Performing-enhancing drugs, particularly stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin, have become widely abused by college students and working adults. Typically prescribed to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, these medications are believed to work by increasing levels of two brain chemicals: dopamine and noradrenaline. When people use stimulants as a doctor prescribes them, they are typically safe.1
Problems arise when people begin to abuse these medications by taking them without a prescription or take more than prescribed in an attempt to improve mental functioning. College students and working adults may abuse prescription stimulants and other performance-enhancing drugs to try to get ahead. While some may claim that they benefit from using these drugs, ongoing abuse can have serious consequences.
According to research, about 2 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 45 report having abused performance-enhancing drugs like stimulants within the past year.
Rates of abuse are especially high among college students at both the graduate and undergraduate level. Studies show that around 17 percent of undergraduate students and 17.5 percent of those in graduate school have abused prescription stimulants at some point. Some studies have even found a prevalence rate as high as 42 percent among undergraduate students.2
Regardless of the exact prevalence rate, it is apparent that performance-enhancing drug abuse is a problem, particularly among those who are attending college and experiencing pressure to earn high grades.
The reason that workers and students abuse performance-enhancing drugs such as stimulants is rather straightforward: they want to do better at work or school. A common misconception is that taking stimulants will provide a variety of benefits, such as the following:
Prescription stimulants, as their name might suggest, stimulate the nervous system. They are known to increase alertness and energy.2 Workers and students may use stimulants so they can continue to work on reports, projects, or assignments when they are tired.
For example, after a long day of classes, a college student may take stimulants to feel energized enough to write a lengthy paper. Or, a worker might abuse stimulants to increase alertness and be able to keep working for longer periods. Some people who work long shifts or work overnight use stimulants to fight off sleepiness.
Similarly, students and workers might use stimulants to improve concentration. After all, difficulties with concentration are among the core symptoms of ADHD, which stimulants are designed to treat. People may feel compelled to abuse stimulants to improve their concentration when completing lengthy, tedious tasks or assignments. Using stimulants, for this reason, may be especially common among college students, who may feel the need to improve concentration when studying for a big exam or writing a paper that is due the next morning.
College students, in particular, may abuse stimulants to improve memory, especially when trying to cram information for a test or quiz. Workers in high-stakes positions, such as attorneys or financial executives, may use stimulants to remember important details for their jobs.
Among the common performance-enhancing drugs are stimulants typically used in the treatment of ADHD, as well as those that treat sleep disorders. These include the following:
This class of drugs includes Adderall, which contains dextroamphetamine and amphetamine, and Dexedrine, which is made of only dextroamphetamine.3 These drugs are used for the treatment of ADHD.
Ritalin and Concerta are two other types of stimulant medications that some people utilize to enhance cognitive performance. Both contain the chemical methylphenidate. Interestingly, methylphenidate acts very quickly, and it is among one of the most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States, typically to treat ADHD.3
Often used to treat sleep disorders like narcolepsy, the stimulant modafinil promotes wakefulness and is sold under the names Provigil and Modalert.4
While benefits like increased alertness and improved focus may seem appealing, performance-enhancing stimulants are not without side effects.
Some of the common side effects are relatively mild. These include:
Other side effects are more serious. These can include:
Heart problems such as:
The serious side effects associated with performance-enhancing stimulants are rare, especially when people take these medications as prescribed while under the care of a doctor. However, when these medications are abused, serious side effects become more possible.
Snorting or injecting drugs elevates the risk that someone will experience severe side effects like heart failure or paranoia. People who take large amounts of stimulants over long periods are also more likely to suffer serious side effects from using performance-enhancing drugs at school or work.1
Performance-enhancing drugs in school and the workplace may come with serious side effects, and while they may benefit people with conditions like ADHD or sleep disorders, they do not always have the intended effect on people who abuse them to improve mental performance.
For example, some studies have shown that performance-enhancing stimulants have no significant effects on attention and decision-making. There is some evidence that stimulants may improve memory and increase the speed at which the brain can accurately process information, but additional research is needed to confirm these effects.1
So, while people who take prescription stimulants may be able to remember more information and think more quickly, there is also a possibility that there is no benefit to these drugs, especially in terms of promoting improved attention and focus.
The use of performance-enhancing drugs in the workplace and school may also have problematic effects on occupational safety and health. For example, research shows that large doses of performance-enhancing stimulants can cause psychotic behaviors, including hallucinations and delusions.3 This could lead to erratic behaviors that could pose a risk in schools and workplaces.
Another obvious safety threat associated with performance-enhancing drugs is their impact on the heart. There have even been cases of healthy teenagers suffering from heart attacks after taking stimulants.3 Students and employees can be at risk of serious health consequences if they are taking stimulant drugs without the advice of a doctor.
Student-athletes or those who perform physical labor may be at an especially high risk of health problems, as studies show that stimulant medications can increase body temperature.3 This can lead to overheating and serious consequences when students or employees are engaged in strenuous physical activity.
Beyond creating serious health risks, performance-enhancing drug abuse can cause added stress among students and workers. For instance, those who abuse these drugs may be worried about failing a drug test, or about being caught abusing drugs and getting in trouble. Some may even be worried about losing their jobs or getting kicked out of school. This stress can be ongoing.
The side effects of performance-enhancing drugs can cause additional stress in schools and workplaces. People may experience changed behavior or difficulty functioning if they are under the influence of stimulant drugs. The lack of sleep may also increase stress levels as insomnia is one of the side effects of stimulants.
Those who abuse prescription stimulants to enhance performance at work or school may need addiction treatment. After all, the Drug Enforcement Administration labels these medications as Schedule II controlled substances, meaning they can be both physically and psychologically addictive. People who abuse these drugs may, therefore, feel that they need more and more of the drug to get the same effect, or they may only feel normal when they have taken the drug. Withdrawal symptoms, such as sleep problems, depressed mood, or fatigue can occur.2
Someone who has been abusing performance-enhancing drugs and feels unable to stop using them, or who is using larger and larger amounts of the drugs, may have developed an addiction. Other signs of addiction include difficulty completing tasks or assignments at work or school, giving up activities that used to be enjoyed, stealing or getting into legal trouble because of stimulant abuse, or continuing to use stimulants despite health problems like high blood pressure.
Treatment is available to help address these symptoms and overcome addiction and live a life free of stimulants. Depending on the nature of the addiction, treatment may occur in an inpatient or outpatient setting. Individual and group counseling are offered with therapies designed to help fight against addiction. Cognitive-behavioral therapy teaches healthier ways of thinking, as well as stress management and coping skills. This may be especially useful for people who have been using performance-enhancing stimulants. Contingency management programs, which offer rewards for remaining drug-free, are also worth exploring.
If you of someone you love is struggling with stimulant use, reach out now. Recovery is possible.