Effects of Stimulant Drugs

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Are Stimulants Harmful?

Any amount of stimulant abuse can cause damage to the user.

Stimulants are a class of substances that increase certain types of cell signaling and amplify various physiologic processes throughout the brain and body. In particular, many types of stimulant drugs are associated with heightened dopamine release, which can result in a powerful sense of well-being, increased energy, attention, and alertness 1.

Stimulants include:

  • Prescription ADHD medications such as Adderall (amphetamine & dextroamphetamine) and Ritalin (methylphenidate).
  • Methamphetamine (including crystal meth).
  • Cocaine (including crack cocaine).

Depending on the drug, stimulants can be ingested orally, snorted, smoked, or injected 2.

Stimulant effects can range from short-term energy boosts to long-term brain changes and/or organ system injury. The harm may be long-lasting in extreme cases, but any amount of stimulant abuse can cause damage to the user. From 2005 to 2011, the number of emergency department visits involving legal stimulants more than quadrupled 3, and the number of visits involving methamphetamine in 2011 was more than 1.5 times the rate in 2007 4. These high rates of emergency department visits involving the use of stimulants are a clear indication that stimulant abuse can be a dangerous problem.

Short-Term Effects of Stimulants

Stimulants are generally abused for their euphoric, energetic effects. In the short term, stimulant effects can be very pleasurable and may include 2, 5:

  • Intense feelings of happiness.
  • Increased energy/sociability and self-esteem.
  • Improved attention.
  • Increased sexual desire and performance.
  • Opened breathing passages/easier breathing.
  • Suppressed appetite.

While these effects may seem desirable, they are invariably accompanied by a range of risks to the user’s health.

Side Effects

In a dose-dependent manner, these effects can be amplified to potentially lethal levels, leading to a potential stimulant overdose. Toxic levels of stimulant excitation can result in heart attack, stroke, seizures, or even fatal overheating 6, 7, 8.

While every stimulant will be slightly different in its specific effects, all stimulants share a set of side effects that can wreak havoc on a user’s system when abused 2:

  • Increased heart rate.
  • Heightened blood pressure.
  • Very high body temperature.
  • Muscle shakes or tremors.
  • Agitation.

All of these effects are common to stimulant abuse. No matter how you cut it, stimulant abuse, even in the short term, can have disastrous consequences for the user, resulting in hyperthermia, cardiovascular abnormalities, and sudden death. When a person abuses stimulants over a long period of time, however, they compound their risks of experiencing a number of other devastating physical and mental health issues.

Long-Term Effects of Abusing Stimulants

The effects of stimulant use can extend well beyond the short-term high. Many users disregard the future in favor of a blissful short-term high, but the potential harm associated with ongoing use should not be ignored.

 Psychological Side Effects

The psychological effects are also troubling for many long-term users 2:

  • Hallucinations.
  • Delusions.
  • Persistent anxiety.
  • Paranoia.
  • Depression.

Long-term physical effects of stimulant abuse include 2:

  • Extreme weight loss.
  • Reduced sexual functioning.
  • Gastrointestinal problems.
  • Muscle deterioration.
  • Chronic exhaustion.
  • Cardiovascular damage.
  • Breathing problems.
  • Headaches.
  • Cerebral hemorrhage.
  • Stroke.
  • Seizure.

It is important to recognize the negative consequences of stimulant abuse, as they underscore the ugly truth behind the euphoric stimulant high.

Stimulant Dependence

If the prospect of incurring these long-term health effects isn’t already bad enough, a chronic stimulant user is also at high risk of developing tolerance to, dependence on and, eventually, addiction to stimulants.

Tolerance is a contributing factor to the development of both dependence and addiction and occurs when a person becomes so physiologically accustomed to the high levels of stimulant drug that they need more and more of it to feel the desired euphoric effects.

Physical dependence can develop when a person uses stimulants often or in high doses—a pattern of use that may arise given an ever-increasing tolerance to the stimulant effects 2. Furthermore, dependent individuals may experience a stimulant withdrawal syndrome when use of the drug stops or slows. Not all instances of physical drug dependence indicate the presence of an addiction, but they often go hand-in-hand. As a behavioral concept, an addiction is characterized by the continued seeking out and using of a substance despite negative consequences.

Here are some signs that a person may be struggling with an addiction to stimulants:

  • They spend a majority of their time seeking out and using the drug.
  • They continue to seek the drug despite adverse effects on their life and health.
  • They have tried to give up or cut down on their use but have been unsuccessful.
  • They have to take larger and larger amounts to feel the same effects.
  • Without the stimulant, they feel bad and experience stimulant withdrawal symptoms (see below).

These are not the only indicators of a stimulant addiction (technically called a stimulant use disorder). If you believe you or someone you love may have a problem, you have options for getting help. It’s never too late to make the first step toward recovery.

Stimulant Withdrawal Treatment

Withdrawal from stimulant abuse is not a life-threatening process, but it can be uncomfortable. There are physical and psychological aspects of stimulant withdrawal that can be difficult to cope with alone, and professional treatment can help to manage these symptoms. Withdrawal may begin immediately following the cessation of use and some symptoms can last up to 4 months, so it is important to know what to expect 2.

Depressed man from stimulant withdrawal

Common symptoms of withdrawal from stimulants include 2:

  • Mental and physical exhaustion.
  • Insomnia.
  • Anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure).
  • Irritability.
  • Anxiety and agitation.
  • Excessive sleep.
  • Intense hunger.
  • Drug cravings.

One of the biggest risks with stimulant withdrawal is depression with suicidal thoughts, and the severity can vary by substance. For example, users of drugs like cocaine, which is metabolized by the body relatively quickly, may find their depression improving within a couple hours, whereas methamphetamine users may experience depression lasting much longer 2.

Sometimes, this depression can last beyond the acute withdrawal phase, in which case a doctor may prescribe antidepressants to help the recovering user cope 9. Anti-anxiety medications and antipsychotics are other prescription options to help with any anxiety or delusions experienced during withdrawal, should the symptoms be severe enough to warrant medical management 9.

While stimulant withdrawal may not be deadly, the accompanying psychological symptoms can be very dangerous in some cases. Professional treatment is the preferred option by many people recovering from stimulant abuse, as the treatment team will know what to expect and how to help the recovering user cope.

Professional treatment can include:

  • Inpatient programs, where the recovering individual stays for an extended period of time in a sober facility, attends regular therapy and counseling, and practices coping strategies.
  • Outpatient programs, which allow the individual to live at home and continue with their day-to-day life while attending therapy and counseling sessions at the facility on a regular basis.
  • Therapy specifically tailored to help recovering stimulant users. One example that has shown success in the treatment of stimulant addiction is the Matrix Model, wherein therapy is combined with substance and addiction education, regular drug tests to ensure abstinence, and self-help participation10.

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Lauren Brande, MA, has dedicated her life to psychological research. She started off her career with a scholarship from the Western Psychological Association for her undergraduate work in perceptual processing. In 2014, she achieved her master of arts in psychology from Boston University, harnessing a particular interest in the effects that drugs and trauma have on the functioning brain.

She believes that all research should be accessible and digestible, and her passion fuels her desire to share important scientific findings to improve rehabilitation.

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