Most of us have had moments in our lives where we struggle to focus on a task or zone out during a conversation. We’re all human, it happens. For individuals with ADHD, this is their reality almost every day and many of them are also prone to developing co-occurring disorders like addiction. With over 6 million children diagnosed with ADHD in the US, it’s important to understand how this condition affects people and how it may lead to substance use disorder.
What is ADHD?
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a mental disorder characterized by irregularities in concentration, excessive activity, and difficulty controlling and regulating behavior. ADHD is thought to be a result of neurotransmitter deficiency in the brain – specifically involving dopamine. While the causes behind this are still unclear, many people believe ADHD is linked to genetics. One study showed that one-third of all fathers who had ADHD in their youth passed the condition down to their children.
There is also some research that suggests exposure to chemicals and toxins found in food, cleaning supplies, and personal care products could impact brain development and contribute to the onset of disorders like ADHD and autism. Most often diagnosed in children from ages 3 to 6, ADHD can last way into adulthood. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), there are a few different ways the symptoms present themselves:
This is characterized by people who have trouble staying on task, sustaining focus, and keeping organized. If you have an inattentive presentation of ADHD, you probably forgot to do routine chores like paying bills or keeping appointments. You also may have difficulty paying close attention to small details and listening to others even when you’re spoken to directly.
Some of the most common symptoms include:
- Short attention span, easily distracted
- Often making mistakes or appearing forgetful
- Unable to focus on tedious tasks
- Appearing disinterested in conversations
- Difficulty staying organized
Hyperactivity and impulsivity presentation
This presentation of ADHD is a bit different and more recognizable. If you have hyperactive and impulsive ADHD, you might constantly move around and fidget, even in inappropriate situations. People of all ages will talk non-stop, interrupt others, and have a hard time maintaining self-control. The impulsivity part might cause you to react quickly and make important decisions without thinking about consequences.
Some of the most common symptoms include:
- Inability to sit still for long periods of time, especially in quiet places
- Difficult concentrating on tasks
- Constant talking
- Unable to wait their turn or share
- Acting upon impulse
- Interrupting conversations
People with combined-type ADHD display various symptoms from each of the presentations above.
These symptoms can cause major problems in a child’s life such as falling behind in school, poor relationship building, and lack of discipline. When these children become adults, the hyperactivity fades, and inattentiveness tends to take over. Adults with ADHD may still move around a lot but they also struggle with focusing on one task, blurt out things, and have rapid mood swings.
How Do You Treat ADHD?
While there is no cure for ADHD, it is possible to manage your symptoms. Many medical professionals will prescribe stimulants that work to increase the levels of neurotransmitters, like dopamine and norepinephrine, in the brain. Unlike the name of the drug suggests, they don’t actually “stimulate” the brain more. These stimulants can be short or long-acting and increase attention span, and help people manage their thoughts and emotions better. Some of the most common brand names are Ritalin, Adderall, and Dexedrine.
Non-stimulants may also be prescribed but the full effects of the medication don’t kick in until after a few weeks. If you are trying to avoid medication, behavioral therapy is also recommended to reinforce positive behaviors and reduce unwanted ones.
The Possible Links Between ADHD and Addiction
People with ADHD often struggle with the symptoms mentioned above such as restlessness or impulsivity. These traits might drive someone to try substances out of pure boredom or make a decision without considering the consequences. ADHD may cause individuals to feel disconnected from social groups and stir up relationship issues. Using substances can be a way for people to relax, fit in with other people, and manage any frustrating symptoms. According to one study, more than one-quarter of teenagers who abuse substances are also diagnosed with ADHD.
Additionally, adults with ADHD have a 30 percent risk of having a depressive episode at some point in their life. That number jumps to 50 percent for those who will struggle with anxiety and ADHD. What we’re getting at here is that living with co-occurring disorders can be extremely challenging and many people end up self-medicating with drugs or alcohol.
As mentioned, treatment for ADHD typically involves stimulant medications. While stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin are very effective, they have a high risk for misuse because they release excessive amounts of dopamine in the brain. Some teens may take a higher dose than prescribed to increase their focus so they can cram for a big test or right before a party to stay awake while drinking. But misusing stimulants has serious side effects including rapid heart rate, psychosis, and violent behavior. One study conducted by Vosburg et al found that misuse of oral prescription stimulants led to the use of other illicit – and non-oral – substances (eg, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine).
ADHD and Alcohol Abuse
Research has shown that adults with ADHD have a higher likelihood of excessively drinking compared to those without the disorder. And when you struggle with ADHD in early childhood, there’s a higher chance that you’ll develop alcoholism in adulthood. While many people think that drinking will help them get rid of the restlessness and anxiety associated with ADHD, in the long run, alcohol actually intensifies these symptoms.
If you are taking stimulant medications to manage your ADHD, it’s important to understand that alcohol will have serious, adverse effects when these two substances are combined. Some of the effects are increased blood pressure, seizures, nausea, and trouble sleeping. In severe cases, some people may even suffer from alcohol poisoning or overdose.
ADHD and Drug Use
Some individuals may seek out drugs to increase dopamine levels in the brain and reduce ADHD symptoms. People with ADHD are twice as likely to develop cocaine abuse or dependence. Normally, cocaine causes a euphoric high and rush of dopamine in people without ADHD. Those with ADHD experience a more calming and focused effect, which is why many people “self-medicate” with the substance. Some experts have also been looking at the possibility of using medical marijuana to alleviate ADHD symptoms, but one study showed this can be damaging to a child’s developing mind.
ADHD and addiction have a lot more in common than most people think. Aside from affecting similar parts of the brain, they also share similar symptoms including anxiousness, difficulty managing emotions, impulsivity, and reward-seeking. Although these co-occurring disorders can be challenging to manage, help is available for everyone.
And lastly, while there are several studies that highlight the connection between ADHD and addiction, it is not guaranteed that all people with ADHD will develop a substance use disorder. The earlier a child seeks treatment for their ADHD, the less likely they will be to develop a substance use problem.
Treating Addiction and ADHD Together
If you have ADHD and believe you developed a substance use disorder, seek help. An inpatient rehabilitation program that specializes in treating co-occurring disorders is crucial to maintaining your recovery. Someone who is taking stimulants to manage their ADHD is in a unique position because once they recover from addiction, there’s a possibility of them abusing stimulants again. Their impulsivity can put them at a higher risk of relapse. However, an integrated care plan where all health professionals are aware of your personal circumstances and collaborate together makes for a safer and more effective client outcome.
At Mountainside, our integrative treatment approach includes holistic practices, like meditation, to help clients sharpen focus, strengthen concentration, and better regulate their feelings—fundamental skills necessary for recovery success. Mountainside’s Residential clients saw a 40.7 percent decrease in attention deficit symptoms upon discharge. Don’t hesitate to reach out.