A Brief Look at ADHD And Addiction

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4 for Now

When I was 20, I felt pressured to drink alcohol despite having no interest in it. Addiction has taken its toll on both sides of my family, and I was hoping to learn from their experiences.

It turns out abstaining would have been an excellent idea.

While I’ve been sober for over a decade now, I recently learned I have ADHD. Knowing that earlier may have helped me stand my ground, as ADHD has a strong relationship with substance use disorders.

ADHD and Addiction

Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) is a brain disorder that affects impulse control, focus, and organization. Addiction, or Substance Use Disorder (SUD), is a brain disorder that affects control when using substances such as alcohol, nicotine, or other drugs.

Children and teens with ADHD are almost 3 times more likely to struggle with addiction at some point. Multiple studies have looked at the connection, and while there’s no definitive evidence to explain it, there are several strong theories [PDF]:

  • ADHD’s effect on executive functioning means less restraint when exposed to substances.
  • ADHD often leads to demoralization and failure, both commonly associated with SUDs.
  • Substance use may be a form of self-medication for ADHD.
  • ADHD and SUDs may have shared genetic risk factors.

ADHD and Alcohol Use Disorder

A meta-analysis of 27 studies showed that children with ADHD were not more likely to have ever used alcohol than folks without. However, childhood ADHD seems to predict earlier and more frequent drinking. Almost half of adults with ADHD binge drink (at least 5-6 alcoholic beverages every time they drink).

As mentioned above, this could be attempted self-medication. In the short term, alcohol can seem to mitigate the hyperactivity, but in the long run, it may intensify ADHD symptoms.

Alcohol can also cause harm if you’re on medication for ADHD. It changes the way the body interacts with stimulants, increasing the risk of side effects and alcohol poisoning. Over time, it can damage the heart which increases the risk of stroke or heart attack.

Treatment for ADHD and Addiction

While drugs such as ADHD meds are highly misused, a UCLA study found ADHDers on stimulants were actually less likely to misuse them. In fact, people who receive treatment for their ADHD are less likely to misuse any drug. And according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, if you haven’t started misusing a substance by the age of 21, you’re unlikely to start misusing at all.

The most efficient treatments are those that treat both ADHD and substance misuse together, but there are many other options. Joining a support group or creating your own can help, as can journaling or exercising. Learning how your ADHD brain works can help you establish helpful habits. (Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. This is not professional advice.)

Even better than treatment is prevention. Obviously, it’s too late for an adult to prevent their earlier experiences, but if you have kids in your life that exhibit symptoms of ADHD, getting them treatment now could keep them from developing an addiction later.


4 for Later

  1. If you or someone you know needs help with a substance use disorder, American Addiction Centers has Ways of Helping Someone With Drug or Alcohol Addiction. SAMHSA can help you find help for dual diagnoses. (More on dual diagnoses here.) Or you can find a rehab center on your own.
  2. If you think you may have ADHD, start with a free online screener for you or your kid. Both tests have next steps listed at the bottom for both further self-diagnosis and finding a professional diagnosis. I also found listening to folks with ADHD on Twitter helpful.
  3. Add.org offers a free starter kit with a variety of resources for learning about and living with ADHD. The website seems full of info and resources, but some of it is only available with membership (from $5/month). CHADD.org also provides info and resources for adults, caregivers, educators, and professionals.
  4. Anyone can support ADHD awareness. And support a Black woman-owned business while scoring ADHD-friendly accessories at the Black Girl, Lost Keys Store.

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