There is a close correlation between ADHD and comorbid conditions like personality disorders and substance abuse. A 2011 meta-analysis found that 23.1% of patients with substance abuse disorders also met the DSM-IV criteria for ADHD.
The complex interrelationships between ADHD and addiction mean a multidimensional approach to treatment, including medication-assisted treatment (MAT), behavioral modification, and group therapy, is most effective. Explore the connection between ADHD and addiction and what treatment options are available to support you on your journey to recovery.
What is ADHD?
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a chronic condition that typically affects children and may continue into adulthood. Though less frequent, adult-onset ADHD can occur in 4.4% of the population.
ADHD is typically associated with behavioral problems such as difficulty paying attention, sitting still, and remaining focused during tedious tasks. Impulsivity is another common symptom seen in individuals with ADHD.
Children with ADHD tend to be rambunctious as toddlers. When these inattentive kids start school, they often have difficulties listening, remembering, and following directions.
As adults, individuals with ADHD may have trouble performing at work. People with ADHD often lose track of time and forget appointments and social commitments or misplace important items.
Romantic relationships may also be affected since a person with ADHD might fail to listen to a partner or may make an insensitive remark without thinking.
While the symptoms of ADHD can vary significantly from person to person, those affected by the disorder often turn to drugs or alcohol. They may do this to self-medicate, fit in better socially, or escape from the frustrations of daily life.
What Causes ADHD and Addiction to Develop?
Although the exact cause of ADHD is not fully understood, certain factors can increase a person’s chance of developing ADHD and addiction. These factors include heredity, maternal exposure to toxins during pregnancy, and brain trauma.
Studies show that 41-55% of families with children who have been diagnosed with ADHD have at least one parent with the condition. The tendency toward addiction also has a genetic component. Because of the frequent comorbidity of the two disorders, genetic vulnerability to ADHD and substance abuse disorder are thought to be related.
Maternal Exposure to Toxins
Another risk factor for ADHD and SUD is exposure to toxins in utero. For years, scientists have known that a connection exists between maternal use of alcohol or tobacco products and attention deficits in children. Exposure to lead during pregnancy can also contribute to the development of ADHD in children.
Even over-the-counter medications could be to blame. For example, a recent study funded by the National Institutes of Health found that children whose mothers took acetaminophen during pregnancy were around two to three times more likely to suffer from ADHD or autism.
Addiction can also begin before birth. A mother’s use of illegal substances during pregnancy can result in physical dependency in the newborn after birth. This unfortunate start can lead to attention deficits and a tendency toward addiction later in life.
Although less common, ADHD symptoms can also be caused by incidents occurring later in life, such as a brain injury, brain tumor, or stroke. With these conditions, the resulting decrease in impulse control is a factor that could lead to substance abuse and addiction.
How ADHD Contributes to Addiction
People with ADHD often live functional, healthy lives; however, the disorder is strongly correlated with a higher incidence of substance abuse. This could be because individuals with ADHD have lower dopamine levels in their brain than those who do not have it. They may try to make up for the lack of dopamine by self-medicating with drugs and alcohol.
People with ADHD often struggle with impulsive behavior, which is another reason ADHD and addiction go hand-in-hand. Those troubled by ADHD symptoms often use substances as a coping mechanism.
But it’s not just alcohol and illicit drugs that lead to problems with addiction. Prescriptions used to treat ADHD, such as Adderall and Ritalin, can be habit-forming. This can lead to a cycle of addiction that is extremely difficult to overcome without professional help.
Combined Treatment for ADHD and Addiction
Mental healthcare professionals agree that it is essential to simultaneously address the addiction and ADHD that contribute to substance abuse. Programs geared toward individuals with ADHD and other behavioral challenges combine multiple types of therapy for increased efficacy.
Acknowledging a dual diagnosis allows providers to combine behavioral modification with medication therapy to help patients identify substance abuse triggers and learn how to manage impulses. A dual diagnosis program should address:
- Building self-esteem and internal motivation
- Modifying destructive thought processes and harmful behaviors
- Controlling impulsivity and identifying substance abuse triggers
- Managing ADHD and addiction through behavioral modification and therapeutic medication like Suboxone
- Educating family members and partners about addiction and ADHD through family therapy sessions
- Group therapy sessions to reduce feelings of isolation and develop coping and recovery strategies with those going through the same experience
Get the Help You Need at Right Path Addiction Treatment Centers
Coping with ADHD and addiction isn’t easy, which is why an effective treatment plan must address both issues. By aggressively treating ADHD and monitoring for relapse into substance abuse, effective treatment programs empower people to live substance-free.
If you’re struggling with an addiction, you don’t have to do it alone. Give yourself the tools to recover with the help of a comprehensive treatment program.
Native of Moldova, Dr. Zhitar is Board Certified in Addiction Medicine as well as Internal Medicine and completed his training at UPMC Shadyside, Pittsburgh, PA in 2000.