Reviewed By: Barbara Rexer, DSW, LCSW, LCADC, CCS, ICCS, DRCC
“Study drugs” like Adderall can seem like an easy shortcut to greater focus, but do they even work? Here’s the surprising truth.
Of the millions of high school and college students competing this year for scholarships, internships and jobs that will pay off their loans, many will turn to a dangerous crutch: study drugs. The Center on Young Adult Health and Development reports that 1 in 3 college students will abuse focus-enhancing prescription drugs at least once before graduating college. Many others will find themselves addicted.
Unfortunately, most kids won’t hear about the dangers of study drugs in school. Even as the D.A.R.E. program has expanded to include emerging threats like vaping, you won’t see prescription meds in the curricula. This can make learning the facts a challenge for high school students facing the difficult transition to college.
If you’ve been tempted to use study drugs to stay focused, or have loved ones facing pressures that drive study drug use, here’s what you need to know.
What Are Study Drugs?
“Study drugs” refer to prescription nervous system stimulants used to manage ADHD and related disorders. Although safe and effective for those who need them, these drugs are dangerous when abused — and the abuse rate is high. Students can readily obtain study drugs on-campus, online, or even through their own doctors, often by faking symptoms of ADHD.
Students report taking study drugs to feel more focused, less distracted, and better able to handle the stress of heavy workloads. Moreover, many feel that because the pills are prescription, they must be safe. If they improve concentration, what’s the harm?
The truth is, a lot: study drugs like Ritalin, Adderall, Vyvanse and Concerta are short-term solutions with long-term damage. Aggressively addictive, these drugs can enslave students in a pattern of emotional addiction, sleep disruption, and physical exhaustion that can disrupt healthy brain activity. Overdose can result in convulsions, heart attack and even death.
How Did We Get Here?
What drives students to use “study drugs?” Changing cultural norms explain part of it. Millennials and Gen X-ers might remember one of the original pop culture references to study drugs in a 1990 episode of sitcom Saved by the Bell: driven to succeed, perfectionist Jessie Spano turned to pills that became an addiction. Aired nearly 30 years ago, the episode earned sniggers for treating “caffeine pills” with such seriousness. Some felt that centering on a straight-A student, rather than a “real” addict, made the story less realistic.
How the landscape has changed! Today, study drugs are as big a problem as recreational drugs, and they affect all types of students, even valedictorians.
Why Students Turn to Study Drugs
A study recently released by the Washington-based CGCS, Council of the Great City Schools, found that students take an average of 113 standardized tests between pre-K and 12th grade. With so much riding on test scores, ambitious students do all they can to attain the expectations of their schools, parents, and often, their culture.
The Lancet, a weekly peer-reviewed general medical journal, published an article in 2018 on study drugs, saying, “These are a perfect chemical accomplice for a culture that often prizes productivity and success above well-being and physical health.”
The result is a wider pool of students willing to use drugs than ever before. Students who would never dream of abusing alcohol or touching a cigarette feel driven to use study drugs in a bid to reach unrealistic goals.
Unfortunately, prescription stimulants can have a devastating effect on students who don’t need them.
How Study Drugs Affect Your Brain
Amphetamines (Adderall) and methylphenidates (Ritalin) stimulate the nervous system, activating dopamine production. Dopamine is a vital neurotransmitter, or “chemical messenger,” that helps us think, plan, stay motivated, and experience pleasure. People with ADHD typically produce lower dopamine than average, which causes their minds to seek constant stimulus. Prescription medication provides the dopamine these patients need to bring their levels up to normal, helping them stay focused.
For people without ADHD, stimulants artificially keep the mind in hyper-focused mode, rather than allowing it to flow through its other natural phases. Here’s how that works: without the influence of drugs, a healthy brain passes through many patterns of wave activity throughout the day, ranging from slow-moving waves to higher-frequency waves. The most common wave states are alpha, beta, delta and theta.
During sleep, delta waves promote healing and growth. Theta waves allow for vital REM sleep, which produces dreams. In moments of quiet, meditative thought, alpha waves take over. When you have an “Aha!” moment while out for a hike, or experience creative flow as you write, draw, or solve a deep problem, you can thank your alpha waves.
Beta brain waves dominate alertness. When you need to act quickly, focus on a single task, or solve an immediate problem, your brain is in beta mode. Although you spend the most time in beta, a healthy mind needs downtime to recover from stress, clear toxins and simply rest.
As DeAnsin Parker, a clinical neuroscientist, recently told Science News for Students: ““We have to have both [alpha and beta] in our lives everyday. You’re not supposed to be stimulated and alert all the time.”
Unfortunately, this is what study drugs do to healthy minds with normal dopamine production. Ironically, by keeping the mind in beta phase, study drugs prevent creativity and deep thinking.
Why Study Drugs Are So Addictive
Similar to illicit street drugs, nervous system stimulants can overwhelm the brain’s dopamine center, ultimately decreasing natural dopamine production. With damaged dopamine receptors, users rely more and more on stimulants to produce dopamine.
The cycle of dopamine stimulation and depletion explains why study drugs are so addictive. When your brain can’t produce enough dopamine on its own, you become physically dependent on drugs. This can lead to severe withdrawal symptoms when your source of dopamine is cut off. Common withdrawal symptoms include:
- Intense cravings
- Difficulty sleeping
- Changes in hunger
- Suicidal thoughts
The higher your dose and the longer you’ve used, the more intense your withdrawal symptoms will be. Although most unpleasant side effects will subside in a few weeks, overcoming physical withdrawal is often only the beginning of recovery. Most students must also overcome an addiction to performance and the emotional crutch that study drugs provide. Understanding the real effect of study drugs on performance can help put them in perspective.
The Dark Truth: Study Drugs Don’t Work Long-Term
Many adolescents and young adults use focus-boosting drugs to help them study and stay on track with work. However, new research suggests that such drugs bring very few benefits at the expense of long-term health. In fact, taking focus-enhancing drugs without a prescription does more harm than good.
The University of California, Irvine, reports that in the long run, psychostimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin negatively affect focus, working memory, and sleep quality, creating addictive cycles for the users. In many cases, needs and wants blend into a single all-encompassing belief: that if you don’t have the drug, you will not do well, feel well, or be well.
Other medical studies suggest that stimulant drugs may also negatively impact your ability to generate data sets, like a series of words starting with the same letter. In other words, Adderall may help you feel sharp while you study, but it won’t necessarily help you retain information for the test. When your mind is always in “fast” mode, you can’t access your memory-retaining mode.
More Truth: Study Drugs Hurt Your Health
Study drugs don’t just affect your mind. They also impact your health. Amphetamines can cause hallucinations, cardiac arrest, and even death for people with heart conditions.
But those are not all: The US National Institute on Drug Abuse shares that study drugs can cause malnutrition, high blood pressure and feelings of anxiety. They also increase the likelihood of experiencing a stroke and have the potential to cause dangerous cardiovascular complications, including sudden cardiac death, stroke, seizures, and problems with the liver and kidneys.
Succeeding Without Study Drugs
If there’s a silver lining to the study drug problem, it’s this: you don’t need them to succeed. By cultivating healthy study habits and understanding what your mind needs to function at its best, you can achieve high levels of focus without risking addiction to stimulants.
Here are a few habits that can help you naturally elevate your focus:
- Study a little at a time, taking reasonable breaks
- Get at least 8 hours of sleep each night
- Exercise regularly
- Eat balanced meals, focusing on fresh, whole foods
- Practice daily meditation
- Focus on a single task at a time
- Print your study material or turn off your WiFi while you read
- Turn your phone to “Do Not Disturb”
- Focus on small, achievable goals
Finding healthy ways to manage stress can also improve your natural focus. If you struggle with black-and-white thinking or negative thoughts that interfere with your focus, you may benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy to identify these patterns and develop healthier coping mechanisms. A strong support system can also help. By sharing how you feel with friends, you feel less alone, and encourage others to open up about their own stress.
Addicted to Study Drugs? There’s Help
If you think you might be dependent on study drugs, you’re not alone. More importantly, you don’t need to face recovery on your own. Start by talking to your school counselor, parents, and friends to gain support and accountability for your commitment to healing. If you have become physically addicted, a professional treatment program can help you safely overcome withdrawal symptoms, while also providing resources for counseling, therapy and aftercare to manage the stress and pressures of school. However you choose to take the first step, remember that recovery is possible — and so is a happy, healthy, productive life without study drugs.Have questions about addiction?
Chat with one of our recovery specialists now.
Written By: Susan Kime, MA, PCP, NCC
Susan Kime, MA, PCP, NCC, is a certified counselor who has worked directly in the fields of addiction recovery and mental health. A professional health & wellness writer, she has written for myriad publications about the intersection of mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.