Society as a whole views perfectionism as an admirable trait, and students who set high standards for themselves, work hard and succeed are rewarded for it. It wasn’t too long ago that stressed out college students called on caffeine, nicotine and sugar to pull all-nighters and cram for exams. Today, they’re growing increasingly reliant on “study drugs” not just to study but to stay alert and focused.

There is a growing concern over the popularity of prescription ADHD medications like Ritalin, Adderall, Vyvanse and Concerta among college students who haven’t been diagnosed with ADHD. What’s more, these students are graduating from college and joining the workforce–and they’re bringing their stimulant use with them.

How Do Stimulants Work?

Stimulants work by increasing the number of specific neurotransmitters in the brain, such as norepinephrine, epinephrine and dopamine, that allows the brain to control its power more effectively. When a person who doesn’t have ADHD take a prescription stimulant, they enter a hyper-focused state, where they can remain for up to 12 consecutive hours.

Study drugs don’t make a person smarter. Rather, they improve a person’s motivation and attention for tedious tasks. However, its efficacy is up for debate. Some users feel motivated to work on whatever is in front of them, whether it’s a 20-page term paper or deep cleaning their entire room. Prescription stimulants also have unpleasant, potentially dangerous, side effects, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Headaches
  • Agitation
  • Hallucinations
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Tremors
  • Twitching
  • Sweating
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Sleep loss

Stimulants can be habit-forming. Some users find that they develop a tolerance over time and need to take larger doses to feel effects.

The Danger Lies in What We Don’t Know

An estimated 20% of college students abuse prescription stimulants. “When we look at upperclassmen, the number really begins to jump,” Alan DeSantis, professor of communications at the University of Kentucky who studies stimulant use in college, said in an interview with CNN. “The more time you stay on campus, the more likely you are to use.”

We don’t know the consequences of long-term use because most research has studied people with the problems stimulants are intended for, like ADHD–not in people with normal cognitive abilities. We also don’t fully understand how these drugs interact with alcohol, recreational drugs or antidepressants.

Stimulants are classified by the DEA as a Schedule II substance, right alongside cocaine, meth and fentanyl. Since study drugs are prescribed, they seem safe, but many college students underestimate their potential risks or how they might interact with other drugs. Taking a controlled substance without a real need, a prescription or a physician’s supervision is dangerous. It might look like the real thing, but it’s hard to know the dosage or whether it’s tampered.

If you’re concerned your child or loved one is abusing stimulants, the number one sign to look out for is difficulty sleeping. Anxiousness and jitteriness are also common. Do not stop taking stimulants without first speaking to a doctor, whether you have a prescription or not, especially if you’ve overused them. Suddenly stopping use can cause severe depression and extreme fatigue, so it’s important to gradually decrease your dose over time under a doctor’s supervision.

Guardian Recovery Network’s continuum of care, which includes clinically-sophisticated addiction treatment services and case management, can help you or someone you care about detox and recover from stimulant addiction. Contact a Recovery Specialist for more information.