By Beau Black
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a condition that can alter how we think or behave. Specific symptoms include chronic difficulty focusing, hyperactivity, and problems with impulse control. There’s a strong connection between ADHD and substance addiction, which can make treating the co-occurring conditions challenging.
Many adults who grew up with undiagnosed or untreated ADHD now live with the consequences of that delayed diagnosis or treatment, including increased risk for struggles with addiction. However, understanding how they work together can lead to successful treatment.
Living with Adult ADHD
In as many as 75% of cases, studies indicate that symptoms of ADHD from childhood linger into adulthood. According to ADDitude magazine, an online resource for those affected by ADD/ADHD, the symptoms of adult ADHD include:
- Forgetting names and dates
- Missing deadlines and leaving projects unfinished
- Extreme emotionality and rejection sensitivity
- Becoming easily distracted and disorganized
- Suffering generalized anxiety disorder and mood disorder
- Low frustration tolerance
- Trouble multitasking
- Excessive activity or restlessness
These symptoms often lead people with the condition to self-medicate through substance abuse, a process that can begin early on.
The Connection Between ADHD and Addiction
People with ADHD are significantly more likely to struggle with substance abuse, multiple studies show. One cited by ADDitude observed that 15% of AHDH sufferers had abused or were dependent on alcohol or drugs during the previous year. That statistic is three times higher than the rest of the population.
According to a report published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, studies have found that people with ADHD have an increased risk for addiction disorders like alcoholism and substance abuse: “Both ADHD and addictions have also been associated with personality traits such as impulsivity, reward-seeking, anxiousness, and negative affect.”
The study cited in Frontiers also observed that substance and alcohol abuse were about six times more likely in patients with ADHD, and that females were at significantly higher risk than males. Additionally, those with ADHD tend to progress from use to abuse in higher numbers and exhibit greater social and psychiatric impairment.
The report showed the ADHD-drug use/abuse link works both ways: “It has been estimated that up to 50% of adolescents and adults with substance abuse disorders have a lifetime diagnosis of ADHD.”
Why do those with ADHD struggle more with substance abuse? Aside from the common traits listed above, they tend to try to self-medicate their symptoms. Among young adults with ADHD, Timothy Wilens, MD, says in the Frontiers report, “Only 30 percent said they used substances to get high.” Wilens, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Boston, also added, “Seventy percent are doing it to improve their mood, to sleep better, or for other reasons.”
One patient, who was also a student, said, “I didn’t drink to get smashed, but to concentrate and get my homework done. The boredom was impossible. I could be sitting in an interesting lecture and be totally bored. When I drank, I didn’t care that I was bored.”
In children, it’s important to diagnose and treat the condition early. Those with ADHD who were appropriately treated with medication in childhood were 50 percent less likely than their peers to struggle with substance abuse in young adulthood. But what about adults today who are living with a previously untreated condition? A combination of the right medication, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and 12-Step may work best.
One of the best ways ADHD patients can guard against substance problems is to treat the condition, reports ADDitude – even if that means using medication.
Exercise, keeping mentally stimulated and active, and having ongoing challenges to work toward can help. Having a support system is also important.
One strategy that has proven beneficial and often used by ADHD patients is H.A.L.T., which stands for:
- Avoiding hunger
- Avoiding anger
- Avoiding loneliness and
- Not letting yourself get too tired
All of these can be triggers for a substance use relapse in ADHD patients, so planning ahead to mitigate them can be key.
Seeking treatment early and sticking with it, staying appropriately occupied, and also having a safety net of people (including a doctor) who will keep tabs on you and know the warning signs of an impending relapse — will all help you to stay on track.
Though complex, these often-entwined conditions can be brought under control with thoughtfully planned treatment and a willing patient.
If you or someone you know is struggling with ADHD, addiction or any number of other behavioral health issues, we are here for you. Reach out today to learn more and take that vital first step toward wellness.