Those who live with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or substance use disorder (SUD) know that these conditions can greatly impact daily life. Further, living with both conditions can create an overwhelming situation. This is why understanding the link between ADHD and addiction and the importance of treating both together is essential.

Understanding ADHD

ADHD is associated with significant issues in attention and hyperactivity that detrimentally impact an individual’s life. This disorder begins in childhood, but it is by no means only limited to children. Adults can continue to struggle with symptoms of ADHD long after having been diagnosed in childhood. They can also be diagnosed for the first time in adulthood, although they would have likely demonstrated symptoms as a child as well. When diagnosed in childhood, ADHD is diagnosed more often in boys than in girls. 

Signs and Symptoms of ADHD

To be diagnosed with ADHD, an individual needs to exhibit a certain number of symptoms in at least two settings. This means that an individual’s symptoms must affect their ability to function in different areas of their life. If someone only struggles with inattention at work or school but is otherwise unaffected at home or in the rest of their life, a proper diagnosis may not be made. 

Certain individuals with ADHD can predominantly struggle with symptoms of inattention while others are more affected by symptoms of hyperactivity. It is also possible for someone to have an ADHD presentation that carries both sets of symptoms. In childhood, symptoms tend to vary by sex, as boys are more likely to present with hyperactive symptoms.

According to the National Insitute of Mental Health (NIMH), symptoms of ADHD can include:

  • Struggling with time management
  • Difficulties with maintaining concentration over long periods of time
  • Forgetfulness that interferes with important activities
  • Frequently misplacing or losing items
  • Being disorganized
  • Difficulties with carrying out instructions
  • Becoming distracted
  • Difficulties staying engaged while listening to others
  • Needing to move around or fidget while sitting
  • Difficulties refraining from interrupting others during a conversation
  • Feeling restless
  • Exhibiting abnormal amounts of energy
  • Excessive movement and talking

The Connection Between ADHD and Addiction

Having ADHD can put an individual at a greater risk of developing SUD and addiction. In fact, ADHD doubles the risk of substance abuse. Not only are those with ADHD more likely to also have co-occurring SUD, but they are also more likely to experience an earlier onset of this condition as well as more severe symptoms. Moreover, individuals with ADHD who smoke appear to be at an elevated risk of developing SUD.

Self-Medicating Practices

One potential link between these two conditions is the concept of self-medicating. Inevitably, ADHD brings forth distressing symptoms that can be hard to cope with. Inattention and hyperactivity can negatively impact performance at work and school as well as strain relationships. Individuals confronted by these stressors might turn to drugs and alcohol to temporarily reduce stress and elevate their mood. This creates a vicious cycle where substance use can create even more issues in an individual’s life. When substance use occurs in this setting, emotional and physical dependency can develop. 

Biological Vulnerabilities

In addition to this behavioral connection, ADHD and SUD also share biological similarities. Some studies suggest that certain neurological deficits seen in people ADHD are also seen in people with SUD. The brains of people with ADHD tend to have decreased volume of the frontal cortex. This is the area of the brain that handles impulsivity, which is something that is an issue in both ADHD and substance abuse. 

Furthermore, ADHD and addiction are linked due to their association with dopamine levels in the brain. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter involved with the brain’s “reward system.” This reward system becomes altered with repeated drug use in addiction, making an individual more vulnerable to developing SUD.

It is important to note something that does not connect ADHD and substance abuse: the use of stimulant medications in the treatment of ADHD. It is a common misconception that using prescription medications like Adderall and Ritalin under the supervision of a physician will elevate the risk of that person developing an addiction. However, when medications are used as directly as prescribed by a doctor, an individual should experience no increased risk of developing an addiction. 

Treating Co-Occurring Conditions

Treatment for ADHD generally entails the use of stimulants to control symptoms. Therapy can also be used to augment pharmacological treatment and address the emotional and social repercussions of the disorder. Working with a therapist can help someone develop better coping skills and strategies for success at school and work.

Early intervention is crucial for any disorder that commonly co-occurs alongside addiction, and this is the same with ADHD. Working with a licensed clinician to manage the symptoms can help reduce the risk of developing an addiction or experiencing worsening symptoms. Further, both ADHD and addiction must be treated in tandem to ensure lasting sobriety and recovery.

There are many disorders that commonly occur alongside substance use disorder and make treatment more complex. One of these comorbid disorders is ADHD. Although it it common in children, people of all ages can experience it. Further, it is important to take action to treat both conditions together. Working with a licensed clinician who understands the importance of treating co-occurring disorders can help make your recovery more seamless even as you learn to navigate two mental health conditions. At Family-Centered Services, our team is prepared to meet the unique needs of your family with our comprehensive array of services including individual and family therapy, case management, and sober monitoring. Call us at (509) 991-5822 to get started.