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Stimulant Addiction and Abuse

Stimulants are substances that increase activity in the central nervous system, speeding up mental and physical processes. Their use produces heightened energy levels, alertness, focus, and cognitive function. Also known as uppers, these drugs are frequently abused for their performance-enhancing and euphoric effects.

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What are Stimulants

Stimulants are a broad classification that includes many different substances. These drugs include common compounds such as caffeine and nicotine, illicit substances such as cocaine and meth, and prescription amphetamines such as Ritalin, Adderall, and Concerta.
Stimulants work by increasing dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, which triggers the brain’s reward system and the body’s cardiovascular system, respectively. The increase in these chemicals improves concentration and decreases fatigue, desirable effects for those with stress, narcolepsy, or treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
This makes stimulants very popular and commonly abused, especially among young adults seeking to outperform their peers in academics, athletics, or in the workforce. While stimulants can provide beneficial short-term effects, long-term abuse of these drugs often has severe consequences such as cardiovascular damage and a risk of addiction.

Addiction to Stimulants

Stimulants have a high-risk of addiction as the user’s brain will become dependent on the drug to produce dopamine, its reward chemical. This physical dependency leads to addiction and will cause withdrawal symptoms when the drug use stops.
For those suffering an addiction to stimulants, these substances become the main priority in their life. Addicts often ignore the personal or health-related consequences caused by their substance use disorder. Stimulants flood the brain with the pleasure-inducing and behavior-reinforcing chemical dopamine, which is the primary cause for most drug addictions.

Physical Effects of Stimulants

How Stimulants Affect the Body

Stimulants increase activity in the brain by changing the balance of neurotransmitters, namely dopamine and norepinephrine. Dopamine is involved in reinforcing the brain’s rewarding behaviors. Norepinephrine affects the body’s cardiovascular system, increasing blood pressure, heart rate, blood sugar, and breathing.

The effects a stimulant has on a person can vary depending on:
  • Their size and health
  • Length of use
  • Dosage taken
  • Drug potency
Effects of stimulants in low dosages:
  • Euphoria
  • Feelings of wellbeing
  • Increased heart rate¬†
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased alertness
  • Increased energy
  • Talkativeness
  • Reduced appetite
Effects of stimulants in high dosages:
  • Anxiety
  • Tension
  • Nausea
  • Tremors
  • Vomiting
  • Chest Pain
  • Palpitations
  • Seizures
  • Comas

How Stimulants Affect the Brain

Stimulants affect the central nervous system by changing the balance of neurotransmitters, primarily dopamine. Dopamine is the primary driver of how the brain rewards itself for behaviors that achieve perceived positive outcomes to motivate future actions.
Most addictive substances affect the brain’s dopamine levels, causing the mind to crave the drug-using behavior again, and reward the user when the behavior repeats. Dopamine flooding the brain causes most of the mood-altering and energy-improving effects of stimulants, and their addictiveness.

As users build a physical tolerance to the drug, they will have to seek higher doses to keep feeling their new normal. Physical dependence also forms in the body as the brain becomes reliant on the drugs to produce its dopamine. Stimulant abusers will suffer withdrawal symptoms and crashing, both physically and mentally, when the drug use stops.

Withdrawal makes it physically and psychologically difficult to stop stimulant use, and can even be dangerous. This danger is why detox and rehab in a medical facility is the most recommended way to recover from stimulant addiction.

Psychological Effects

The psychological effects of stimulant abuse are severe. Illicit stimulants such as cocaine and crystal meth often lead to binges to avoid feeling depressed or exhausted. When a user is bingeing, they might not sleep for several days, which is a common side-effect called tweaking. Though most associated with meth users, all users struggling with any stimulant abuse can go on similar binges.

These binges exacerbate any co-disorders or mental health problems. Those with a risk for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or other psychological disorders often can experience a psychotic break under these conditions. The drug use regularly triggers hallucinations, paranoia, and mania from a psychosis.
Other psychological effects of using stimulants include:
  • Agitation
  • Irritability¬†
  • Restlessness
  • Paranoia
  • Delusions
  • Hostility
  • Self-Injury
  • Violence

Types of Stimulants


Most stimulants are amphetamines, which refer to drugs with the chemical base amphetamine, dextroamphetamine, or methamphetamine. Notorious illicit amphetamines include MDMA, ecstasy, and crystal meth, with Adderall as an example of a prescription amphetamine. These drugs commonly have both psychoactive and stimulating effects on the brain.


Other stimulants fall into the methylphenidate class, which includes prescription drugs such as Ritalin and Concerta. Their effects are very similar to amphetamines and work in the same way. Their difference comes from the fact that some people respond better to one or the other in achieving desired results, such as treating ADHD.


Cocaine is a powerful and highly addictive illicit stimulant. Cocaine binds to the brain’s dopamine transporters, blocking the removal of dopamine. This causes dopamine levels to elevate, causing the euphoria commonly experienced immediately after taking the drug. Cocaine is made from the South American coca plant and usually comes as a fine white powder or in the more potent, crystallized form, crack cocaine.

Bath Salts

Synthetic cathinones are modeled after cocaine, with bath salts being the most notorious form. They have grown in popularity in the United States recently due to its cheap availability, despite its illegal status. These drugs are difficult to dose properly and have unpredictable effects on the brain, making accidental overdose dangerously easy.


Methamphetamine, or meth, is another highly addictive stimulant. Meth is found in either powder or crystal form, and its popularity in the United States has been growing. Meth causes an intense rush of euphoria accompanied by severe crashing afterward. Methamphetamine is dangerously easy to overdose on, often leading to severe physical problems and death.

Medical issues from meth use include:

  • Extremely high body temperatures
  • Severe itching
  • Broken teeth and dry mouth, known as meth mouth
  • Cognitive issues
  • Mental and physical degradation

Caffeine & Nicotine

Caffeine and nicotine are legalized stimulant drugs. Nicotine, mostly found in tobacco products, affects many different neurotransmitters in the brain, including dopamine and adrenaline. It uniquely has properties that cause both stimulation and relaxation as the dosage increases, making nicotine highly-addictive. Intense physical dependency can form with nicotine, making withdrawal especially distressing and successful detox outside of a facility difficult.
Caffeine has a mild stimulating effect on the body. It works mainly by blocking the adenosine receptors in the brain to prevent the onset of drowsiness. This also influences the dopamine receptors to release more dopamine, which makes caffeine potentially addictive.
Most caffeine consumption is for its positive cognitive and physical effects, or for preventing its mild withdrawal symptoms after prolonged use:
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Depressed mood/irritability
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue

Treatments for Stimulant Addiction

The most challenging step in recovering from an addiction is deciding to quit. Once the decision is made, there are several options for detox, rehab, and ongoing care to overcome the addiction. A professional inpatient or outpatient treatment facility is the most recommended way to recover from stimulant addiction.

Stimulant Detox

The first mile on the road to addiction recovery is a detox in a medical facility. Here, doctors manage to remove the stimulant out of the body safely and successfully. Detox typically lasts from one to two weeks, depending on the severity of the addiction. The type of drug, frequency, dosage, and length of time an addict has been abusing the substance affects the detox’s length.
Cocaine detox, for example, tends to have a shorter detox time than prescription stimulants such as Adderall. Prescription stimulants are designed to last and build in the body over time, taking longer for the body to clear itself of the substance.

Stimulant Inpatient Rehab

Inpatient rehab involves 24-hour supervised mental and physical care at a live-in facility. Patients remain in inpatient rehab between 30 to 90 days, depending on the addiction’s severity. Inpatient rehab helps patients take back a life free of alcohol or drugs. Inpatient rehab centers typically provide the highest chances of successfully overcoming a stimulant addiction.
Inpatient rehab teaches many skills and behavioral therapies designed to help an addict achieve long-term sobriety, including:
Education about the disease
Coping skills for common triggers
Therapy for trauma, anxiety, and depression
Techniques for stress management
Healthy communication skills and boundaries
Help in rebuilding relationships

Stimulant Outpatient Rehab

Unlike inpatient rehab, outpatient rehab does not include a residential or medical supervision component. Outpatient rehab is most useful for patients with less severe addictions who have work, school, or family responsibilities that they cannot leave. Outpatient programs typically include meeting several times a week for therapy and treatment.

Outpatient treatment programs often involve group therapy, individual therapy, and family therapy. Outpatient rehab is most often used as an aftercare or step-down program upon completing an inpatient treatment program. This helps the patient transition back to daily life while maintaining recovery.

Stimulant Ongoing Treatment

Ongoing therapy is used to treat the psychological impact of addiction. Even after physical recovery, the compulsive desire to use the substance is usually still there. Ongoing treatment is often a must for those seeking lasting recovery from stimulant addiction.
In ongoing care, a therapist helps identify situational triggers that lead to impulsive stimulant-use and teaches skills to effectively manage these impulses. Ongoing addiction treatment plans are regularly a part of support groups. These groups usually center on a 12-step or similar program and provide the comfort and comradery of fellow recovering addicts.

Getting Help

If you or a loved one is struggling with an addiction to stimulants, reach out to us. Starting the road to recovery can be scary, but support is here. Our Treatment Navigators will guide you through the recovery process and give you the roadmap you need to overcome addiction.

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