Stimulants and Adult ADHD: What You Need to Know

September 17, 2014 Jimmy Durham

Stimulant medications used in ADHD treatment are often misunderstood. Learn the facts about stimulants and ADHD.

Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder is the root of many debates ranging from whether it really exists to how to treat it -- if at all. Current public perceptions indicate that ADHD is over-medicated and over-diagnosed, and despite several studies that find the opposite of these beliefs, many people still hold onto these ideas.

Where Does ADHD Come From?

Scientists still aren’t certain what causes ADHD; although, current evidence points toward a genetic cause. Evidence also seems to rule out causes such as watching too much television, eating too much sugar, or instability during childhood. That’s not to say that these factors do not aggravate symptoms of adult ADHD; it only means that they are not likely to cause it.

For the most part, scientists are beginning to view ADHD as a condition that arises from differences in the brain structure development that may or may not be related to chemical differences, particularly a lack of the neurotransmitter, dopamine. Dopamine plays a vital role in motor control, attention and focus, motivation, and reward to name just a few. Basically, what we are left with is the idea that ADHD can arise when the brain structure is affected by the lack of dopamine – and symptoms such as problems with attention follow.

Treating Adult ADHD with Stimulants

Understanding why and how ADHD comes about is key to “treating” it or coping with symptoms. Currently, it's treated with ADHD medication and cognitive behavioral therapy. Many people swear by natural remedies and diet restrictions, but studies are limited on their success.

Prescribing medications, particularly stimulants, often leads to controversy.

Adult ADHD is treated with medication or therapy. The stimulants used in ADHD treatment are often misunderstood. Learn the facts about stimulants and ADHD.

In my experience, this controversy is fueled by a misunderstanding of the medication’s purpose. Our science has advanced our knowledge and expectations. We now find it harder to fathom that there is nothing we cannot fix without a pill, thus we expect pills to cure us. In reality, medication is merely a tool in our toolbox of health. We run into problems when we misuse the tools or mistake them for the answer to our problems.

Shouldn’t Stimulants “Amp up” Someone With ADHD?

Stimulant medications, such as Adderall, have different effects on the brain of someone diagnosed with ADHD. The medication increases the amount of dopamine available to the brain, which functions in attention and focus. The result is, in effect, an increase in calm and focus. This is the opposite of what one expects to see. However, individuals who already have properly functioning dopamine levels in their brain see the expected effects of hyperactivity, euphoria, and aggression.

Too much dopamine results in psychosis, hearing and seeing things that others cannot, and plays a role in mental disorders such as schizophrenia. That's why someone who takes stimulants, like Adderall, and does not have ADHD (and the presumed lack of dopamine already) can appear to have a mental disorder. Parkinson’s disease is another condition that is associated with a progressive loss of dopamine producing cells in the brain resulting is a chronic lack of dopamine which in turn results in motor dysfunction, depression, and dementia. Interestingly, when it comes to motor coordination, too little and too much dopamine have similar effects, namely, abnormal motor control seen as an inability to move or hold still.

It’s fascinating what simple chemistry means to the brain and how we function. It’s also complicated. My explanation here is bare bones, but I hope it serves to bring some understanding to how stimulant medication helps ADHD symptoms.

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APA Reference
Durham, J. (2014, September 17). Stimulants and Adult ADHD: What You Need to Know, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 14 from

Author: Jimmy Durham

Ruth A.
September, 24 2014 at 6:59 am

Thank you for this information, a loved one of mine took aderall for a long time to manage the adult ADHD. Just as you mentioned it had a calming effect. Due to an unscrupulous doctor who was caught selling and prescribing aderall to addicts in his town, it is nearly impossible to find a doctor to prescribe it to those who NEED it.
This has caused my loved one to fall through the cracks and is in dire need of help. The bureaucracy and red tape has caused great stress, with worsening symptoms, he can't organize himself to seek help without catastrophizing the outcome. Do you have any suggestions on how I can help?

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Elizabeth Prager
November, 24 2014 at 8:13 am

Make a concrete plan, written out, that details steps A to Z in order to get the task of getting meds again done. Include check boxes and realistic timeframes to accomplish each mini task. Hopefully breaking the huge ordeal into chunks can help!

October, 13 2014 at 3:34 am

I am a 37 year old mother of 4. I have had many failed relationships. I take adderall xr 30. Daily. I had a dr who thought breaks on the weekend were good. For who? I do feel my meds dont work as well as they did in the beginning but I cant focus at all without it. There is no since in taking breaks in meds for mental heath problems are there such as medications for depression or bi polar illnesses? The only difference in these breaks in medications is the amount of time it takes for someone to notice the side effect. If I forget to take my meds ever I notice when im trying to get out the door or I am getting ready. While getting ready I misplace stuff while I am looking for it. Always in a hurry running late just to struggle and simply not have anything together. I wish people would understand that adderall doesnt make us hurry and complete tons of task just because it would a normal person without add or adhd. We take our meds and function notmal like anyone else. Do normal people go through daily task and routines at a fast sped up pace? Not usually unless they are just awesome people. Adult add or adhd meds help us spun tight going nowhere fast people slow down and function slow enough to complete normal everyday task. We dont have an edge on anyone with our meds. The only edge we have are against those who have same illness and are not on meds that work. When a lifetime of learning has been hindered and not retained unless used daily it isnt a miracle drug to an adult it is a miracle drug to an adult with add/adhd though. Yes we can think like normal adults and learn and read too! Learning is fun finally but usually to late in our lifetime to help as we have many obligations already and just struggle to catch up and continue to try to be normal. I wish all psychologist and or psychiatrist along with the rest of the world understood not only the struggles an adhd adult mom faces but the actual life we experience while taking stimulants is only equal to a normal persons daily energy or life! We are not in fast mode we are not smarter than anyone who is normal we are just finally a "catch up normal" - my way of saying developmentally we will always be behind so therefore as we experience a day with our meds we are still reading or learning what we skipped while we were children and growing up. I pray everyone one day realizes the unusual life we have without our meds and we dont ever need a day off we have had plenty days off before we found our medicine that works whatever it may be.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Elizabeth Prager
November, 24 2014 at 8:06 am

I concur!

April, 25 2015 at 6:36 pm

I agree. You have to take your meds. and make a list. I spend twice as long deciding "how" I am going to do something if I don't make a list.

betty sainz
September, 5 2015 at 8:14 pm

Sometimes I feel I was ripped off during my early, formal educational years. If I had been treated at that time, I would have loved school. Being deprived of that experience, having missed so much, I sometimes wish I could go back and devote the equivalent amount of time as all those wasted years, to being a top student, a scholar. Always wanted to learn. Loved to learn. I just couldn't concentrate for more than a half second or so, much of my youth. I still work on forgiving the teachers and our punk gym teacher who enjoyed humiliating me. He was a pedophile who fooled a lot of people for a long time. He never fooled me. I grew to be much larger and stronger than him by the time I was thirteen. We had moved away by then, but I visited a few times. I could have crushed him with my bare hands. Thanks in part to my efforts, he was exposed for the filthy, dirty, rotten, lying, disgusting phony he really was.
A minority refuse to see ADHD for what it is and many of them are as condescending, rude and hostile as any group of zealots around. They haven't a clue. They have no idea what they are talking about, I promise.

November, 27 2015 at 9:05 am

I also learned that I have to take my extended-release Ritalin every single day. I hadn't known until my psychiatrist thought to tell me so. If I don't, I accomplish very little or nothing, especially on my das off. My home is still a disaster (partly because I was very ill for several months), but now I am starting to work on it. I'm catching up on laundry for the first time in many months. Previously, I did a load or two when I completely ran out of things to wear. I feel good enough to MAKE myself do it. Now if I could get the depression under control, I'd be doing even better!

April, 8 2016 at 2:16 pm

As an adult with ADD I understand what everyone is talking about, but I don't agree. I lived for many years without medication and it made me a very persistent person because I kept having to fight to succeed. College was a nightmare, but I refused to quit and I did graduate. Later on in life I was diagnosed and I did take medication for a while and it was nice having more focus, but I also suffer from anxiety, OCD and several other issues. Thus, my anxiety meds were causing problems with my liver and I couldn't take the ADD med without the anxiety medication. I finally decided to go without meds again. At the time I was taking meds I had decided to study for CPA, something that was impossible before, or so I thought. I was concerned that I would not finish without meds, but I found that I had created a strong habit and with a lot of persistence I was able to achieve my CPA. I had created such strong habits for studying that after I got my CPA I found myself missing the studying! It is still very hard, but I do love learning, so I just stick to things I have an interest in and then I create a routine that becomes a habit and that guides me through. Yes it is hard and it always takes me longer to finish studies than other people, but I am convinced that anyone can live a great life without medications. You have to fight like your life is at stake but I am very proud of myself for what I have done and my self esteem has greatly increased because of what I have accomplished. Everything builds off the previous step. Previously I was distracted and messed things up and had very low self esteem, but now I made a powerful commitment to myself to not only survive, but to thrive and I am doing it. This is a never ending challenge, but I am committed to living my best life to the very end. I will add that you should choose areas that play to your strengths as much as possible when it comes to your career. I don't view this as some kind of handicap that means I can't do it, I see it as an area that needs more development. I am not the best at paying attention, but I am not the best at fixing the plumbing either, neither makes me a lesser or handicapped person. I just have to work harder to achieve it. If I want to fix my plumbing, which I try sometimes, I have to take time to study the internet and give it my best effort.

Nedra Harris
May, 22 2016 at 3:49 am

Hi I am a 35 year old female adult with adhd and dyslexia. Everyday is s struggle for me. See I just recently found out I had both conditions and it just now making sense to me. I always new I was dyslexic and had to work extra hard in school. But as I have gotten older my inability to concentrate and focus has really cost me in my professional career. I am in the process of seeking treatment for it. Just need some advice on the process of how to seek treatment. I am trying to work toward obtaining my professional licences for the last four years but have been unsuccessful because of my inability to focus coupled with my dyslexia. Please help.

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