The Link Between ADHD and Addiction

Addiction is a problem that knows no boundaries. It affects people from all walks of life, and the results can be devastating. It is estimated that there are 23.5 million people in the United States who are addicted to drugs and alcohol. To put it into perspective, that number equates to about one in 10 Americans aged 12 and older, or the whole population of the state of Texas. If you or a loved one has a substance abuse problem, you’re not alone.

There are various reasons why you can become addicted to drugs and or alcohol. People use these substances when they’re unsatisfied with their lives as a way to escape their hardships or whatever it is that is making them unhappy. Those who suffer from a mental or behavioral health issue, or a physical illness, may also use drugs or alcohol as a way to self-medicate their condition. Whatever the reason for the choice to use drugs or alcohol, over time, excessive use can grow into abuse — and abuse can inevitably grow into an addiction.

One group of individuals likely to use drugs or alcohol is those who have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). If you have ADHD, whether you know it or not, you may begin using a substance because you find it gives you pleasure and helps calm you down. However, as your use progresses, it can — and often does — develop into an addiction.

If you have been diagnosed with ADHD and developed an addiction to a substance, you need specialized professional help. Not only do you need intervention for your addiction, but you also need treatment for your ADHD. If you don’t receive treatment for both, you may not be able to successfully overcome your addiction. You may find that it is difficult to achieve balance and happiness when you’re not using.

This guide provides an in-depth look at the connection between ADHD and addiction. It reviews how ADHD is diagnosed and treated, and explores why addiction often occurs concurrently.

What Is ADHD?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is one of the most prevalent disorders among children in the United States. While it is most common in children, it can be a life-long issue for some adults. If you developed ADHD in childhood, you may not outgrow the condition.

ADHD is a disorder that is marked by one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Difficulty maintaining focus
  • Trouble paying attention
  • Difficulty controlling behavior
  • Hyperactivity (being excessively active)
  • Being easily distracted and missing details
  • Forgetfulness
  • Frequently switching back and forth between activities
  • Frequently becoming bored with a task after only a few minutes of engaging in it, unless the activity is truly enjoyable
  • Struggles in completing tasks
  • Difficulty learning new things
  • Often misplacing things
  • A hard time following instructions
  • Difficulty sitting still
  • Excessive talking
  • A need to be in constant motion
  • Impatience
  • Interrupting conversations or activities of others
  • A difficult time waiting for things

Different Types of ADHD

ADHD is a general term used to describe three different subtypes. The three different subtypes that fall under the ADHD umbrella are:

  1. Predominantly hyperactive-impulsive — To diagnose this type of ADHD, you need to show a minimum of six symptoms. There are less than six symptoms of inattention, though inattention can still present itself.
  2. Predominantly inattentive — At least six of the symptoms lie in the inattention category, and less than six symptoms of hyperactivity-impulsivity are evident, though hyperactivity-impulsivity may still present itself to a certain degree. If you fall under this subtype, you are less inclined to act out. You also aren’t as likely to have difficulties getting along with other children compared to those who fall under the predominantly hyperactive-impulsive subtype.
  3. Combined hyperactive-impulsive and inattentive — There are six or more symptoms of inattention, as well as six or more symptoms of hyperactivity-impulsivity. The majority of those who are classified with ADHD fall under this subtype.

ADHD in Adults

ADHD is a condition that develops in childhood, but it may not be diagnosed until adolescence or adulthood. Even if the condition is identified during childhood, the symptoms can continue into adulthood. It is estimated that approximately four percent of adults in the United States who are over the age of 18 are combating ADHD symptoms on a daily basis.

ADHD in adulthood can cause considerable problems with everyday life. If you suffer from ADHD, you may have trouble holding down a job, maintaining healthy relationships and achieving life goals. With proper treatment, however, these symptoms can be improved, and you can achieve a high quality of life.

Diagnosing ADHD in Adults

Adults who have ADHD most likely had the condition as a child, but it went unnoticed or undiagnosed. Only a medical professional who has training and experience in identifying and treating the condition in adults can diagnose ADHD in adults. Psychiatrists, psychologists, neurologists and general care practitioners are all examples of medical professionals who can evaluate an adult’s symptoms, diagnose the condition and provide treatment.

While there isn’t one specific test that healthcare practitioners can use to diagnose ADHD in adults, generally they look for signs and symptoms — along with performing a physical exam — to identify the condition in adults. The symptoms they look for include:

  • Impulsive behavior
  • Feelings of restlessness
  • Difficulty completing tasks
  • Inability to stay organized
  • A low tolerance for frustration
  • Frequent mood swings
  • Aggravation that’s easily roused
  • Difficulty coping with stress
  • Unstable relationships or inability to maintain a relationship

When you visit your doctor, it’s important you share your concerns with him. This includes any mental or behavioral health issues you are experiencing. When you get the right diagnosis, you can get the right treatment and enjoy a better life.

Treatment for ADHD in Adults

Treatment for ADHD in adults mirrors the treatment that children receive, though there may be slight differences. For example, stimulant medications are common treatments, but they have different dosages for adults. Psychological counseling may also be helpful depending on the age of the individual and severity of the attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. During counseling, you can develop coping mechanisms that help you control or mitigate your symptoms of ADHD.

ADHD in Children

It is not unusual for children to daydream, have a hard time paying attention, do things without thinking and get “ants in their pants.” However, while these may not be uncommon for children, they could also be signs of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

To help children who suffer from ADHD cope with the condition, it’s necessary for parents and educators to be aware of the signs and symptoms of the condition.

What are the signs and symptoms of ADHD in children, when daydreaming, restlessness and having a hard time paying attention aren’t unusual for children? If children are excessively exhibiting these types of behaviors, or they seem to be daydreaming more than they are paying attention, for example, they should be assessed. If their behavior is affecting their school life or relationships with friends and family, those are also signs they may have ADHD. If they are not reaching their developmental milestones, you may want to explore the possibility of ADHD.

Diagnosing ADHD in Children

Just as with adults, there isn’t one specific test to diagnose ADHD in children. Diagnosing the condition is a process that requires several steps. A medical professional will assess the child and gather information from several sources, including parents and teachers, to make a proper diagnosis.

The following signs and symptoms are typical of children with ADHD:

  • The inability to sit still for even short periods of time and the need to be in constant motion
  • Excessive squirming
  • Having a hard time listening
  • Talking excessively on a regular basis
  • Interrupting others on a regular basis
  • Being easily distracted
  • Having difficulty staying on task
  • Having a hard time staying organized

Based on the assessment of the medical professional and the information that they gather from others directly involved with the child — such as parents, teachers and counselors — they can make a diagnosis. If a child shows six or more symptoms on a regular basis for a minimum of 6 months and in at least two different settings, the child will likely be diagnosed with the condition.

Treatment for ADHD in Children

By diagnosing ADHD early, kids can get the help they need to succeed in school and life. Treatment plans can involve several methods, including:

  • Medications that can improve concentration and focus, such as Ritalin and Adderall
  • Enrollment in special-education programs
  • Psychological intervention
  • Behavioral therapy

These aren’t the only options for treating ADHD in children. There is evidence that illustrates eating a well-balanced diet, exercise and playing outside can help a child control the symptoms of ADHD.

Causes of ADHD

Though scientists and medical professionals have been trying to pinpoint the cause of ADHD for a long time, no specific factor has been identified as the cause of the condition. However, it is thought that ADHD stems from interactions between an individual’s genes and environmental factors.

ADHD commonly runs in families. It is largely thought that those who develop the condition have a genetic predisposition to it. In other words, if someone in your family has ADHD, there is a chance that others in the family may also develop it.

There are also non-genetic factors that are thought to contribute to the development of the condition. The following environmental factors may increase a child’s risk of developing ADHD:

  • A mother who smoked or drank during pregnancy
  • Complications at birth
  • A very low birth weight
  • Exposure to toxic substances, such as lead
  • Extreme abuse, neglect or social deprivation
  • Exposure to high levels of food additives, such as artificial coloring

Medications Used to Treat ADHD

Medications are often used to control the signs and symptoms of ADHD in both children and adults. There are several different forms of medications that are used for treatment, including:

  • Short-acting or immediate-release medications — These medications work quickly to control the symptoms of the condition, but they can also wear off quickly. They may need to be taken several times a day.
  • Intermediate-acting medications — These are effective for a longer period than short-acting medications.
  • Long-acting medications — Typically, these only need to be taken once a day.


Stimulants have been used to treat the side effects of ADHD for decades. They can help you focus and can keep distractions at bay. They are used for the treatment of both moderate and severe ADHD. Stimulants include:

  • Amphetamine sulfate
  • Dextroamphetamine
  • Dexmethylphenidate
  • Lisdexamfetamine
  • Methylphenidate

While stimulant medications generally work well, they can produce some unpleasant side effects — and they don’t always work.

Non-stimulant medications

These medications can also improve concentration, and they can improve impulse control, too. Non-stimulant medications include:

  • Atomoxetine
  • Clonidine
  • Guanfacine

Other Medications

Stimulants and non-stimulants aren’t the only medications that can be used to manage the side effects of ADHD. In cases where these medications don’t work, the following medications may be used:

  • Amitriptyline
  • Bupropion
  • Escitalopram
  • Venlafaxine

ADHD and Drug Addiction

If you have been diagnosed with ADHD, you have an increased likelihood of developing an addiction to drugs or alcohol. As far as ADHD and addiction statistics go, adults with ADHD are five to 10 times more likely to develop an addiction to alcohol than those adults who do not have the condition. Additionally, the rate of ADHD in adults who are being treated for alcohol or substance abuse is an estimated 25 percent.

Children with ADHD are more likely to abuse alcohol at an early age than children who do not have the condition. One study found that 14 percent of children between the ages of 5 and 17 who were diagnosed with ADHD had abused alcohol or became dependent as adults.

Addiction in Adults With Undiagnosed ADHD

There is a strong correlation between alcohol and drug addiction and adults who have undiagnosed ADHD. In other words, adults who have ADHD, but have not been diagnosed, are more likely to develop an addiction than adults who do not have ADHD or adults who have ADHD that has been diagnosed. There have been several studies that have shown the connection between attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and the risk for developing an addiction to drugs or alcohol.

One study found that more than 15 percent of adults who have ADHD abused or were addicted to alcohol or drugs. Those individuals who use or abuse substances of an illicit nature do so because they have not received proper treatment for ADHD, and that is usually because they do not know they have the condition. As a result, these individuals often tend to use or abuse drugs or alcohol to medicate themselves and control the side effects of the condition.

In another study, researchers analyzed the progress of children who were diagnosed with severe childhood attention deficit hyperactivity disorder as they grew into teenagers. The researchers found that those who suffered from severe ADHD as children were more likely to develop alcohol and substance abuse problems than their peers who did not have the condition. These individuals had a higher frequency of getting drunk, and they also had an earlier and heavier use of tobacco and other drugs. The results of this study are pertinent because they indicate that ADHD is a risk factor for substance abuse and addiction.

Why Are ADHD and Addiction Linked?

This is a complex question and one that researchers have been trying to answer. Do the side effects of ADHD lead to addiction, or do the treatments for ADHD — the medications — lead to substance abuse?

There is research that suggests those with ADHD may be more inclined to turn to drugs as a way to make up for the deficit of dopamine in their brains. Those with ADHD have lower levels of dopamine in their brains, and drugs and alcohol may help balance this.

Some researchers have also questioned whether the medications used to treat ADHD — namely, stimulants — cause patients to develop a pattern that leads to substance abuse. The idea behind this belief is that the medications used to treat ADHD are substances, and as such, the patient may be more inclined to use other substances as a result of the regular use of ADHD medications. They may also build a tolerance to their medication, requiring increasingly higher amounts. Many of the medications used to treat ADHD have addictive properties, making it difficult for someone suffering from ADHD to stop using the drugs, even when their symptoms improve. Researchers are still examining the link between medications for ADHD and addiction.

Treating Both ADHD and Addiction

Treatment for ADHD and addiction involves a dual diagnosis. For optimal treatment for addiction, treatment for ADHD must also be integrated. Treatment must be customized for your unique needs. For example, if you have ADHD, it may be difficult for you to sit through a 12-step session without help.

For the treatment for attention deficit disorder and substance abuse addiction to occur alongside one another, a dual diagnosis should be made. ADHD and the substance abuse both need to be identified and diagnosed, and then treatment for both conditions can proceed.

The treatments to control the symptoms associated with ADHD may include medications, including the ones previously mentioned (stimulants and non-stimulants.) However, treatment can also include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy — During cognitive behavioral therapy, you work with a therapist to determine the underlying stressors that are triggering your desire and need to use substances. Your therapist can then recommend methods to treat the addiction, offering healthy alternatives to manage the stressors that are leading to your use of drugs and alcohol.
  • Peer Recovery — In peer recovery, people who have struggled with addiction and achieved long-term sobriety design and deliver the treatment. Peer recovery can be a highly effective tool for treating addiction. Programs that include peer recovery can help people with addictions abstain from substance abuse, including those who also suffer from ADHD.
  • Lifestyle modifications — Following a stringent exercise program and consuming a well-balanced diet can prove helpful in managing both the symptoms of addiction and ADHD.
    Though there is a correlation between ADHD and addiction, with the right intervention and the proper treatments for both conditions, you can live a life without substance abuse, while learning effective ways to handle the symptoms related to your ADHD.

12 Keys Rehab: Specializing in Dual Diagnosis

Dual diagnosis is a specialized form of treatment that not all addiction centers are qualified to perform. At 12 Keys, our compassionate staff is experienced in dual diagnosis.

We’ll start by reviewing your symptoms, medical history and any medications you are currently taking. We’ll create a customized treatment plan for your specific needs, challenges, goals and interests. With a range of treatment modalities, from time-tested cognitive behavioral therapy to evidence-based therapies such as EMDR, we help you heal on every level: physically, psychologically, emotionally and spiritually. You’ll get the help you need to treat your ADHD symptoms — whether that means the right medications, non-medication-based therapies or a combination — with the healing you need to overcome your addiction.

If you are affected by both ADHD and addiction, contact 12 Keys Rehab to start your journey to a balanced and healthy lifestyle.

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