The Relationship Between ADHD & Addiction

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According to the CDC, about 9.4% of American children have ever been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder4. This is a disorder that can continue into adulthood. By some estimates, 4.4% of American adults have ADHD7.

Researchers and clinicians have found that people with ADHD are more likely to develop substance use problems than people who don’t have the disorder. Although individuals with ADHD are at higher risk for developing substance use disorder (SUD), it does not mean all will develop this disorder.

If you or your loved one has ADHD, learning more about the research behind the link between addiction and ADHD may be helpful. There are still more questions to be answered about ADHD and addiction and researchers hope to understand this correlation better with further analysis.

What is ADHD?

ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is a mental health disorder that can cause difficulty with sitting still or focusing on a task. As a result of ADHD, individuals can be more impulsive in their behavior and have high levels of hyperactivity. ADHD can have a major impact on an individual’s work, studies, and life.

Not everyone who has ADHD will exhibit the same symptoms due to there being different types of ADHD. The kind of ADHD a person has can influence the types of symptoms the individual will experience.

Some of the common symptoms across the different types of ADHD include:

The Different Types of ADHD

ADHD is divided into three major types based on symptoms relating to hyperactivity, impulsivity, distractibility, and inattention. As a person gets older, the way that symptoms express themselves can change. In order to be diagnosed with ADHD, symptoms must have appeared before the age of 12 years old and persisted for at least six months in at least two settings.

The types of ADHD include the combined type, impulsive/hyperactive type, and inattentive and distractible type2. The combined type of ADHD includes symptoms of all three categories of symptoms including hyperactivity, impulsivity, and distractibility and inattention. This type of ADHD is the most common type of disorder.

As implied in the name, the impulsive/hyperactive type includes symptoms of both impulsivity and hyperactivity without symptoms of distractability and inattention. The opposite of this disorder is the inattentive and distractible type which includes symptoms of distractability and inattention without symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity.

Symptoms of distractibility and inattention can include:

Symptoms of hyperactivity can include:

Symptoms of impulsivity can include:

Causes & Risk Factors of ADHD

At this point, researchers aren’t exactly sure what causes ADHD but certain risk factors are thought to increase the likelihood for developing this disorder. The disorder may have genetic, neurological, or environmental origins.

There is some research that points to the possibility of ADHD having to do with a reduction in the neurotransmitter dopamine8. Dopamine is a brain chemical that plays an important role in a person’s emotional responses and moods as well as their movements.

Some of the risk factors for ADHD are thought to include:

Causes & Risk Factors of Addiction

Addiction to drugs or alcohol is something that can impact people of all ages, backgrounds, and beliefs. There are a number of different factors that can make a person have a higher risk of developing a substance use problem.

Environmental Risk Factors

Environmental risk factors are related to the individual’s surroundings and the influences in their lives9. There are a number of environmental factors that can increase a person’s chance of developing an addiction.

The home and family environment that they grow up in can potentially put the individual at risk for developing an addiction. If there is physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, this puts someone at risk for addiction. Neglect can also contribute to the likelihood of substance abuse.

Associating with peers who engage in risky behaviors or who abuse drugs or alcohol can also increase the risk of developing an addiction. The peer pressure to use and abuse substances can lead to addiction.

Genetic Risk Factors

One of the major risk factors for addiction is genetics. Somewhere around half of your risk of addiction to drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes is hereditary, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse6. This means that if you have family members who have substance use issues, your risk for developing an addiction increases.

Early Use

The age that a person starts drinking or using drugs can also influence their risk level for developing an addiction5. On top of that, your brain development can be affected when you use drugs or alcohol while you’re young. This can make you more likely to have mental health problems later on.

Dual Diagnosis

People who have underlying mental health issues can also be more susceptible to developing an addiction. When a person has both a substance use disorder as well as another mental health issue, this is known as a “dual diagnosis.” People with mental health issues often can self-medicate with drugs or alcohol in an attempt to lessen their mental health disorder’s symptoms.

There can be a vicious cycle that emerges from the relationship between mental health problems and addiction. A person who is addicted to a substance can exacerbate their existing mental health problems with their drug and alcohol use. An individual who abuses substances, especially at a young age can change the chemicals in their brain which can cause mental health disorders to appear.

ADHD & Addiction: What is the Relationship?

According to one study, more than one-quarter of teenagers that have issues with substances could also be diagnosable with ADHD3. There have been several studies that point towards a strong correlation between drug abuse, alcoholism, and ADHD. For instance, adults with alcohol addiction are five to ten times more likely to have ADHD than people who don’t have an alcohol addiction.

Children with ADHD are also more likely to start drinking when they’re teenagers. Studies have also found a connection between ADHD and the use of recreational drugs such as cannabis1. This appears to be particularly true when an individual also suffers from additional psychological disorders.

It isn’t uncommon for both adults and teens that have ADHD to use drugs or alcohol in the face of their ADHD symptoms.

One theory is that people with ADHD might be self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. Individuals who have ADHD also tend to be more likely to have behavior problems and be more impulsive1.

Both alcoholism and ADHD seem to sometimes be hereditary10. Some researchers have also found that ADHD and alcoholism share common genes.

What Are the Treatment Options for ADHD & Addiction?

It’s worth noting that not all people who have ADHD will have a problem with drugs or alcohol. One of the best ways to prevent addiction in people that suffer from ADHD is to start treating the disorder early.

There are a number of different approaches when it comes to treating co-occurring disorders such as substance abuse problems and ADHD. These include therapy, behavioral interventions, and medication. It isn’t uncommon for patients to receive a combination of these types of treatments.

When a person has a dual diagnosis, it’s important that they receive treatment that focuses on both their substance use issues and their mental health issue.

Dual diagnosis program typically focus on:

Dual-diagnosis programs can help people work towards overcoming addiction as well as improving their quality of life while living with ADHD. Through these programs, individuals can learn how to live a functional and healthy life without turning to drugs to deal with ADHD symptoms.

ADHD & Addictive Personality

The term “addictive personality” is a popular word used to describe a set of personality traits that are thought ot make a person more likely to develop an addiction. This is a fairly controversial concept despite its popularity as a term.

There have been some personality traits that have been connected with various kinds of addictive behaviors. Substance use disorders, though, are complex brain disorders. This means that looking at a person’s personality simply might not be enough to explain addiction.

Both addictions and ADHD can be caused by genetic factors, environmental factors, and other influences.

The term addictive personality is not just referring to drug addictions, either. It’s also referring to issues with food, shopping, food, and gambling. Although there isn’t an established list of traits that are considered a part of an addictive personality, some traits are associated with this phrase.

Traits commonly associated with addictive personalities:

There is some overlap between the notion of having an addictive personality and the symptoms of ADHD. It’s also clear that people with ADHD are at a higher risk of developing addictive relationships with substances or behaviors.

Find Help for ADHD & Addiction

There is still a lot to learn about both ADHD and drug addiction. If you are suffering from both of these issues, though, it’s important to receive treatment that focuses on both disorders. Otherwise, your treatment might not touch upon the issues that you need to work on in order to live a healthy life.

At Healthy Life Recovery, we are committed to helping individuals who suffer from both mental health issues and substance use disorders. People with a dual diagnosis have higher success rates in finding recovery when treating both disorders at the same time. We use integrated intervention in our dual diagnosis treatment, which is the best way to approach co-occurring issues.

If you or a loved one is struggling with ADHD and addiction, contact us today to find help and recovery. Our staff at Healthy Life Recovery can answer any questions you may have and give you a better understanding of our program.

Dr. Sanajai Thankachen

Medically Reviewed By:

Dr. Sanjai Thankachen

Dr. Sanjai Thankachen graduated from Adichunchanagiri Institute of Medicine in 2000. He completed his residency in psychiatry in 2008 at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in New York. Dr. Thankachen is currently working with Pacific Neuropsychiatric Specialists in an outpatient practice, as well as working at multiple in-patient psychiatric and medical units bringing his patients the most advanced healthcare treatment in psychiatry. Dr. Thankachen sees patients with an array of disorders, including depression, bipolar illness, schizophrenia, anxiety, and dementia-related problems.

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Sean Leonard Bio Image

Edited for Clinical Accuracy By:

Sean Leonard, Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

Sean Leonard is a board-certified psychiatric nurse practitioner. He received his master’s degree in adult geriatric primary care nurse practitioner from Walden University and a second postmaster specialty in psychiatry mental health nurse practitioner from Rocky Mountain University. Sean has experience working in various diverse settings, including an outpatient clinic, inpatient detox and rehab, psychiatric emergency, and dual diagnosis programs. His specialty areas include substance abuse, depression, anxiety, mood disorders, PTSD, ADHD, and OCD.

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