“Study drugs” are stimulant medications, such as Adderall and Ritalin. While intended for use under a physician's direction to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), some people may also obtain these drugs illegally to improve their performance at school or work.
Medications for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), also called “study drugs,” are commonly misused among college students and others looking to improve focus or productivity.
These prescription-only drugs include stimulants and non-stimulants, both of which may cause side effects and carry serious risks.
You can stay off study drugs by opting for non-drug strategies for improving brain health.
Healthy habits, such as getting enough sleep and exercise, can help improve focus.
However, individuals with and without a prescription for study drugs may want to stop taking them for different reasons. In this article, we’ll look at ways to improve productivity naturally and stay off study drugs. We’ll also cover the risks of ADHD medications and how to stop taking them.
What are study drugs?
It’s that stressful time of the semester when university students are writing their term papers and cramming for final exams. In an environment with immense pressure put on academic performance, it’s not surprising that up to 58.7% of college students report using stimulants — so-called “study drugs.”
There are two main types of study drugs, also known as ADHD medications: stimulants and non-stimulants. They work by affecting certain chemical messengers in the brain, a mechanism thought to improve focus and attention in people with ADHD.
The chart below summarizes some popular ADHD medications and provides basic facts.
|Drug type||Brand and generic names||Potential for dependence and misuse|
Adderall XR (amphetamine-dextroamphetamine extended-release)
Concerta (methylphenidate extended-release)
Side effects and risks
Stimulant and non-stimulant study drugs have similar common side effects. Both types may cause:
- Decreased appetite.
- Dry mouth.
- Increased anxiety or nervousness.
- Increased or decreased blood pressure.
- Irregular or rapid heartbeat .
ADHD medications come with several precautions and may be unsafe for people with certain conditions or factors, such as:
- Heart problems.
- High blood pressure.
- Bipolar disorder.
- Tourette syndrome.
- Pregnancy or breastfeeding.
Stimulants have a high potential for drug abuse and addiction, especially when taken frequently or at high doses. Physical or psychological dependence on stimulants can occur, and some people are more vulnerable than others.
Non-stimulant study drugs do not carry risks for misuse but can increase the risk of suicidal thoughts. This risk is of particular concern in individuals with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or other mental health disorders.
Before using a study drug without a prescription, consider the consequences of getting caught. Beyond health risks, illegally selling or purchasing study drugs jeopardizes your future livelihood and reputation. In the U.S., stimulants are Schedule II controlled substances, the same federal category as cocaine and morphine. Illegal use and sales of these drugs involve severe penalties, including potential prison time and tens of thousands in fines.
How to stop taking study drugs
Knowing which type of study drugs you are using is essential when deciding to stop. If you have ADHD, stopping the medication will likely result in a return of symptoms, such as trouble focusing. Certain ADHD drugs, especially in high doses, should not be stopped suddenly.
If you’ve been using study drugs that you got from a friend or coworker and feel like you can’t function or feel comfortable without them, reach out to a trusted family member or healthcare provider. Help is available to support you in breaking the cycle.
If you have a prescription for an ADHD medication but wish to stop taking it, talk with your physician first for advice on your situation. You can stop certain ADHD drugs abruptly, but others require gradual discontinuation. For example, you should not suddenly stop taking clonidine or guanfacine, as this can cause extreme anxiety and dangerous increases in blood pressure. Instead, your healthcare provider will instruct you on how to decrease these drugs slowly over weeks before halting.
Some people may experience fatigue, nausea, or anxiety after stopping stimulant study drugs. These effects are more common after taking higher doses for long periods of regular use.
The key to success in stopping any type of substance use is having a plan and support. Regardless of the type of study drug you were using, stopping the drug will likely result in a return of symptoms, such as trouble focusing. The good news is that there are plenty of healthy ways to improve focus and keep up with your studies or other work.
How to manage without study drugs
There are several evidence-based strategies to improve productivity without relying on study drugs:
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) — “Coaching” from a psychiatrist or other mental health professional focuses on finding the methods that work best for each individual to help achieve tasks and improve academic or professional performance. Counseling sessions center around honing study skills by identifying times, locations, and processes that produce the best result for each affected individual.
Family therapy — More targeted for children with ADHD, family therapy focuses on parent modeling of correct behaviors to lessen hyperactivity symptoms. Similarly, experts suggest developing a schedule or structured routine to help young adults stay organized and devote an adequate amount of time to homework and studying.
Accommodations — Schools and universities provide accommodations to eligible students. For example, you may be able to receive more time to complete assignments or take exams. Accommodations such as these can make your education more manageable and ease some of the pressure.
Exercise — Recommended for general health and specifically for people with ADHD, exercise has been shown to improve productivity. A study in children with ADHD demonstrated better focus and performance after a single 20-minute session of moderately vigorous physical activity. For brain health benefits, such as reduced anxiety, improved cognitive function, and better sleep quality, adults should have at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week.
Meditation — Meditation has been shown to increase productivity and focus. In addition to improved test scores, individuals who make time to mediate often see improvements in anxiety and hyperactivity symptoms.
Sleep — Establishing a regular sleep schedule improves focus and supports peak cognitive performance during school or work. Aim for 7–9 hours per night of sleep.
Despite tremendous pressure placed on academic and career performance, your future self will likely be more successful if you stay off illegally obtained study drugs. You can be productive without drugs through coaching, improving your general health, and establishing new habits that naturally fuel your brain.
- American Academy of Pediatrics. Clinical practice guideline for the diagnosis, evaluation, and treatment of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder in children and adolescents.
- Hypertension. Withdrawal reactions following cessation of central alpha-adrenergic receptor agonists.
- CNS Disorders. Adult Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder diagnosis, management, and treatment in the DSM-5 Era.
- The Journal of Pediatrics. Exercise improves behavioral, neurocognitive, and scholastic performance in children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.
- Evidence-Based Mental Health. Pharmacological and non-pharmacological treatment of adults with ADHD: a meta-review.
Show all references
- Nature. Longitudinal effects of meditation on brain resting-state functional connectivity.
- Addiction. Non-medical use of prescription stimulants among US college students: prevalence and correlates from a national survey.
- Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Systematic Review: Nonmedical Use of Prescription Stimulants: Risk Factors, Outcomes, and Risk Reduction Strategies.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Benefits of Physical Activity.