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  • Writer's pictureMartin Polanco

The Connection Between ADHD and Addiction

Originally posted May 2, 2017

Adult attention deficit disorder (ADHD) is a mental health condition that starts early in childhood and effects some 3 million Americans. When left untreated or undiagnosed, it can be carried into one’s adult life, leading to poor work performance, unstable relationships, difficulty concentrating, and impulsive behavior.

Symptoms of ADHD

Everyone will display ADHD differently. Some common symptoms of this often-frustrating mental condition include:

  • Anxiety

  • Becoming easily bored

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Problems controlling anger/Violent outbursts

  • Mood swings

  • Problems at work

  • Procrastination

  • Low self-esteem

  • Depression

  • Relationship problems

People experience ADHD differently and the symptoms people display won’t always be the same. Some people can manage their ADHD fine and not become affected, while others have increased difficulty in handling the way the disorder makes them feel.

Some people that suffer from ADHD will have trouble concentrating on a task unless it’s something that interests them, while others will find it hard to focus on anything for a given length of time, no matter how interesting they think it is. One person might be antisocial and withdrawn, while the next loves being around people.

Why are ADHD and Addiction So Closely Related?

Adults with ADHD are more likely to become addicted to cigarettes, drugs, alcohol, and other substances. While the reason people with ADHD are more prone to addiction isn’t completely clear, there are certain characteristics of those that suffer from ADHD that are likely to lead to the progress of addiction.

Research suggests that approximately 25 percent of adults who are treated for drug and alcohol addiction also have ADHD. Many believe that the impulsive behavior associated with ADHD is directly linked to developing an addiction. And according to a 2010 study, A Sobering Fact: ADHD Leads to Substance Abuse, the risk of substance abuse amongst those who have ADHD is 2-3 times higher than those who don’t have the disorder.

It’s been suggested that people with ADHD have a different dopamine response than others. Dopamine, which is also known as one of the “feel good” chemicals in the brain, is thought to be released in decreased amounts in people who have ADHD. This causes an inability to feel pleasure as other people do. When a person with ADHD discovers that substances such as drugs or alcohol make them feel better, it’s because they’ve temporarily elevate dopamine levels in the brain. These mind-altering substances suddenly become the solution to a problem they’ve been dealing with their entire life.

Another reason it’s believed that ADHD leads to addiction is the isolation many people who suffer from ADHD experience. Some people find that it’s hard to form meaningful relationships, which can in turn lead to increased time spent alone. Withdrawing from social situations is common with some people that have ADHD. And although it is hard for them to be around people, they often find spending so much time alone increases their feelings of loneliness and depression, both of which have shown to dramatically increase a person’s likelihood of substance abuse and addiction.

Self-Medicating to Relieve ADHD Symptoms

According to Harvard Medical School M.D., Timothy Wilens, some seventy percent of people who have ADHD are abusing substances to “self-medicate” troubling symptoms associated with ADHD. Many of the people abusing drugs or alcohol are doing so to “improve their mood, sleep better, or for other reasons.”

It’s also believed that the poor judgement, social skills, and impulsive behavior associated with ADHD make abusing drugs or alcohol all the more appealing. ADHD can make it difficult to feel like you fit in. For those who don’t want to completely isolate themselves socially, drinking and doing drugs can make social interaction much easier.

For many people, self-medicating with drugs or alcohol works…until it doesn’t. Drinking or engaging in drug use can relieve the boredom many people with ADHD face on a regular basis. Caffeine, nicotine, cocaine, and methamphetamines can help a person with ADHD finally find the focus they’ve been missing. Some people might turn to alcohol or marijuana to find relief from their symptoms and increase their propensity to focus.

The problem is that when a person becomes addicted to the substances that initially “helped” with the problem, they then face more issues on top of those they already had. The initial “solution” can lead to problems associated with addiction such as failed relationships, poor school or job performance, increased impulsive behavior, problems with the law, involvement in high risk behavior, and overdose.

Those with untreated or undiagnosed ADHD are also at a higher risk for addiction relapse. ADHD can be a large factor in the feelings of depression, anxiety, and unease that are often a part of addiction recovery. When looking at addiction in a person who has not been diagnosed with ADHD, it is important to realize that there is a very strong connection between the two. If you or someone you love is suffering from addiction, and you believe that you might also suffer from symptoms of ADHD, it’s highly advised to seek treatment that will address them both.

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