A Guide to ADHD and Addiction

Recently, a survey discovered that over 15% of adults with ADHD abused alcohol or drugs within the last year.

When you consider that the rate for adults without that diagnosis is only a third of that, it becomes an alarming statistic. Clearly, illicit substances are an issue for people with ADHD.

But why are ADHD and addiction linked so closely?

Contrary to popular belief, ADHD medication isn't a gateway drug. People with treated ADHD are less likely to abuse drugs than those who went untreated.

So what is it?

Read on to learn more about ADHD and addiction, what could be behind it, and how to prevent it from happening to you or someone you love.

What is ADHD?

ADHD is Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. It involves a chronic inability to pay attention and excessive hyperactivity that makes it hard for the person affected to focus on the things that they need to do. These people become easily distracted and hard to control.

In general, the inability to pay attention tends to look like the person just can't stay on task, that they don't have the persistence to finish a job, and that they're disorganized. Children have a hard time in school and adults have a hard time with their self-image and problems at work and in relationships.

Hyperactivity is a physical activity to the extreme. These people can't stop themselves from moving around, even when it's not okay to do so. Children will talk a lot and fidget around, and adults appear constantly restless.

The impulsive part of ADHD has to do with making rash choices and engaging in risky behavior. People with this disorder have to have a reward for behavior immediately, and they absolutely cannot delay gratification for even a second. Both children and adults will interrupt others and have no regards to the consequences of their actions.

Some experts believe that it's caused by the frontal lobe of the brain being less active than usual. This is the part of the brain that controls thinking, problem-solving, attention, memory and organization.

And all of these things are usually exactly what people with ADHD Tend to struggle with.

Why Does This Happen?

Addiction isn't a simple disease. You aren't addicted just because you use a certain drug or medication a lot. In that same vein, you're NOT addicted if you only use it occasionally.

When something starts to affect your relationships, your work, your health, and your standing with the law, it becomes abuse. You can use the old AA adage here "if alcohol has ever caused a problem, you have a problem with alcohol."

In the study we mentioned before, only 30% of the people surveyed said that they used illicit substances to get high. Most of them used it as a mood booster, a sleep aid, or some other form of self-medication.

This was especially prominent among people who's ADHD went undiagnosed. This is because as we age, the outwardly hyperactive side of ADHD tends to go away. But our brains continue to seek constant stimulation, bouncing around just as hyper as ever.

Alcohol and ADHD

So they turn to alcohol for self-medication. It slows their brain down enough that they can actually get their work done.

Alcohol is a depressant, which is why people use it to unwind. But alcohol actually causes a lot of the same issues that ADHD does: it affects memory function, impulse control, and the ability to pay attention. It actually makes it more difficult for people to focus.

And while this is usually not too harmful in a person with a "normal" functioning brain, it actually causes a person with ADHD to reach a dangerous state of mind, making it much easier for them to binge drink.

Also, people with ADHD tend to be impulsive, have trouble with judgment calls, and have a certain degree of social awkwardness. Unfortunately, this usually leads to overindulgence without regards to consequence.

Another factor that relates ADHD to addiction is their success rate in school. They tend to be less successful than people who don't have the disorder, and even if they make it through college, they tend to make much less.

The Likelihood of Abuse

People with ADHD, up until they turn 15, are no more are less likely to try drugs or alcohol.

But, after that point, the numbers become unmanageable. Over half of people who aren't treated for ADHD developing a dependence on a drug after the age of 15.

And anything can trigger this at any point in their lives. A particularly stressful time, like having a child, can lead to substance abuse.

How to Prevent It

The drugs that are used to treat ADHD are methylphenidate and amphetamines. Those are controlled substances, so that means they're probably not the best for people with a predisposition to drug abuse, right?

Actually, that isn't the case.

When a person with ADHD takes their medicine the way the doctor prescribes, they are much less likely to abuse medications or alcohol.

The most effective way of avoiding addiction n a person with ADHD is to treat the disorder entirely and early. Also, early intervention is key.

If your child has ADHD, talk to them now about the dangers of addiction and explain to them how they might have more of an issue with substance abuse then their friends. Teach them to avoid all drug use and wait until they're an adult to drink.

The good news is that exercise can help. Regular exercise and physical challenges help the brain stay stimulated and keep them from becoming bored.

While it is essential that someone with ADHD uses their medication, it needs to be done appropriately. Ensure that you or your child never take more than the recommended dose of medication and that it is only ever taken exactly as prescribed.

However, it's not the ADHD medication that is the problem, most of the time. Alcohol and other illicit drugs are an issue for people with untreated ADHD. Here are some of the signs to look out for:

  • A decline in school performance

  • Becoming isolated and withdrawn

  • Excessive fatigue

  • Poor hygiene

  • Change in friends

  • Increased moodiness

  • A "spaced out" look

  • Burning through cash

  • Stealing the alcohol in the house

As we mentioned before, a parent should talk about substance abuse with their children early on. They should talk to their kids about their friends and their behaviors. Are they smoking cigarettes? Is there ever alcohol involved?

If you find out that there are, talk about your concerns with your child. Make sure they understand that their disorder and the medication they take for it make it very dangerous to engage in that sort of activity.

Also, make sure they keep their medications private. While there's nothing wrong with having ADHD, their medications may be highly sought after.

Two Treatments

When a person has both ADHD and addiction, they both become a lot harder to treat. The plain truth is that they can't treat their addiction until their ADHD is under control. And ADHD is hard to control while in the active stages of addiction.

As we mentioned before, some people are concerned about stimulants being prescribed to children and the fact that they release serotonin and dopamine that trigger addiction.

However, people with ADHD don't respond the same way to these stimulants. And when they are also in therapy, this medication works to help them control themselves.

Addiction Treatment

The best way to go about treating this dual diagnosis is to allow the addict to get sober for a few months. Let them deal with their addiction and stay sober, preferably in a rehabilitation facility. And then, once they have been clean for a while, introduce ADHD control.

This is mostly because you can't tell if the ADHD medicine is working while someone is still displaying the signs of addiction, or if they're intoxicated.

Luckily, the treatment for addiction is the same across the board, no matter what a person's ADHD status is. Going to 12-step programs and therapy are both wonderful resources. Just be aware that some 12-step programs frown on "mind-altering" substances and might try to tell the addict not to take that medication.

Don't follow that advice. Treating your ADHD is paramount in treating your addiction.

ADHD Treatment

When doctors attempt to treat ADHD in an addict, they usually try to do it without the help of stimulants first. They're safer for an addict to take, even if they aren't as effective.

Other doctors will use a time-release version of the typical stimulants used to treat ADHD because they're less likely to be abused.

Also, there are some non-medical ways to control ADHD. These don't replace the need for medication, but rather improve on medication's ability to treat the disorder.

People with ADHD should maintain a routine and make lists so that they stay on task throughout the day. Calendars and planners are excellent tools to do this.

They should also keep their things organized and put their most important things in critical places. Keys and bills should be placed in the same place every time, so they're easier to find.

Also, they should break their bigger tasks up into much smaller ones. This makes everything more easy to manage and allows them to finish the smaller pieces on time rather than worrying about a large project all at once.

Maintaining Sobriety

Often, getting sober isn't as difficult as staying sober is. But people with ADHD have to be extra vigilant about continuing to use their prescribed medication. They're naturally more likely to be impulsive and tend to give into stress more easily.

Treatment options vary in success rate between individual addicts. If a 12-step program seems to work, use it. If that doesn't seem to be enough, don't hesitate to talk to a doctor about additional therapy. Medical professionals use cognitive behavioral therapy to treat both ADHD and substance abuse.

Lifestyle Change

It's important that an addict changes their life to maintain their sobriety. They need to take extra steps to ensure that they don't fall into any of the extreme emotional or physical categories.

This is known as the HALT strategy. It stands for:

  • Hunger: Avoid feeling too hungry. Eat complete meals and snacks, and limit caffeine and sugar intake. Healthy foods are key here.

  • Anger: Manage emotions and talk about resentments.

  • Loneliness: Reach out to a support system and make friends away from those that use drugs and alcohol.

  • Tired: Get plenty of sleep and if sleep issues arise, talk to your doctor.

Relapse usually isn't something that just happens out of nowhere; it's something that starts small and snowballs out of control. There are usually signs to look out for before an addict hits the rehab stage.

If they start to seem more restless or irritable than usual, or if they are having a hard time sleeping, writing these feelings down and talking about them at meetings is incredibly helpful to get grounded again.

It's also important to have a plan in place in case these feelings start to arise. When a craving comes along, the addict should feel comfortable calling their support system and their coach to talk them back down to earth.

ADHD and Addiction - Drawing the Line

ADHD and addiction aren't always linked. There are plenty of perfectly high-functioning people with ADHD who never turn to addiction to get them through their lives. However, usually, this is because they treated their disorder and can function properly in their day to day lives.

If you find out that your child with ADHD has developed a substance abuse problem, be proactive. Take the steps that you need to ensure that they will be able to get clean and stay clean while treating their disorder.

For more information about addiction and treatment options, visit us today.