Stimulants, also called psychostimulants, are a class of psychoactive drugs that increase heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, and blood sugar levels. Physical and psychological effects of stimulants may include increased alertness, energy, wakefulness, and/or locomotion, and in some cases, euphoria. Stimulants are often referred to as “uppers” because they create an uplifting emotional and physical effect, in contrast to “downers,” which dampen psychological and physical functioning. Stimulants may come in the form of legal substances, which may or may not require a prescription from a licensed physician, and illicit substances. All three types of stimulants may be abused.
Types of Stimulants
There are a variety of different illegal and legal stimulants. Some of these substances you may come into contact with every day; allergy medication, asthma medication, coffee, and cigarettes are all stimulants. The following are some of the most common stimulants:
- Amphetamines are a family of drugs that include methamphetamines and dextroamphetamines. Drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall are legal amphetamines that are often prescribed to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or narcolepsy, speeding up the activity of the central nervous system (CNS) in much the same way that adrenaline does.
- Cocaine is a common illegal stimulant that acts on the dopamine system, increasing levels of dopamine in the brain’s synapses, causing feelings of pleasure and euphoria. Crack cocaine is a more potent form of cocaine and is more addictive because the high is short-lived and more intense.
- Ecstasy, also known as MDMA or “Molly” is a psychoactive drug with both stimulant and hallucinogenic effects. Research into the addictive properties of ecstasy has shown varied results. Some users report signs of physical and psychological dependence.
- Caffeine is the most popular drug in the world. It is commonly found in coffee, tea, soda, and energy drinks. It may also be sold legally in pill form. Caffeine is addictive.
- Nicotine is found in cigarettes and is considered a type of stimulant. It is highly addictive.
Abuse and Dependence
Stimulants are some of the most commonly-abused drugs. Use of some of the more addictive stimulants, including cocaine and amphetamines, can quickly lead to physical and psychological dependence on the drug. As with most chemical substances, prolonged use of stimulants actually changes the structure and neurochemistry of the brain over time. As more and more of the stimulant is required for the user to feel “normal,” an effect known as drug tolerance, compulsive drug use increases. When drug use is stopped, withdrawal symptoms, including fatigue, insomnia, and depression, are quick to appear.
Treatment depends on the substance that is being abused, since properties of stimulants vary. It also depends on the personality and situation of the individual. The first step may be tapering the dosage of a drug or undergoing complete detoxification. Behavioral therapy may be offered concurrently in order to help the individual cope with his or her feelings surrounding drug use. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is another type of therapy frequently used to help drug users change their behavior. Following therapy, social support and boundaries are necessary for successful re-integration in society. However, even then, relapse is common.