Several studies have linked ADHD and addiction. One, which followed kids with and without ADHD over a 10-year period, found that ADHD was a significant predictor of substance use disorders. According to WebMD, ADHD is five to 10 times more common in people with alcohol use disorder than among the general population.
Research has identified common genes between ADHD and alcohol use disorder. People with ADHD tend to struggle with impulsivity—a trait that can lead people to drink or use before considering the potential consequences.
“My ADHD made me viscerally uncomfortable in my own body, desperately bored, and so impulsive that it was maddening. I often felt like I was crawling out of my skin,” said Sam Dylan Finch, a positive psychology coach and writer. “I wanted to slow myself down, cope with the unbearable boredom, and try to take the edge off of my reactive and tense emotions.”
Many of us who are now in recovery used substances to cope with difficult feelings or to quiet intrusive thoughts; with ADHD, the volume seems to be turned up on a lot of those thoughts and feelings. It’s not hard to imagine why people might use substances to decrease their suffering.
Can ADHD Medications Be Addictive?
There is also the question of whether ADHD medications like Ritalin or Adderall can be addictive. Again according to WebMD, “Stimulant medications work by raising levels of a chemical messenger called dopamine in the brain, which helps improve focus and attention…Dopamine also affects emotion and the feeling of pleasure, creating a ‘high’ that makes people want more.”
If misused, these drugs can cause dependence. That said, when taken at the proper dose, ADHD medications do not appear to have high potential for addiction. Many people rely on these medications to improve their quality of life, and the answer to whether they can be addictive is complex.
The amount of time it takes for a drug to raise dopamine affects its addictiveness; with cocaine it takes seconds, while with Ritalin it takes about an hour.
Many of the people misusing prescription ADHD medication are not themselves prescribed the meds. They may be looking to enhance concentration, or simply using it for recreational purposes.
However, factors that have been associated with misuse of ADHD medication are “greater psychological distress and anxiety, executive function deficits, higher rates of sensation seeking, and symptoms associated with ADHD including difficulty concentrating, impulsivity, and internal restlessness.” It is possible that some people who overuse Adderall or Ritalin without a prescription might have undiagnosed ADHD.
How Should Co-Occurring Disorders Be Treated?
This is unfortunate, because treating ADHD and addiction together is most effective. As Finch put it, “For me, there’s no recovery from substance abuse without treatment for my ADHD.”
Like with co-occurring mental health disorders, there is such a strong interaction between the two—and each affects daily life so much—that it wouldn’t make sense to treat them in silos or to focus on one without addressing the other. When treating the whole person and all of the challenges they face day-to-day, recovery is always possible.
If you are struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder, there is help and hope. Amatus Recovery Centers offers high-quality treatment for addiction and mental health disorders in facilities across the country. Our staff—many of whom are in recovery themselves—will treat you as a whole person, not as your diagnoses. Call an admissions specialist at 410-593-0005.