Are People With ADHD Prone to Addiction? An image of a woman daydreaming whilst in the middle of writing, a common symptom of ADHD

People who are diagnosed with ADHD will often experience a range of challenges that can affect various aspects of their lives, from academic and professional performance to personal relationships.

One area of growing concern and research is the potential link between ADHD and addiction. But is that really true? Does being diagnosed with ADHD put you at a heightened risk of substance abuse disorders? Find out in this article.

What Is ADHD?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a health condition that directly affects how people behave. It is typically known for its symptoms surrounding inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness, but ADHD can actually present differently depending on individual factors.

People who have ADHD may find it harder to stay focused and complete tasks. They might be easily distracted, forgetful, and have trouble listening to instructions and general organisation, including time management.

Hyperactivity behaviours can typically appear as constant fidgeting, an inability to sit still, or excessive talking. Impulsiveness might lead them to act without thinking, interrupt others, or struggle with self-control.

How Common is ADHD?

ADHD is a fairly common condition, with approximately 2-5% of children and around 3-4% of adults receiving a formal diagnosis. According to ADHD UK, there are also over 2 million people with ADHD who don’t know they have it.

Although it’s more often diagnosed in boys during childhood, girls and young adults can have ADHD, too, though it might look different. For example, in girls, symptoms might be more subtle and often show up as daydreaming rather than hyperactivity.

Diagnosing ADHD involves a comprehensive evaluation that examines various aspects of a person’s life and behaviour. This usually includes a physical examination, hearing and vision tests, and information gathering from people who know the person well.

Is Substance Abuse More Common in Those With ADHD?

According to multiple studies conducted on this subject, yes – substance abuse does, in fact, tend to be more common in individuals with ADHD compared to those without the condition. This has the potential to place these individuals at a heightened risk of developing an addiction.

Many studies have found a significant connection between ADHD and a higher risk of developing substance use disorders, which are addictive disorders that can include alcohol abuse, nicotine, and illegal drugs.

Substance abuse in people with ADHD often starts at a younger age compared to those without the condition. This makes early intervention and treatment for ADHD very important, as it can help reduce the likelihood of developing a substance use disorder or disorders later on.

Why Is this the Case?

There are many reasons as to why this can be the case. And it’s important to note that not everyone who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder will abuse drugs or alcohol. It just means that there is more of a risk there for various reasons.

Some of these reasons include:

  • Using alcohol and substance abuse as a coping mechanism: People with ADHD often struggle with symptoms which can make day-to-day life more challenging than someone who is neurotypical. They might use drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with these difficulties, hoping to feel more “normal” or to escape from their problems, even if it’s just temporary.
  • Differences in brain chemistry: ADHD is associated with differences in brain chemistry, particularly in the dopamine system. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in reward and pleasure. People with ADHD typically have lower levels of dopamine, which can lead them to seek out stimulating activities or substances that boost their dopamine levels.
  • A form of self-medication: Many individuals with ADHD are not properly diagnosed or treated. They might turn to substances like nicotine, alcohol, or recreational drugs to manage their symptoms. For example, some might find that drug abuse helps them focus better or calm their hyperactivity, even though these substances can have harmful long-term effects.
  • Susceptibility to being impulsive: ADHD symptoms include impulsivity and a tendency to take risks. This can make individuals more likely to experiment with alcohol or abuse substances without fully considering the potential consequences. Their impulsive nature can also make it harder for them to resist temptations or peer pressure.
  • Co-occurring disorders: ADHD often occurs alongside other mental health disorders, which can include anxiety and depression. These co-occurring conditions can increase the likelihood of substance abuse as individuals might use substances to self-medicate for multiple issues at once.
  • Social and environmental risk factors: People with ADHD might face social challenges, such as difficulty maintaining relationships or performing well in both an educational and work setting. These challenges can lead to low self-esteem, stress, and a feeling of not being good enough, misunderstood, or isolated. Substance abuse problems can stem from this, becoming a way to deal with these feelings or to try to fit in with people around them.
  • Genetic considerations: There is evidence to suggest that both ADHD and substance use disorders have a genetic link. This means that individuals with a family history of ADHD or substance abuse might be more genetically predisposed to developing both conditions.

A Closer Look at the Link Between ADHD and Addictive Behaviours

We touched on this above, but one of the key challenges with ADHD is impulse control. People with ADHD are more likely to act on urges without thinking things through. This level of impulsivity can lead them to try substances like alcohol, nicotine, or drugs. These substances can give a quick feeling of relief or pleasure, which can be very tempting.

Another aspect is the search for stimulation. The ADHD brain craves excitement. Boring or routine tasks can be particularly hard for them. Substances and certain behaviours (e.g. gambling) that offer an element of risk can provide the stimulation they’re seeking. This can feel good in the short term but can lead to addiction over time as they need more and more to get the same feeling.

Additionally, ADHD can make it hard to handle emotions. People with ADHD might feel more frustrated, anxious, or depressed because of the challenges they face. To cope with these difficult feelings, they might turn to addictive behaviours as a way to escape or feel better temporarily.

So, the difficulties with impulse control, the need for stimulation, and emotional challenges in ADHD can all contribute to a higher risk of developing addiction or engaging in addictive behaviours.

ADHD and Substance Abuse: Common Signs

When people with ADHD develop an addiction, several signs and behaviours may indicate the presence of this dual diagnosis. These signs can vary depending on the type of addiction, but here are some common indicators:

  • Increased impulsivity: Individuals with ADHD may already be prone to impulsive behaviour, but addiction can almost amplify this. They might make reckless decisions, engage in risky behaviours, or act without considering the consequences more frequently than what’s usual for them.
  • Changes in mood and general behaviour: Significant mood swings, irritability, anxiety, or depression can be more pronounced. They may become defensive, secretive, or isolated as they try to hide their substance use or other addictive behaviours.
  • Deterioration of physical health: Addiction can lead to various physical health issues, such as weight loss or gain, poor hygiene, insomnia, or unexplained illnesses. These aren’t solid proof of an addiction being present, but they can and should be taken as signs that something isn’t right.
  • Social Isolation: They may withdraw from social activities, hobbies, and relationships they once enjoyed, focusing instead on their addiction. This can lead to a loss of support systems and increased feelings of loneliness.
  • Denial and minimisation of the situation: People with addiction often deny the severity of their problem or downplay its impact on their lives. They may even make excuses or rationalise their behaviour to those closest who know what would be out of character for them.
  • High-risk behaviours: Although someone with attention deficit disorder is more prone to taking risks, they can border into danger when in active addiction. This can include unsafe sexual practices, driving under the influence, or other activities that pose a significant risk to their safety and well-being.

Reach Out for Drug and Alcohol Addiction Support Today

Recognising these signs early and seeking appropriate help from medical and mental health professionals is essential in addressing both ADHD and co-occurring addiction. If you’re worried about yourself or a loved one, reach out to us today for further advice.