Stimulant Addiction: Signs, Symptoms, & When To Get Help

Are you unsure whether you or your loved one is struggling with stimulant addiction? Read below to learn how to spot the warning signs.

Understanding Stimulant Addiction

Learn about stimulant addiction

Stimulants are a group of drugs that interact with the central nervous system to increase energy, alertness, and focus. Stimulants accomplish these effects by increasing the effectiveness of the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and dopamine, which are feelings connected to pleasure, euphoria, and motivation.

Also sometimes referred to as uppers, the category of stimulants includes several substances, some of which are legal and some which are not. For example, caffeine and nicotine are both stimulants, as are cocaine and methamphetamine. For medical purposes, stimulants are most commonly prescribed to treat symptoms related to attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and narcolepsy. Some conditions involving blood pressure are also sometimes treated with stimulants. Adderall, Ritalin, Dexedrine, and Vyvanse are some of the most commonly prescribed stimulant medications.

Since they are so widely available, and since they create such desirable effects including focus and motivation, stimulants are typically abused for recreational and performance-enhancing purposes. In recent years, Ritalin and Adderall have become popular substances of abuse amongst individuals who are seeking a cognitive boost to achieve academic or work-related projects.

With such a wide range of substances within the stimulant category, the abuse of these drugs can cause negative effects ranging from temporary issues like insomnia to destructive outcomes like irreversible organ damage to occur. Death also becomes a possibility. With the help of proper professional interventions, though, dependence upon stimulants can be defeated.


Stimulant addiction statistics

Cocaine, which is a stimulant, is the most abused and trafficked illegal stimulant worldwide. Over 35 million adults in the United States say they have used cocaine at least one time in their lives, and nearly two million Americans admit to having used this drug within the past 30 days right after being asked. Negative outcomes related to widespread cocaine abuse are responsible for nearly half a million visits to emergency rooms and urgent care centers each year.

Over 15 million Americans have divulged to researchers that they have abused amphetamines, including crystal methamphetamine (commonly referred to as meth). Like cocaine, experts estimate that nearly two million people are currently using meth or another amphetamine, meaning that they have abused one of these stimulants at least one time in the month before being questioned.

Two-thirds of college seniors within the United States say that they have been offered or have had the chance to abuse a prescription stimulant like Ritalin or Adderall. Roughly one-third of college seniors say that they have partaken in this type of substance abuse. Among younger students, about one in every 10 adolescents and teens been 1 and 17 years of age report intentionally misusing a prescription stimulant within the past year, and more than 35% of high school students have told surveyors that they feel stimulant abuse is a growing problems for members of their age group.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for stimulant addiction

Substance abuse and addiction can be impacted by a number of genetic and environmental factors. While no one single factor can definitively predict if an individual will abuse or become addicted to a stimulant, below are some of the most common influences and risk factors:

Genetic: Substance use disorders and addiction possess a powerful family component. An individual whose parents or siblings abuse or abused drugs or have developed a substance use disorder is more likely to suffer with similar issues than is someone whose family history is clear of this condition. Research including twins and adopted children supports the theory that that individuals have a genetic predisposition to addiction. With recent advances in genetic research, scientists have started to identify specific genes and certain gene clusters that appear to be influential in determining if an individual will develop an addiction or not.

Environmental: Family history of substance abuse can also be an environmental influence. Those who grew up in homes where drug use was common are at a greater risk for behaving in the same way while they are young or later in life. The prevalence of prescription stimulants, including Ritalin and Adderall, is believed to be a strong environmental factor in the increasing rates of abuse of these substances. Other environmental impacts include experiencing great deals of stress, living in an impoverished neighborhood, hanging out with peers who abuse stimulants, and suffering trauma.

Risk Factors:

  • Living in poverty
  • Having poor stress management capabilities
  • Being male
  • Family history of substance abuse and/or mental illness
  • Personal history of prior substance abuse and/or mental illness
  • Easy access to stimulant-based medications
  • Familiarity with prescription stimulants

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of stimulant addiction

There is no single sign or set of signs that is common among every individual who abuses a stimulant. However, many of those who partake in this behavior will likely show some or many of the symptoms listed below:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Withdrawing from family or friends
  • Exhibiting increased energy and motivation
  • Attempting to acquire multiple prescriptions for the same stimulant
  • Borrowing or stealing prescription stimulants from friends or family members
  • Visiting websites to purchase stimulants without a prescription
  • Acting secretively or deceptively about one’s whereabouts and activities

Physical symptoms:

  • Weight loss
  • Pupil dilation
  • Extreme perspiration
  • Dry mouth
  • Disrupted sleep patterns
  • Rapid breathing
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Loss of appetite

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Paranoia
  • Enhanced focus and concentration
  • Improved memory
  • Hallucinations

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Out-of-character anger and aggressiveness
  • Mood swings
  • Increased confidence and sense of self-worth
  • Irritability when unable to acquire stimulants
  • Expressions of anxiety


Effects of stimulant addiction

Abusing prescription stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall, can lead to destructive side effects, as can the abuse of more potent stimulants like amphetamine and cocaine. The following effects are common in those who abuse stimulants:

  • Erratic behavior
  • Depression
  • Paranoia
  • Heart problems
  • Panic attacks
  • Dehydration
  • Liver damage
  • Kidney damage
  • Anhedonia (inability to experience pleasure)
  • High blood pressure


Signs, symptoms, and effects of stimulant withdrawal

Suddenly stopping stimulant abuse after one has become dependent on it can lead to uncomfortable, painful, and potentially dangerous symptoms. These symptoms can develop within a couple of hours, and can last for over a week. The following are among the most common symptoms that are connected with withdrawal from stimulants:

  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia
  • Exhaustion
  • Irritability
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Insomnia
  • Powerful drug cravings
  • Fatigue
  • Joint and muscle pain


Signs, symptoms, and effects of stimulant overdose

Consuming stimulants at a potency that surpasses the body’s ability to properly metabolize them can be dangerous and possibly even deadly. The following symptoms might show that an individual is experiencing a stimulant overdose:

  • Convulsions
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Heart failure
  • Kidney failure
  • Extremely high body temperature
  • Extremely high blood pressure
  • Respiratory distress
  • Stroke
  • Coma

Co-Occurring Disorders

Stimulant addiction and co-occurring disorders

Many individuals who abuse stimulants are also dealing with one or more additional mental health challenges. The following are of the most common co-occurring disorders that are experienced by those who partake in stimulant abuse:

  • Persistent depressive disorder
  • Major depressive disorder
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Oppositional defiant disorder
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder
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