The Surprising Relationship Between ADHD and Addiction
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Addiction and ADHD

Modern life is distracting. Our computers, phones, and loved ones all clamor for our attention from the moment we get up to the second we drift off into sleep. When we’re not paying attention to that chatter, we have magazines and billboards and televisions hoping for a slice of our time.

Multitasking is a crucial skill, as is the ability to focus intently during rare, uninterrupted moments. You’ll use them to move past all of the distractions so you can get things done.

For someone with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), both organization and focus are impaired.

As writers for Pacific Standard point out, that can lead to real issues. In the workplace, for example, most people feel a touch disorganized at 8 a.m. on Monday, but for someone with ADHD, that sense of aimlessness is constant. 

Research suggests that some people deal with the distress by turning to alcohol or drugs. There is a better way.

kid with adhd

Isn’t ADHD Just for Kids?

Many people think of ADHD as a childhood disorder. In reality, this is a condition that can persist into adulthood, although the signs and symptoms may shift with age.

Young people with ADHD struggle with school. They may:

  • Fidget. Wandering around the classroom, skipping naps, or flapping hands are all common signs.
  • Interrupt. Listening to another person speak can feel excruciating. Kids may interject with their own ideas.
  • Act up. Restlessness and confusion can build until the child erupts with activity or anger.
  • Perform poorly. It’s hard to complete homework when restlessness attacks at night.
  • Isolate. Children can be cruel, and kids with ADHD make easy targets. They’re often in trouble with teachers, and they have poor social skills.

Treatment works, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only about half of all kids ages 2 to 17 got care for their symptoms.

As kids age, their restlessness and hyperactivity may fade. But the inability to focus or complete tasks can persist. Adults can lose their jobs, their marriages, and custody of their children due to their unusual brain activity.

Why Don’t Kids Get Help?

If we know that ADHD moves from childhood to adulthood, it makes sense to offer treatment early. Kids who get care can become grownups with the skills needed to keep the disease in check. Unfortunately, the medications used to help people with ADHD can frighten some parents.

ADHD is caused by unusual chemicals and strange electrical activity in the brain. Stimulant medications like Ritalin and Concerta correct those problems. Rather than increasing a sense of stimulation, they tend to calm the mind and allow people to really home in on what they’re doing.

Some people worry that giving stimulants to kids means raising adults with addictions. In reality, the opposite is true.

Extensive research from UCLA suggests that kids treated for ADHD don’t grow into adults with substance abuse problems. They may develop medication side effects, but addiction isn’t one of them.

Unfortunately, kids and adults who don’t get treatment for ADHD can develop habits that up the odds of addiction development.

adhd

What Happens Without Care?

People with ADHD know they need to get things done, and they may also know that their personal skills aren’t helping them to connect with others. But they may be completely unable to change the way they think or behave, and they may lean on substances of abuse as they search for solutions.

A researcher quoted for the magazine ADDitude says he’s found that people with ADHD use addictive substances as a form of self-medication. They use the drugs to:

  • Boost a low mood.
  • Sleep through the night.
  • Calm the brain.
  • Overcome boredom.

People with ADHD could use almost any substance of abuse, but typically, they lean on stimulants. For example, research in the journal Pediatrics suggests that people with ADHD are twice as likely to have a history of tobacco use compared to people without it, and they’re three times as likely to be dependent on nicotine in adolescence or adulthood.

Overall, researchers said, people with ADHD are 2.5 times more likely to develop a substance abuse issue than people without ADHD.

Research from the American Psychiatric Association says 2.5 percent of adults have ADHD, so this isn’t a small problem. If most of these people move on to develop substance abuse issues or addictions, the cost to public health could be massive.

And yet, there are many people with ADHD who just aren’t aware that treatment works. There are others with addictions complicating ADHD who don’t know they can get better.

woman with stress

ADHD and Addiction Care

People with ADHD and addictions have two conditions that intertwine and strengthen one another. Few treatment programs aim to disentangle them. Instead, the goal of treatment is to address the person as a whole and deal with all the issues that cause pain and distress.

Researchers writing for The American Journal on Addictions say that a combined treatment approach is ideal. ADHD symptoms interfere with addiction recovery, and ongoing substance abuse may impede work done in therapy.

Consider this: If you’re using alcohol to blunt ADHD symptoms, your mental health condition may make it hard for you to resist the temptation to stop by a bar on the way to therapy. If you arrive to your session drunk, you will not be able to focus on what your team tells you.

By combining therapy approaches, treatment teams hope to ease addiction signs and boost control, so you’ll make progress in your recovery.

Behavioral therapy, in which the decisions you make about your actions are examined and changed, is a cornerstone of care. You’ll meet with your doctor to:

  • Identify the triggers that make ADHD symptoms worse.
  • Assess the decisions you typically make in response to a trigger.
  • Experiment with different choices to find one that works better.
  • Adjust daily habits so there are fewer triggers present on any given day.

Those same steps can be used to amend drug use habits. Perhaps you’ll discover that certain friends make drug use seem reasonable, while others help you stay calm. And you may find that breathing exercises work better than smoking to calm your mind.

Group therapy and support group meetings may be an essential part of your recovery process too. As the Attention Deficit Disorder Association points out, ADHD can be isolating. It’s hard to explain why you interrupt or why you must walk out of difficult conversations. Sitting in a room filled with other people who understand what the disease is like and who don’t judge your decisions can be a transformative experience.

In group therapy, you all work together with a counselor. In support group meetings, you work to help one another understand and grow without a clinical presence available.

Can You Prevent ADHD?

If you’re living with ADHD now, you may wonder if there’s something you can shift to keep your kids from getting it. And if you have an addiction and no ADHD now, you may hope there’s something you can do to prevent the other problem from forming.

Research from the National Alliance on Mental Illness says ADHD develops due to the interplay of:

  • Genes.
  • Substance abuse during pregnancy.
  • Environmental toxin exposure during youth.
  • Low birth weight.
  • Brain injuries.

Many of these risk factors can’t be prevented. You can’t turn back the clock and keep your mom from smoking, for example. But you can help to ensure that your unborn children have the best environment possible as they grow. You can look for ways to keep your body safe, so you’ll have no head injuries to harm you.

If you do have ADHD, it’s important to remember that it can be treated. It’s a serious disorder, and it can cause distress. But with the help of the right treatment team, you can learn to control troubling symptoms without the use of alcohol or drugs. When you do that, you’re creating a healthier, happier life for everyone around you.

If you have ADHD, get help now. If you love someone with ADHD, help that person to reach out. The sooner you get help, the better.


The Addicted Generation. (July 2016). Pacific Standard.

National Prevalence of ADHD and Treatment: New Statistics for Children and Adolescents. (September 2018). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Truth About ADHD and Addiction. (February 2007). ADDitude.

Treatment Strategies for Co-Occurring ADHD and Substance Use Disorders. (2007). The American Journal on Addictions.

ADHD: The Facts. Attention Deficit Disorder Association.

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): The Basics. National Institute of Mental Health.

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