With deadlines mounting and exams looming, some university students will turn to stimulants to like Ritalin and Modafinil help them study – here’s how you can do so safely
Exam season is here, deadlines are looming, and right now, the majority of students are wondering how they can get through the next few weeks – let alone pass their modules – without losing their minds. Rather than leaving it to chance, some students will probably turn to ‘study drugs’ to help them focus on their work and meet their deadlines with a little bit more ease.
If you’re a uni student in the UK, it’s likely you’ll have heard of these drugs. While the term could encompass a load of substances, it’s most commonly used to refer to stimulants that are most often prescribed for ADHD and narcolepsy, Modafinil (or Provigil) and Ritalin being the most common. These drugs aren’t legal to supply to anyone without a prescription. (Psychedelics, when microdosed, could also be considered study drugs – but you can read Dazed’s guide to microdosing if you want to know more about that).
It’s not clear how many students use illicit study drugs every year, and the research tends to paint a varied picture. One small scale survey of 506 students across 54 UK universities by Loughborough University found that 19 per cent of respondents had used cognitive enhancers while at university. Meanwhile, a survey of some 2,000 students by Neurosight in 2020 found that six per cent had used both Ritalin and Modafinil in a single term. In fact, that survey found that being able to perform better at work or academically was one of the main motivations for taking drugs at uni, with 63 per cent of students saying that’s why they did it. That said, a smaller-scale study of 1,600 university students last year found that only two per cent had used drugs as a means to help them study. But, as always with drugs data, it’s fair to assume there are more users than the figures suggest.
The main reasons students use these drugs are to stay awake (and study) longer and increase their focus on the task at hand. “The pharmacology is different for each of these drugs, but they all increase the excitation of neurons in the nervous system,” explains Ivan Ezquerra-Romano, director of drugsand.me and PhD student at University College London. “That translates into better attention and, for some cases, it seems that short-term memory is increased.”
Sounds good, right? But don’t be fooled: these drugs – as with all drugs – aren’t without their drawbacks. If you’re planning to rely on study drugs to get you through the term, don’t do it mindlessly. The safest thing to do would be to skip the stimulants altogether, but if you’ve already made the decision to pick up a few doses of Modafinil and Ritalin, here’s how to take them as safely as possible.
DON’T DISRUPT YOUR SLEEP CYCLE
As Ezquerra-Romano notes, stimulants like Ritalin and Modafinil don’t actually make you smarter, they simply make you more alert. They also keep you awake, just like caffeine. “Your body still needs to rest,” says Ezquerra-Romano. “It doesn’t help not sleeping, and replacing that lack of sleep with a stimulant, because your condition will deteriorate long-term if you don’t have a healthy sleeping schedule.”
Not only will a lack of sleep actually hinder your academic performance, it will also make you feel shit down the line. Just like with coffee (if you’re sensible), don’t take any study drugs around the time you’d usually go to sleep, or even less than six hours before bedtime. “Take it in the morning and try not to have any redoses,” Ezquerra-Romano adds. “If you do need to redose, do so no less than six to eight hours before going to bed.”
MIND YOUR HEART RATE
One of the main harms associated with taking stimulants is the strain they place on your heart. “Stimulants increase your heart rate, so there’s always a cardiovascular risk when taking them,” says Ezquerra-Romanos. This is especially true for anyone who already has an underlying heart condition.
While some stimulants are worse than others in terms of the pressure they put on your heart, it’s important to be mindful while using them.
DON’T USE STIMULANTS WHEN YOU’RE ANXIOUS
It’s important to realise that, if you’re not sleeping well, you’re not eating well and you’re particularly stressed or anxious, study drugs are likely to exacerbate the problem. This can also make socialising harder.
“Study drugs can induce anxiety or make anxiety worse,” says Ezquerra-Romano. “If you’re already anxious, and you supplement it with a stimulant, you might find certain social interactions are actually harder to deal with, and this can have a knock-on effect on other aspects of your life.”
DON’T TAKE STUDY DRUGS DAILY
To avoid all the negative side effects of study drugs, it’s important to be intentional with your approach to using them. Ezquerra-Romano recommends a ‘one day on, one day off’ approach, and try to make sure your off days coincide with the days you’ll be sitting with your exams.
“One recommendation is to follow a strategy rather than just randomly taking a study drug one day,” he says. “That’s not going to help you, and it’s probably going to make things worse in terms of making you feel anxious.”
Taking stimulants every day – if you don’t need them – is bound to leave you worse off when you finally stop.
TAPER OFF TO AVOID WITHDRAWALS
For the most part, Ezquerra-Romano says that dependency on study drugs is unlikely, because context is important when it comes to drugs, and most students will stop using them as soon as exam season is over – which is something you should do.
However, it may be hard to stop taking study drugs if you’ve been consuming them consistently over a sustained period of time. This is because the withdrawals can be pretty horrible. They include symptoms like agitation, anxiety, depression, confusion, fatigue and chest pain, to name a few.
You may feel anxious, irritable and continue to struggle to sleep, particularly if you quit cold turkey, and those withdrawals can make you want to keep using study drugs simply to evade them. To avoid this, Ezquerra-Romano recommends tapering off your study drugs over the course of a week or so.
DON’T USE DOWNERS
Struggling to sleep after using study drugs can be hellish, but it’s vital you don’t attempt to use downers like benzodiazepines like Valium or Xanax to help you sleep.
Not only are they unlikely to completely neutralise the stimulant, says Ezquerra-Romano, it’s also super dangerous. This is because stimulants and depressants, as the names suggest, have opposite effects on the body. “The stimulant is pushing you up while the depressant is pulling you down,” he says. “This really messes with your body”.
DON’T MIX THEM WITH ALCOHOL
Alcohol is also a depressant, so drinking while on stimulants is not advised, not least because of the pressure it can put on your heart and body. But there are also other things to be aware of with mixing alcohol and stimulants.
“When you mix stimulants with alcohol, the effects are kind of neutralised which makes people think they’re less high than they are and could tempt them to keep redosing, which puts you at a greater risk of overdose,” says Ezquerra-Romano. Similarly, people are able to drink more while high on stimulants, both because they’re able to stay up (and out) for longer and they don’t feel as drunk. “This means the hangover will be much worse, and you’re also at an increased risk of alcohol poisoning,” he adds.
Finally, it’s important to be mindful of your alcohol consumption generally when exam season is over, especially if you didn’t drink much during your prep. “When exams finish, there is a risk of alcohol overdoses because people haven’t been haven't drunk for a while, so their tolerance decreases,” says Ezquerra-Romano. “People are euphoric because they just finished and they drink the same amount as the last time they drank, which is often too much.” This, he says, can lead people into dangerous and problematic situations.