Menu Close

What is the Link Between ADHD and Addiction?

ADHD and addiction

ADHD is typically associated with difficulty sitting still, difficulty with focus, and hyperactivity. However, ADHD affects more than just the ability to focus. Those with ADHD tend to be more impulsive than others, and studies suggest that the impulsivity associated with ADHD increases the likelihood of drug and alcohol abuse. In other words, there does appear to be a link between ADHD and addiction, though much more remains worth exploring.

What is ADHD?

ADHD is short for Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. It is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders diagnosed in childhood, with symptoms often continuing into adulthood.

Everyone has difficulty focusing from time to time. But while it’s normal to occasionally “zone out,” or forget where you might have left your cell phone, people with ADHD find these symptoms disrupting their day-to-day lives, making it extremely difficult to complete everyday tasks.

The ADHD brain is naturally lower in chemicals like dopamine, which is the brain’s satisfaction and pleasure chemical. Dopamine makes it easier for a person to complete tasks and sustain long-term commitments. A lack of dopamine, on the other hand, can lead to difficulty with focus and becoming bored very easily.

What Causes ADHD?

Because the exact causes and risk factors of ADHD remain unknown, scientists continue to research the causes of the disorder. Some of the more current research suggests that genetics plays a role in whether a person will develop ADHD.

Neuroimaging studies have provided insights into the neurobiological underpinnings of both ADHD and addiction. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies have revealed differences in brain structure and activity patterns in those regions of the brain that handle executive function, impulse control, and reward processing in those with ADHD and addiction.

For instance, research published in the Journal of Neuroscience demonstrated alterations in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region crucial for executive functions, in individuals with ADHD. Similarly, studies have shown dysregulation in the mesolimbic dopamine system, particularly the nucleus accumbens, in individuals with addiction. These neurobiological abnormalities contribute to the impulsive behavior and diminished inhibitory control observed in both conditions.

A 2012 study found that ADHD has a high heritability rate, ranging from 75% to 91%. This means that, if a parent has ADHD, it’s at least somewhat likely it could be passed down to the children. Meanwhile, if a sibling has ADHD, it’s likely the other siblings may also have ADHD.

Genetics is not the only possible cause of ADHD. Other possible cause and risk factors include:

  • Premature birth
  • Low birth weight
  • Use of alcohol and tobacco during pregnancy
  • Lead exposure during pregnancy
  • Brain injury

Symptoms of ADHD

The symptoms of ADHD fall into three main categories: inattentiveness, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. Many classic symptoms within these categories include the following:

  • Impulsive behavior
  • Extreme restlessness
  • Difficulty listening
  • Short term memory loss or forgetfulness
  • Difficulty maintaining concentration
  • Difficulty finishing tasks
  • Difficulty organizing projects
  • Regularly losing items
  • Insomnia
  • Trouble with time management
  • Excessive talking
  • Being unable to wait their turn
  • Little to no sense of danger

Implications of ADHD for Addiction

Adults with ADHD can have trouble performing to the best of their ability at work. This is because symptoms like distractibility and difficulty organizing projects. In other words, ADHD can make it hard to manage a workload, leading to burnout, which can lead to alcohol and substance abuse.

ADHD can also affect areas of life outside of work. For instance, it can have a negative impact on social and emotional relationships with others. The low impulse control of ADHD can cause those with ADHD to interrupt others when they’re talking or “lose the thread” in conversations. Meanwhile, symptoms like forgetfulness can result in forgetting to return the calls or texts of those they love.

For those who are neurotypical—or not affected by ADHD—paying attention to conversations and completing daily tasks might seem easy. But to someone living with ADHD, these tasks can feel tough, causing people with ADHD to feel like they are “falling short.” This of course causes anxiety and stress, which can in turn lead to excessive self-medication with drugs and alcohol.

And because of how the ADHD brain is wired, these individuals are more quickly addicted to such substances. After all, the ADHD brain’s dysfunction in the dopamine system is compensated for in the impulsivity and reward-seeking behavior by those with ADHD.

The Link Between ADHD and Addiction

There does appear to be a direct link between ADHD and addiction. People with ADHD often struggle with impulse control, which can lead to a higher chance of becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol.

In addition, there is a genetic component to alcoholism. If a person with ADHD has a parent with alcoholism it is likely that the child will be more susceptible to getting addicted to alcohol. Meanwhile, factors such as socioeconomic disadvantage and comorbid psychiatric disorders can further contribute to the vulnerability of people with ADHD to develop addictive behaviors.

How to Treat ADHD and Addiction

One of the most effective ways to treat ADHD and addiction is called the dual diagnosis approach. Dual diagnosis addresses both ADHD and addiction at the same time, using a combination of therapeutic approaches to help the person develop and maintain healthy habits.

A dual diagnosis program typically focuses on:

  • Managing symptoms of ADHD with therapy and, in some cases, medication
  • Identifying triggers that lead to drug or alcohol use
  • Teaching the individual how to manage their impulses
  • Motivation to build self esteem
  • Informing and educating the client’s loved ones about ADHD and its association with addiction

Dual diagnosis programs help people manage their ADHD symptoms by altering their response to triggers. This helps treat the addiction that someone might have developed to cope with their ADHD symptoms.

Find Help for ADHD and Addiction at Northpoint Colorado

If you or your loved one is affected by ADHD and addiction, Northpoint Colorado can help. We specialize in treating ADHD in people who are also affected by drug or alcohol problems. The care we provide can and will help you address both issues.

Many people undergo treatment at our inpatient facility, but you may also benefit from one of our outpatient programs. Call today at 888.231.1281 or fill out our online information form to learn more about our treatment and recovery options.