Untangling the Connection: Exploring the Link Between ADHD and Addiction

Blair Sharp Freelance Writer at Recovery Unplugged

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Blair Sharp

Living with ADHD and addiction together is a very real struggle for many people. Let’s explore the connection between these two, what you need to know, and the real-life impact they can have on your life.

What is ADHD?

ADHD stands for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. People with ADHD may have trouble focusing, paying attention, and acting before thinking. But that’s not all there is to it.

ADHD is more common than you might imagine. It affects kids and adults but can show up differently for different people.

ADHD in children has three subtypes: inattentive, hyperactive/impulsive, and combined. Symptoms vary from forgetfulness to inability to sit still and focus.

The diagnostic criteria for ADHD, as listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR), were initially developed for children. However, a small percentage (up to 10%) of individuals experience an onset of symptoms later in life.

Adult ADHD

ADHD can show up well into adulthood, bringing its own set of unique challenges. Although it’s common for all adults to experience some symptoms of ADHD during their busy lives, adult ADHD is more than forgetting your car keys once in a while. 

Mayo Clinic lists the following as possible symptoms:

  • Impulsiveness
  • Disorganization and problems prioritizing
  • Poor time management skills
  • Problems focusing on a task
  • Trouble multitasking
  • Excessive activity or restlessness
  • Poor planning
  • Low frustration tolerance
  • Frequent mood swings
  • Problems following through and completing tasks
  • Hot temper
  • Trouble coping with stress

When to see a doctor

If any of the symptoms above cause a regular disruption in your daily life, consider discussing your concerns with your primary physician.

Your doctor should do a few things to confirm your diagnosis. They could ask you to have a physical check-up, talk about your medical history and symptoms you’ve been having, have you fill out some questionnaires, or do tests to check your thinking and memory.

In a 2023 ADDitude magazine article, Dr. Russell Barkley, Ph.D., said, “The onset of ADHD symptoms in people’s lives can occur at any point in time.” He adds that most people can’t accurately define when symptoms began, many being off by several years or more, making age an unreliable diagnostic criterion.  

Advocating for yourself is vital to getting the support and help you need. Whether it’s talking to a doctor, therapist, or other trusted person in your life, sharing your concerns and seeking guidance is an essential step toward understanding and managing ADHD, especially if you also struggle with addiction.

The ADHD Brain and Addiction

The frontal lobe is part of your brain that deals with things like impulse control, your ability to self-monitor your actions, and problem-solving. And it’s one part of your brain affected by heavy substance use.

Blame the dopamine

Dopamine plays a crucial role in our mental well-being. However, when it comes to ADHD, things can get a bit complicated. People with ADHD may have lower dopamine levels than those with neurotypical brains.

Some individuals with ADHD might turn to addictive substances in an attempt to feel better or improve their focus. It’s as though their ADHD brains are searching for a quick fix to alleviate their symptoms. Sadly, this shortcut doesn’t provide lasting relief.

It’s a tricky cycle to break. When you use drugs or alcohol, your brain gets a rush of dopamine. Naturally, you want more of that and start consuming more. Over time, this repeated behavior increases the risk of developing an addiction.

Risk Factors for ADHD and Addiction

Having ADHD doesn’t mean you’ll struggle with addiction, but it does make it more likely. If you have ADHD, you must also be careful when using substances recreationally; it can be a slippery slope into an addictive cycle. Self-awareness can help you make smarter choices and get needed support. 

Some things that can make addiction more likely:

Your genes

You inherit your genes from your biological parents. They determine characteristics like hair and eye color, height, and even how your brain processes the world around you. 

If someone in your family, like your biological parents, grandparents, or siblings, has substance issues, your risk for addiction increases compared to someone without those genes.

Your environment

Where you grow up has much to do with who you are; this is true for your mental health, too. If you grew up in a home or around people who used drugs or alcohol, you are at a higher risk of developing addiction. 

Your mental health

If you struggle with other mental health issues like depression or anxiety, in addition to ADHD, it can cause you to be more likely to struggle with addiction. People who struggle with mental health often use substances to cope. When in reality, they may amplify or worsen your symptoms. 

The age you start using

As you grow, your brain continues to develop. If you start experimenting with drugs or alcohol at a young age, those substances can interfere with that development, and you’re at a higher risk for addiction. Kids with ADHD who haven’t been diagnosed or lack the proper support may use substances to relieve their symptoms.

Tips for Managing Both

Even though ADHD and addiction often happen together, there are ways to tackle them together too.

Get professional help

Consider seeking help from a professional who specializes in ADHD and addiction. People who struggle with both can live fulfilling lives with the proper coping strategies and other support.

If you’re considering addiction treatment or mental health therapy, inform your treatment team that you have ADHD, as this information could change how they provide information and teach you how to manage your recovery. 

Set routines

Routines are a big help for people with ADHD and those who struggle with addiction. So, if you struggle with both, routines will be crucial. 

The nice part about routines is that they’re predictable. If you create a simple routine for yourself, you don’t need to worry about what will happen next. It’s like having a plan that you can follow without any surprises.

Find healthy hobbies

Many people who use drugs or alcohol have difficulty finding healthy ways to spend their time. And in early recovery, it can feel like you have so much time to fill, making you feel a little uneasy. 

As you set your routines, consider what fun things you want to do. Try a new hobby or pick up an old one you loved doing before addiction took over your life. 

Use medication

Medication is the most effective ADHD treatment available. It’s common for doctors to prescribe ADHD medication to help manage symptoms like focus, task management, or task-switching. 

Be sure to inform your doctor that you struggle with addiction, as this may impact the dosage or type of medication they prescribe. And be sure to use all medication exactly as prescribed, no more, no less. If you’re worried about taking medication as someone who struggles with substances, let your doctor know, and they’ll discuss other options. 

Make healthy lifestyle choices

Getting good sleep, eating nutritious foods, and regular body movement are all ways to keep your brain and body healthy. Think of these simple things as building blocks of your overall well-being.

Don’t worry, you don’t need to be too strict. There’s room for sweets, staying up later than usual, and laying on the couch all day too. But the more you put together the proper healthy building blocks, the easier it is for you to build a healthy, well-rounded life.

Seek support from friends and family

Surround yourself with supportive friends and family who can support you when needed. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or for someone to listen to you when you are struggling. Use the people around you as encouragement to keep going even when things are tough. 

On the flip side, it’s OK to distance yourself from people who aren’t supportive. Try to set boundaries if your friends or family are pressuring you or don’t understand your goals. Doing so can protect you from negativity and keep you safe, especially in early recovery. Remember, you’re doing this for you, not for them, and they may never understand that. 

Find a community

Struggling with addiction and mental health can be a very lonely experience. Your brain sends you specific signals in both, and you’re probably wondering if anyone else feels the same. Finding others who “get it” is a great way to ease those isolated feelings during recovery.

You can find support groups in your area or online. And some treatment facilities have post-treatment programs for you to connect with others and gain support.

Having ADHD and addiction is challenging, but it’s possible to overcome the unique obstacles posed by both and lead a fulfilling life. Remember, you’re not alone, and asking for help is not a sign of weakness.

With the proper support, strategies, and mindset, you can embrace all that makes you who you are and create a bright future for yourself. Trust us, it’s worth it.

We take our music-focused treatment for addiction very seriously, so we are going to hold our content to the same precision standards. Recovery Unplugged’s editorial process involves our editing safeguard and our ideals. Read our Editorial Process.

Blair Sharp

Blair is an esteemed writer and sobriety advocate with a background in psychometry. She blends academic expertise with personal narratives to offer valuable guidance for those navigating the path to sobriety.

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