the amount of “feel good” chemicals like dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin in the brain. They may do this by slowing or stopping a process called reuptake.
When the nervous system sends signals throughout the body, it does it by passing neurotransmitters between nerve cells called the synapse. When a presynaptic neuron (the message sender) releases a neurotransmitter (the message carrier) into the synapse, it is received by the postsynaptic neuron.
Reuptake is when the sender reabsorbs the excessive neurotransmitters that are no longer needed to be recycled.
Drugs like cocaine and meth block the reuptake of the neurotransmitter dopamine. The excess of chemicals is caught in the synapse and floods receptors in the postsynaptic neuron, intensifying its effects.
For cocaine, dopamine causes euphoria, excitement, and energy. Meth actually blocks dopamine reuptake and increases its production in the postsynaptic neuron. This chemical bombardment can even damage dopamine receptors.
How Stimulant Drugs Affect the Body
Most stimulants have profound cognitive and emotional effects, increasing energy levels, lifting mood, and causing anxiety, among other things. However, the sudden and extreme increase in “feel good” chemicals can cause physical responses as well.
Tachycardia (rapid heart rate) and blood pressure changes are common. Meth has several physical side effects of its own, such as acne, tooth decay, and hyperthermia.
What Is Stimulant Addiction?
Stimulant addiction can have chemical causes, psychological causes, or both, depending on the drug. Addiction typically occurs when the brain grows tolerant of the drug’s effects and begins to counteract them to normalize brain chemistry.
Stimulants that increase the effects of dopamine can cause addiction when the reward center learns to seek after drugs like it would seek after normal sources of the “feel good” chemical responses. In meth addiction, damaged dopamine receptors can make it difficult to experience pleasure by normal means, so the drug becomes the user’s only way to feel euphoric or mood-lifting effects.
How to Overcome Stimulant Addiction
Addiction comes with both chemical dependence and psychological dependence, depending on the type of drug used. Both can be difficult to overcome on your own. It’s important to note that addiction is a chronic disease of the brain. However, it’s treatable, and many people go through treatment and go on to live lives of long-lasting sobriety, free of addiction. However, studies show that meaningful treatment takes time and hard work to be effective.
Currently, the most effective methods of treatment involve 90 days of varying levels of care and then continuing your pursuit of recovery through aftercare and support groups.
The Main Difference Between Stimulants
The major difference between stimulants, such as cocaine, methamphetamines, and prescription medications, are how long their effects last. The effects of cocaine, for instance, last between 15 to 30 minutes when it is snorted. When smoked in the form of crack cocaine, that duration is only five to 10 minutes, according to NIDA.
With methamphetamine, the effects can last for hours. A prescription stimulant like Adderall, for example, can last between five to seven hours.
Because cocaine and crack exert shorter effects, users tend to binge these substances. Whereas, methamphetamine users engage the drug daily, according to this Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) document.
Stimulant Withdrawal Symptoms
When stimulants exit the body, users will experience physiological disturbances that are commonly referred to as withdrawal symptoms. With central nervous system stimulants, withdrawal can feel like a crash.
These crash symptoms are common with cocaine, methamphetamine, and prescription Adderall and Ritalin.
Meth and Cocaine Crash Symptoms
According to SAMHSA, early crash symptoms of cocaine and methamphetamine can include:
With methamphetamine, an additional symptom includes a state of jitteriness (referred to as “tweaking”), accompanied by other effects such as:
- Rapid eye movements
- Shaky speech
- Jerky movements
Meth and cocaine can produce a “middle crash” phase that includes:
- Inability to experience pleasure
- Decreased mental energy
- Prolonged sleep
The late crash phase for methamphetamine and cocaine is marked by excessive sleepiness and intense hunger.
However, there is a protracted withdrawal stage that accompanies prolonged cocaine and meth use that can linger for weeks. Symptoms in this phase include intense cravings, thoughts of suicide, depression, an inability to feel pleasure, and dysphoria.
Prescription Stimulant Crash Symptoms
According to Medical News Today, the first phase of Adderall withdrawal symptoms represent as:
- Poor sleep
Middle phase crash symptoms can include:
- Body aches
- Mood swings
- Trouble sleeping
- Trouble concentrating
- Increased appetite
Prescription stimulants like Adderall can also bring enduring withdrawal symptoms that can last weeks or months, like:
- Mood swings
MDMA Withdrawal Effects
Medical News Today states that MDMA users can experience withdrawal-like side effects a week after use. Those effects can include:
- Impulsiveness and aggression
- Decreased interest in sex
- Memory and attention problems
- Diminished appetite
Levels of Care
Levels of care in most addiction treatment centers is determined by the American Society of Addiction Medicine’s continuum of care and criteria. Several factors go into determining the right level of care for you. The first level on the road to recovery for many people is detox. Treatment should be personalized at all levels of care. There is no one-size-fits-all treatment method, and your treatment plan should be tailored to your needs.
Detox is the safest way to break a dependency on drugs and address any other medical issues before diving into addiction therapies. Medical detox is ideal for most people who have been taking powerfully addictive drugs like meth, cocaine, crack, heroin, alcohol, and more. However, some drugs aren’t medically dangerous in their withdrawal symptoms. Even drugs that cause deadly effects like meth and crack don’t have deadly withdrawals.
Still, withdrawal symptoms are incredibly uncomfortable, painful, and troubling. Stimulants that flood the brain with dopamine come with a unique set of withdrawal symptoms. Because dopamine is a key component in regulating emotions, withdrawal often comes with emotional symptoms.
Anxiety, malaise, loss of the ability to feel joy, and depression is common. In some cases, depression can be profound, as with meth users. They can experience deep depression and suicide rates among people in active addiction and recovery. In these cases, medical detox is a safe place to alleviate psychological symptoms and speak to a counselor.
Medical detox is also helpful for people who are coming into treatment with other medical issues that are caused by, worsened by, or even unrelated to drug use. Illicit drug use can come with infectious diseases, injuries, and other dangerous medical complications. Some people enter treatment with other medical issues that need to be addressed. Medical detox involves 24 hours of medically managed care and can address these medical issues.
Inpatient or Residential Services
After detox is complete, clinicians will help you find the next level of care that is right for you. If you still have some medical concerns, residential or inpatient services might be necessary. As you start to dive into the therapies that will address the underlying causes of your addiction, you will still have 24 hours of medical monitoring, just in case you need medical intervention.
Intensive outpatient (IOP) is the next level of care and involves nine hours or more of therapies and treatment services per week. At this level, you will be afforded more independence and flexibility, but you will need to maintain a certain level of responsibility to your recovery. Services will be able to meet complex needs and get to the root of your addiction, while you continue to learn relapse prevention strategies, coping skills, and ways to pursue a productive life.
Outpatient services are typically the lowest level of care offered by a treatment program and involve less than nine hours of therapy per week. Outpatient treatment will mean continuing to learn relapse prevention as you transition into independent life.
Aftercare is an important step in your recovery. Some complete treatment and believe that they don’t need to continue to pursue recovery. However, a relapse often occurs when people disconnect with their recovery and the network of peers they formed in treatment.
Dangers of Stimulants
Stimulant medications have one thing in common when it comes to overdose: their ability to profoundly damage the circulatory system.
Prescription Stimulant Overdose
For example, the overdose symptoms associated with prescription stimulants, according to NIDA, include:
- Rapid breathing
- Muscle pains and weakness
- Overactive reflexes
- Panic states
- Abdominal cramps
Serious, life-threatening overdose symptoms include:
- Irregular heartbeat
- Heart attack
- High blood pressure
- Low blood pressure
- Circulation failure
According to WebMD, a cocaine overdose can include these symptoms:
- Nausea or vomiting
- Increased sweating, body temperature, or heart rate
- Trouble breathing
- Chest pain
Cocaine overdose can often lead to a stroke or heart attack.
Meth overdose can be sudden or occur in the long term. MedlinePlus.gov states that if you take a large amount of the drug, it can cause dangerous overdose effects such as:
- Chest pain
- Coma or unresponsiveness (in extreme cases)
- Heart attack
- Very high body temperature
- Kidney damage and possibly kidney failure
- Severe stomach pain
- Irregular or stopped heartbeat
- Difficulty breathing
Long-term meth use can result in the following:
- Repeated infections
- Severe weight loss
- Extreme paranoia
- Mood swings
- Skin sores (abscesses or boils)
- Missing and rotted teeth (called “meth mouth”)
Overdose with ecstasy is extremely rare. If anything, high doses of this drug will lead to health problems like hyperthermia or heat stroke, the most common MDMA health complication, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.
Another issue with MDMA is when someone drinks too much water, a condition called hyponatremia.
Stimulant Addiction Statistics
- In 2014, more than 1.5 million people in the U.S. used some form of cocaine.
- There were 103,000 emergency room visits due to methamphetamine in 2011.
- Adderall and Ritalin use has almost doubled in the years between 2008 and 2013.
Start Your Recovery Journey Today
If you or a loved one is struggling with abuse or addiction to stimulants, addiction treatment can help you from the oppression of addiction. To learn more about your treatment options, and whether or not you need medical detox, call Pathway to Hope or contact us online. Addiction is a chronic disease, but it’s treatable, and you don’t have to go through it alone.