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The Science Behind Ritalin and Anxiety

Micah Abraham, BSc
The Science Behind Ritalin and Anxiety

The prescription drug Ritalin (occasionally misspelled "Riddlin"), also known as methylphenidate, is a controversial substance.

Frequently prescribed to children in the U.S. who are diagnosed with  ADHD (a.k.a. Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), there have been  concerns about its negative side effects as well as discoveries of new  uses for it including recovery from cigarette and even cocaine  addictions. While scientists do know the effect it has on the brain, why it works is not well understood.

This article will explore the possibility of using Ritalin as a  treatment for anxiety problems, as well as the risks involved with its  use.

Listening to Your Doctor

Ritalin is never something you should take off label, and only  something to take if a doctor recommends it. If your doctor tells you or  your child to take Ritalin, you should consider it. But note that  anxiety is better cured with behavioral interventions.

Ritalin In Your Body: A Scientific Overview

Ritalin's primary function is increasing the levels of the chemicals  dopamine and norepinephrine in the human brain. It does this by  partially blocking the dopamine and norepinephrine transporters that  removes them from the synapses.

Dopamine is a potentially useful chemical for anxiety sufferers:  however, norepinephrine is more problematic. To summarize what each  chemical does:

Ritalin is technically categorized as a stimulant (specifically a  "psychostimulant," or stimulant of the central nervous system). It is  because of this factor that psychostimulant drugs - even drugs that, by  increasing dopamine, may temporarily reduce anxiety - may paradoxically  have the effect of increasing anxiety for people more psychologically  prone to anxiousness.

Study Shows Ritalin as Effective Anti-Anxiety Med for ADHD Children

In a 1993 placebo-controlled study of the effects of Ritalin on  children, it was concluded that while the frequency of insomnia,  appetite disturbance, stomachache, headache and dizziness significantly  increased in the children taking Ritalin, the frequency of anxiety and  nail-biting (along with "staring and daydreaming") significantly  decreased. This would seem to indicate that at least in children,  Ritalin can be an effective anti-anxiety medication.

It is important to note, however, that the children who took part in  this study suffered from ADHD, rather than from anxiety. Because of the  risk of aggravating preexisting anxiety problems posed by increased  norepinephrine in the body, studies of Ritalin's effects on  anxiety-prone adults are not being performed.

What Anxiety-Sufferers Are Saying About It

Despite the scientific community's misgivings, some anxiety sufferers  who have been prescribed Ritalin for ADHD have found it to have some  interesting effects, though the negative reports are more common than  the positive. Some described fatigue, while others described extreme  energy.

However, the majority of users simply found that their anxiety increased, and experienced no noticeable calmative effects.

The Final Word on Ritalin and Anxiety

While it is easy to imagine that a drug that seems to "calm"  overexcited children would be great for your anxiety, the truth is that  this drug is designed to stimulate alertness and therefore runs the risk  of worsening your anxiety rather than improving it.

If your doctor insists that you start taking Ritilan, than you should  take it. But otherwise make sure that you're considering behavioral  options as well.

Article Resources
  1. Ahmann, Peter A., et al. Placebo-controlled evaluation of Ritalin side effects. Pediatrics 91.6 (1993): 1101-1106.
  2. Vastag, Brian. Pay attention: ritalin acts much like cocaine. JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association 286.8 (2001): 905-906.
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