Ritalin (Methylphenidate) is a psychostimulant drug used primarily to help treat ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder). It is also prescribed to individuals diagnosed with narcolepsy to help promote wakefulness. This stimulant has been thoroughly researched for over half-a-century and has a great track record for reducing symptoms associated with ADHD including inattentiveness and hyperactivity.
This drug works primarily as a dopamine reuptake inhibitor, but also has an effect on norepinephrine. When ingested, Ritalin works by blocking various transporters, which creates substantial increases in dopamine and norepinephrine levels. Increased levels of dopamine are associated with heightened arousal and activity in the nervous system. The increase in dopamine boosts learning ability, memory, and overall cognitive functioning. In some cases, this drug also boosts mood and is sometimes used as an off-label antidepressant augmentation strategy.
Although the primary use of this drug is to treat attentional deficits, some people use it recreationally as a party drug to get “high.” Others use it to help improve performance in sports due to the fact that it provides increased energy and focus. In any event, many people who use it end up wanting to withdraw from the drug and function naturally. The withdrawal period is typically associated with a “crash” that is accompanied by fatigue, poor concentration, and depression.
Factors that influence Ritalin withdrawal
There are various factors that will have an influence on the severity of your withdrawal symptoms. These factors include things like: time span over which you took the drug, your dosage, whether you built up a high tolerance, how quickly you tapered, as well as your individual physiology. It is these factors that makes everyone’s withdrawal experience unique.
1. Time Span
How long were you taking Ritalin? People that are on this drug for a long term tend to have a more difficult time coming off of it than those only on it for a short duration. When you take this drug over the span of many years, especially during developmental years, your brain relies on it for functioning. Therefore when you take the drug away after having been on it for a long term, your brain may take awhile to reestablish normal functioning. If you take the drug “off and on,” you may only experience minor “crashes” as opposed to a full blown withdrawal.
2. Dosage (10 mg to 60 mg)
Most people take Ritalin in doses that range from 10 mg to 60 mg. The average daily dose is between 20 mg and 30 mg. There are also individuals that take doses that exceed 60 mg as a result of developing a tolerance. In general, the higher the dose that you take over an extended period of time, the more likely you will experience severe withdrawal symptoms.
People that are taking doses at the lower end of the range (i.e. 10 mg) may not experience much of a withdrawal. However those who are taking 60 mg for years will likely need to conduct a gradual taper in order to avoid a severe withdrawal period.
3. Cold Turkey vs. Tapering
How did you quit Ritalin? Did you abruptly stop and quit cold turkey or did you conduct a gradual taper? Many people can quit “cold turkey” without noticing much of anything. Others who quit cold turkey have a very difficult time coping with the severity of withdrawal. It is usually best to conduct a gradual taper by slowly reducing your dose over a period of weeks (or months in more long term users).
The more gradually you taper, the easier it will be for your brain and body to readapt to functioning without the drug. By tapering you are giving your body and brain increments of time to adjust to functioning with reductions of your Ritalin dose. If at any time during tapering you notice severe symptoms that are difficult to cope with, you may want to taper at an even more gradual rate.
4. Individual Factors
There are many individual factors that have an influence on withdrawal from Ritalin. These individual factors include: social support, environment, exercise habits, dietary habits, and whether you are taking any other drugs. It should also be noted that that individual physiology has a big influence on how quickly you recover from withdrawal symptoms. Some people are very sensitive to the withdrawal process and may have debilitating symptoms, while others may only have a few days of low energy before they feel better.
Ritalin Withdrawal Symptoms: List of Possibilities
Below is a list of possible symptoms that you may experience when you discontinue Ritalin. In general the most common symptoms are fatigue (low energy), depression, and foggy thinking. This list is meant to be used as a reference due to the fact that many doctors suggest there are no withdrawal symptoms.
- Anger: It is common to experience anger to the point of rage when coming off of this drug. This is a drug that helps people maintain self-control by stimulating activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. When you come off of this drug, your brain activity changes leaving you prone to anger spells. Do your best to recognize when you are becoming angry and try to channel it and realize that it’s a result of drug withdrawal.
- Anxiety: Many people experience anxious thinking when they first stop taking Ritalin. This anxiety is typically associated with slow thinking and lower levels of arousal. It also may be linked to decreases in dopamine. If you didn’t have anxiety prior to taking this medication, you should experience full recovery from anxious thinking as your dopamine increases.
- Appetite increase: If you experienced a decrease in appetite while on the drug, your appetite should return when you stop taking it. This increase in appetite may be significant for a few days, but eventually things should stabilize.
- Brain fog: Since this drug is used to improve focus in people with ADHD, it is common to experience brain fog when you stop taking it. This brain fog is associated with lack of focus and inability to concentrate.
- Concentration problems: Most people experience a resurgence of ADHD symptoms including the inability to concentrate. When you initially come off of Ritalin, you may notice that your ability to focus is worse than prior to your initial use of the drug. Your focus will improve over the course of weeks as your dopamine levels increase.
- Cravings: Some individuals experience cravings for this drug after they quit. Usually cravings are associated with people who use it for off-label purposes such as to “get high” and weight loss. Just know that in the first few weeks of withdrawal, you may crave this drug.
- Depression: It is very common to feel very depressed when you stop taking this drug. The reason you feel depressed has to do with decreases in dopamine and norepinephrine. It will take some time for your brain to recover from neurotransmitter changes.
- Dizziness: Many individuals feel dizzy when they stop taking this drug. The dizziness can be relatively minor or pretty significant. Usually this is most severe within the first few days of withdrawal and will gradually improve within a couple weeks.
- Fatigue: This is perhaps the most common withdrawal symptom when stopping Ritalin. Some people have very low energy levels following their last dose. Do not be surprised if you want to sleep all day for the first few days of withdrawal.
- Headaches: Another prevalent symptom during withdrawal is that of headaches. You may notice that you have a pretty wicked headache for the first week or so following your last dose. These headaches will gradually improve as your brain adjusts to functioning without the drug.
- Heart palpitations: Many people notice changes in their heart rate or rhythm when they stop taking this drug. You may notice an abnormal heart beat or feelings as though your heart is pounding.
- Irritability: You may notice that you become very irritable when you first come off of this drug. The irritability may be due to decreased levels of dopamine, which can lead to anger, impulsivity, and irritable moods. Do your best to manage this symptom and recognize that it will get better over time.
- Mood swings: It is common to experience intense mood swings during the first couple weeks of withdrawal. Most people feel depressed, but this depression may be accompanied by anxiety and anger. You may notice that one minute you may feel as though you are through the worst and then you feel depressed again. Just know that changes in mood are common until your brain activity stabilizes.
- Motivation decrease: Most stimulants tend to increase our levels of motivation – making it easier to complete tasks. When you stop taking them, you may experience a period in which your motivation plummets. Realize that it will eventually return to a normal level, but you need to give your body and brain time to repair themselves.
- Nausea: In some cases people actually feel as though they are going to vomit when they stop their Ritalin. Feeling nauseated throughout the first few days has been reported. Typically nausea can be reduced with a more gradual tapering method.
- Panic attacks: If you notice that your anxiety levels are spiking when you initially come off of Ritalin, this may make you prone to bouts of panic. In some cases, people experience fluctuations in arousal, which could lead a person to panic. If you find yourself in this situation, understand that it’s merely a withdrawal phase and that you would likely benefit from some relaxation exercises.
- Psychosis: In relatively rare cases, people experience psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations and delusions when coming off of Ritalin. This is due to changes in dopamine levels and functioning within the brain. In order to prevent this experience, it is recommended to
- Sleep changes: Your sleeping habits may change during your withdrawal. Many people end up sleeping significantly more than they did for the first couple weeks of withdrawal. You may go through periods of alternating insomnia and hypersomnia (i.e. excessive daytime sleepiness).
- Suicidal thinking: The dull depression that most people experience when they come off of Ritalin may lead a person to develop suicidal thinking. Low levels of dopamine may be responsible for a person feeling suicidal as well. If the suicidal thoughts become overwhelming, you may want to seek professional help.
- Tiredness: You will likely feel very tired and sleepy when you first come off of this drug. Your brain and nervous system is no longer receiving the same level of stimulation that it was getting from the drug.
- Vision changes: Some people have reported changes in vision when coming off of this drug. You may notice that your vision becomes blurry for periods of time. Typically this has nothing to do with your actual eyesight and more to do with drug withdrawal.
- Weight gain: While taking Ritalin, many people lose weight as a result of decreased appetite and increased metabolism. When coming off of this drug, it is common to gain some weight. Your metabolism should slow back to normal and your appetite should increase.
Ritalin Withdrawal Duration: How long does it last?
There’s no exact Ritalin withdrawal timeline that can be followed by everyone. The withdrawal period will largely be influence by the dose that you quit from as well as the duration over which you took Ritalin. If you have been taking the drug for years and decided to quit cold turkey, your withdrawal period may last significantly longer than someone who quit after being on the lowest dose for a couple months.
In general though, most people notice that they recover from a majority of symptoms within the first month of withdrawal. As a general rule of thumb, I always suggest that it takes 90 days for proper reevaluation of how you are feeling following your last dose of the drug. By giving yourself three full months, this allows your brain and body some time to heal before you are quick to judge your experience. During this time you should notice some pretty significant improvements in how you are feeling.
There are many lucky people who don’t even notice a withdrawal from Ritalin and there are others who feel better within a matter of a couple weeks. The half-life of the drug is only 3 to 4 hours, indicating that on average, Ritalin stays in your system for less than 24 hours following your final dose. However, just because the drug is out of your system does not mean you won’t go through a withdrawal phase. Some people even experience post-acute withdrawals that persist for months following their last dose.
When withdrawing from any drug, it is always best to trust your own experience. Different people recover at different speeds based on individual factors. Just because people tell you that you should feel 100% after a week or two doesn’t mean that you will. If you have withdrawn from Ritalin (or are in the process of withdrawing) and would like to share your experience, feel free to do so in the comments section below.