A recent survey found that approximately 15 percent of adults who struggle with ADHD had abused alcohol or drugs in the past year, nearly triple the rate for adults without ADHD.

A recent survey found that approximately 15 percent of adults who struggle with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) had abused alcohol or drugs in the past year. With that being nearly triple the rate for adults without ADHD, the question is, what causes these individuals to abuse alcohol or drugs?

Several studies have shown a connection between ADHD, drug abuse and alcoholism. Overall, ADHD is five to 10 times more common among adult alcoholics than it is in people without the condition.

Individuals with ADHD tend to be more impulsive and likely to have behavior problems, which may lead to drug and alcohol abuse. The same receptors in the brain that are involved in ADHD are also involved in substance abuse problems. This may suggest that ADHD patients are prone to develop addictions or vice versa. Also, both ADHD and alcoholism may be genetically passed down. If a child with ADHD has a parent who abuses alcohol, the child is very likely to also develop an alcohol abuse problem in their adulthood.

It is common for an individual with ADHD to self-medicate to feel relief from symptoms of the condition. Treating ADHD and substance abuse together can be challenging because medications are almost always used to treat ADHD and most of these drugs can become habit-forming. Stimulants drugs like Ritalin and Adderall are often effective at managing symptoms, but they also have a high probability of abuse.

ADHD and Alcohol

Alcohol use mixed with ADHD is a dangerous combination that often leads to dependence and addiction. Many individuals look to alcohol to help them relax, as alcohol is a depressant. In the case of people with ADHD, many may use alcohol to calm their hyperactivity. However, alcohol can often have the opposite effect they are searching for.

The effects of alcohol are inherently like the effects of ADHD. In both, the frontal lobe of the brain is primarily affected and diminishes the individual’s ability to think clearly. When the effects of alcohol are paired with those of ADHD, this can worsen symptoms and side effects of ADHD. If someone stops drinking suddenly, they may experience withdrawal, which can make physical and mental symptoms of ADHD more overwhelming.

ADHD and Drug Abuse

People who have ADHD may be more inclined to use drugs or alcohol to cope with the symptoms that come with this disorder. Other people may be prescribed stimulants to treat ADHD and as a result, become dependent on these drugs. Both scenarios can lead to a cycle of addiction that may warrant professional help.

Substance abuse may start with social use or experimenting with drugs in college. The impulsivity, poor judgment and social awkwardness that often come with ADHD can lead to overindulgence on drugs like:

  • Marijuana: A common search query is, “Can marijuana help ADHD?” People who struggle with ADHD may use cannabis to ease some symptoms of hyperactive behavior. However, this drug may also worsen attention deficit issues and impair cognitive development in young people.
  • Benzodiazepines: Someone who is distressed by their ADHD symptoms may take a benzodiazepine medication like Xanax to calm down, however, this is not a recommended solution to dealing with ADHD. Benzodiazepines are sedatives which induce a temporary state of calm. Once they wear off, a person’s ADHD symptoms will return and may be more distressing than before.
  • Opiates and Opioids: People who have ADHD may also be more prone to experiencing chronic pain. Opiates may appeal to someone who has ADHD because they are powerful pain-relieving drugs that can be useful in easing different types of pain. However, popular opioids like OxyContinVicodin and hydrocodone are also highly addictive. Consistent use of these drugs — whether to ease ADHD side effects or not — can lead to an opioid use disorder which may require professional treatment.
  • Stimulants and ADHD: Many stimulant drugs are regulated medications that are prescribed to treat ADHD symptoms. Stimulants act on the nervous system to increase a person’s focus and attention. On a more granular level, stimulants increase the release of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain, which boosts the flow of messages in the brain. For people who have ADHD, this increase of neurotransmitter activity in the brain regulates attention and decision-making skills. Therefore, stimulants can be beneficial in the management of ADHD symptoms, however, they can also be abused.

ADHD Medication Abuse

For people who have ADHD, stimulant medications can ease ADHD symptoms and promote a balanced life. However, these drugs are often abused and abused by people who do not have ADHD.

There is a difference in the way that stimulant medications affect children and young adults who have ADHD and their peers who do not have the disorder and abuse stimulants. Young people without ADHD who use prescription ADHD drugs like Adderall or Ritalin may experience a quick, short-term boost in focus and alertness with some possible physical jitters. Most kids and teens with ADHD may experience a calmer focus during activities like studying and better working memory.

If the medication is not used as prescribed, it may cause more uncomfortable symptoms. If a student uses more of their medicine than required to stay up to study, they will be tired the next day, and continue the dosage for the next day. As they become tired throughout the day they continue to take more of the drug to stay awake. This is a common occurrence among college students with ADHD. Not only does dependence begin, but many sleep problems also grow from this new stimulant addiction.

Treating ADHD and Co-Occurring Disorders

People who have a co-occurring condition of ADHD and substance abuse may have a difficult time when beginning recovery. To treat co-occurring conditions, both disorders must be treated simultaneously. When one of the conditions goes untreated, the treated condition often resurfaces over and over until both disorders are treated properly.

Individuals who have ADHD face a high risk of developing a co-occurring substance abuse disorder. For these people, a dual-diagnosis rehab program that will treat both the ADHD and addiction can be beneficial. Inpatient care typically provides around-the-clock medical support after a person detoxes from alcohol or drugs. The best inpatient dual diagnosis facilities may provide services such as:

If or a loved one needs help overcoming a drug or alcohol addiction and a co-occurring mental health condition like ADHD, The Recovery Village can help. Individuals who struggle with addictions and co-occurring ADHD symptoms can receive help from one of the facilities located across the country. To learn more about comprehensive addiction treatment, call The Recovery Village today to speak with a representative.

Related Topic: Treatment for ADHD and PTSD combined

a woman in a black cardigan smiles at the camera.
Editor – Camille Renzoni
Cami Renzoni is a creative writer and editor for The Recovery Village. As an advocate for behavioral health, Cami is certified in mental health first aid and encourages people who face substance use disorders to ask for the help they deserve. Read more
a woman in a yellow top posing for a picture.
Medically Reviewed By – Krisi Herron, LCDC
Krisi Herron is an Adjunct Psychology Professor, a Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor and a freelance writer who contributes to several mental health blogs. Read more
Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.