The Relationship Between ADHD and Addiction

The Link Between ADHD and Addiction

Understanding the correlation and seeking effective treatment.

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What is ADHD?

ADHD stands for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. If you have ADHD you will have difficulty paying attention and concentrating, and you’ll be ‘hyper’ and restless. Although it is often referred to as a behavioural trait, ADHD is actually a neurological disorder.

If you have ADHD, you will probably be impulsive and you may have additional issues, such as insomnia, anxiety and problems with social interaction. ADHD is usually diagnosed in the under 12s and is often seen as something that only affects children, mainly boys. However, it is not unusual to be diagnosed as an adult, and many women have ADHD too.

It is not known what causes attention-deficit hyperactive disorder although it is known to run in families.

While there is no cure for ADHD, it can be managed with education support (for children) as well as medicine and therapy. And while having ADHD can be challenging when it comes to fitting in with others and keeping a 9-5 schedule – and this can often lead to poor mental health – ADHD can also make you dynamic and creative. There are many successful people with ADHD such as Richard Branson and Bill Gates.

adhd and addiction

Is ADHD Considered to Be a Disability?

Yes, it is, and this means that in the UK, ADHD is a protected statistic under the 2010 Equality Act. If you have ADHD you must be offered reasonable adjustments to carry on your role at work or access education in the same ways as your peers. For example, if you have ADHD and work in an office, you might be allowed to take regular breaks as your employer knows your concentration will waver after a short time.

What Are the Symptoms of ADHD?

There are three main ADHD symptoms:

  • Inattention. You struggle to focus on a task and concentrate for a period of time. 
  • Hyperactivity. Restlessness, agitation, difficulty sitting still, fidgeting – you’re always on the go. 
  • Impulsivity. Making rash decisions without thinking through the consequences.

If you have one, two or even three of these symptoms, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have attention deficit hyperactive disorder. However, if you experience these symptoms on a regular basis, and they’re having a negative impact on your life (e.g. your employer is penalising you for not being able to sit still in meetings), it is worth getting a diagnosis.

Knowing you have a disability, and therefore how it can be treated, can improve your mental health.

Up to 5% of adults are diagnosed with ADHD and this number is increasing all the time. One reason for this is because it remains poorly understood by clinicians and thus under-diagnosed. It is also often masked by other syndromes, as adults with ADHD tend to have other psychiatric and medical conditions, such as anxiety.

Adults with ADHD are also more likely to have a substance use disorder. Although the link between ADHD and addiction is not entirely clear, adolescents with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder often use drugs and alcohol as a way to self-medicate: to relax and help them ‘chill’ and sleep, and this can develop into substance abuse and addiction.

Studies show there are also physical similarities between the brain structure of adults with ADHD and those with a substance use disorder, which might also explain a link.

ADHD is more commonly diagnosed in boys (12.9%) and men than in women and girls (5.6%). However, one of the reasons for this gender divide is that research has included a limited number of females. Therefore, many women live with it unknowingly.

Females with ADHD also tend to be less hyper than males with the same diagnosis but are more inattentive, moody and anxious. This lack of obvious hyperactivity and disruptive behaviour is another reason why so many women and girls remain undiagnosed.

Women who remain undiagnosed or are not diagnosed until later in life are more likely to develop anxiety, sleep disorders, eating disorders and a substance use disorder, which again explains the link between ADHD and substance abuse.

At Castle Craig, we have experience of treating people with ADHD and addiction. We will show you how attention deficit hyperactive disorder has contributed to your substance abuse so you have a greater understanding of why you behave the way you do. Once you understand this, it is easier to change any negative behaviours to positive ones.

Causes and Risk Factors of ADHD

There is no single reason for ADHD although there is a genetic connection as it runs through families. The structure of the brain might also be a link as studies show that if you have ADHD, certain areas of your brain may be a different size to the brains of people who don’t have it. It could also be connected to the level of neurotransmitters in the brain.

Other risk factors for ADHD include:

  • Being born prematurely (before the 37th week) or being born with a low birthweight
  • Having epilepsy
  • Having brain damage – caused either in the womb or following a head injury later in life

If any of these apply to you, it might explain why you have ADHD. However, as ADHD is not fully understood, you may have it even if none apply.

What Medication Is Used to Treat ADHD in the UK?

There is no cure for ADHD but its symptoms can be managed with medication to make you feel calmer and less impulsive.

In the UK there are four types of medicine used to treat ADHD in adults. These are:

  •  Methylphenidate – sold under brand names including Ritalin and Concerta
  •  Lisdexamfetamine  – sold as Elvanse
  •  Dexamfetamine – sold as Amfexa
  •  Atomoxetine – sold as Strattera

It is important you find the right medication for you. Feeling you’re taking something that isn’t helping you, or it’s making your symptoms worse, can result in you self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, and this can lead to substance abuse. Speak to your GP if you feel your treatment isn’t working.

Does ADHD Medication Come With Any Side Effects?

All medicine comes with some side effects and ADHD medication is no exception. The side effects associated with these prescription drugs include:

  •  Feelings of aggression
  •  Agitation and irritability
  •  Mood swings
  •  Loss of appetite
  •  Stomach ache
  •  Dry mouth
  •  Trouble sleeping
  •  Drowsiness
  •  Headaches
  •  Nausea and vomiting
  •  Diarrhoea
  •  Raised blood pressure and heart rate

If you are experiencing unpleasant side effects, you may want to speak to your GP about moving to another medicine that suits you better.

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How Does ADHD Medication Work?

All ADHD medication targets the brain, but not all work in the same way.

Methylphenidate is the most commonly prescribed medication for ADHD in the UK. It boosts the levels of the brain’s feel-good chemical dopamine and increases the levels of noradrenaline (which helps you pay attention), in your brain. This helps you stay calm, remain focused and be less impulsive.

Lisdexamfetamine is also a stimulant that works in a similar way.

Dexamfetamine is a stimulant that may be prescribed if other medication isn’t working.

Atomoxetine is not a stimulant. It is a selective noradrenaline reuptake inhibitor (SNRI), which means it increases the levels of noradrenaline in the brain. This helps you concentrate and reduces your impulses.

Can ADHD Be Treated Without Medication?

Yes. Therapy is often used to treat attention deficit hyperactive disorder. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which changes the way you think and behave, has been shown to work in reducing ADHD symptoms significantly.

CBT can help you control your racing mind so you stay focused. It also helps turn a negative mindset positive. People with ADHD often have poor mental health. You may be self-critical or frustrated as you struggle to strive in everyday situations and maintain friendships and relationships.

Castle Craig offers CBT in one-to-one-sessions and in groups. With bespoke CBT sessions, you learn how to develop skills to help you manage your ADHD symptoms without turning to alcohol or drugs.

Diet and exercise can also play a part in reducing ADHD symptoms. Sugar can cause your insulin to spike, resulting in you becoming agitated and unable to concentrate. This is the last thing you need when you have ADHD, so reducing your sugar intake can help.

Eat plenty of fatty fish (such as tuna, mackerel and sardines) to give you an omega-3 boost, as people with ADHD can be lacking in this healthy natural fat. If you don’t eat fish, consider an omega 3 supplement.

People with ADHD are thought to have low levels of zinc, iron and B6, so think about taking supplements as this may improve your focus.

Exercise, especially aerobic exercise, gives the brain a workout as well as the body and it improves mental health. Find something you enjoy so you’ll keep it up. You don’t have to join a gym – walking and gardening are great exercise. Something that requires concentration – such as dance or yoga – might also help develop your attention-paying skills.

Are People With ADHD More at Risk of Addiction?

Yes, they are, although the link between ADHD and addiction is not entirely understood. Studies show that more than 15% of adults with ADHD have a substance use disorder, compared to less than 6% of adults without ADHD.

There are a number of reasons for this. One is that people with ADHD and people who are susceptible to substance abuse share similarities in the structure and chemical makeup of their brains.

Another reason why you’re more likely to progress to substance abuse if you have ADHD is due to self-medicating with alcohol or drugs in order to dampen down a racing mind and try to fit in with others. Perhaps you choose to get off your head as a form of escapism from the challenges that attention deficit hyperactive disorder poses.

If you have ADHD you are more likely to be a thrill-seeker and indulge in risky behaviour in order to discover new sensations. This trait is shared by people who take drink and drugs, and this is another reason for the link.

At Castle Craig, we understand your compulsion to get high, and we know how having ADHD can complicate that. You don’t have to explain yourself to us. Just let us help you.

What Are the Treatment Options for ADHD and Addiction?

If you have ADHD and addiction, it means you have a dual diagnosis. You may also hear that you have ‘co-occurring disorders or a ‘comorbidity’. It just means you have two things on your plate rather than one.

Castle Craig specialises in treating dual diagnosis. Residential rehab is the best place to treat ADHD and addiction as the 24/7 wraparound care enables you to access all the treatment options including expert addiction doctors, consultant psychiatrists, trained therapists and medical care. You won’t have to book appointments for one thing and another in different locations – it’s all on tap.

This holistic approach means you can tackle the complexity of ADHD and substance abuse from all angles, unpicking the reasons behind negative behaviours and developing strategies to replace them with positive behaviours.

Treating two disorders is harder than one, although rest assured it is achievable and many people with attention deficit hyperactive disorder have freed themselves from substance abuse after accessing the right treatment. It is very difficult to do this on your own though.

At Castle Craig, we recommend you attend treatment for an extended period of time and move from our intensive care clinic to our extended care programme. This includes individual and group therapy, the world-renowned 12-step programme, as well as relapse treatment. It might take a bit longer, but with the right support, you can kick your addiction once and for good.

CTA: Having ADHD can make it harder to kick an addiction, so contact Castle Craig on 0808 271 7500 to find out how a bespoke treatment plan can help you manage your symptoms and become addiction free.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Is There a Link Between ADHD and Addiction?

Yes, although it is not entirely understood. If you have ADHD you are more likely to develop an addiction than someone who does not have ADHD.

Why Do People With ADHD Have Addiction Problems?

People with ADHD often self-medicate with drink or drugs to calm their racing minds and help them ‘fit in’ more easily.

Is ADHD Medication Addictive?

Yes, if you abuse it. Only take your dose as prescribed and speak to your GP if you have cravings for more.


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