Symptoms of ADHD May Prompt Higher Rates of Substance Abuse

For some people living with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), the challenges of trying to complete a task or focus on a project can be overwhelming. Many find that the stress can be lessened with certain substances, ranging from caffeine to tobacco; to prescription pain medications and sugar.

These quick fixes can soon become destructive habits, leading to what experts call a connection between ADHD and addiction – specifically, that people with ADHD may also be more likely to abuse a substance than people who don’t have the disorder.

Sometimes called self-medicating, taking a chemical or substance to manage the symptoms of a disease can quickly become dangerous. Around eight to 15 million people in the U.S. have ADHD, and of these, it is believed from one-third to half also abuse alcohol, drugs or other substances.

The symptoms of ADHD can cause high levels of anxiety, stress and restlessness. Guilt and feelings in inadequacy can also result when a person struggles to complete a task at home or in the workplace. The overriding sense of restlessness that accompanies ADHD can also set the stage for addiction, particularly in terms of drugs or alcohol, which may give the user a feeling of calm. Many people with ADHD may also abuse things like food, or have other secret compulsions.

Some experts even suggest that when ADHD is diagnosed, therapists should also explore the possibility of the patient having a coexisting substance abuse problem. Likewise, people with substance abuse problems may benefit from screening for symptoms of ADHD.

According to Baltimore psychiatrist and ADHD specialist Carol Watkins, conditions that may put a person with ADHD at even higher risk for addiction include having substance abuse history in their family, having low level of social relationships, and having depression or anxiety problems.

Further complicating the relationship between addiction and ADHD is the reality that people with this disease may be more prone than others to seek out stimulation or take chances. Feelings of shame, reduced energy levels and problems with ordering the tasks and objects in their environment may also contribute to a person with ADHD becoming addicted to a substance as a self-medicating tool.

It is believed that some prescription medications to treat the symptoms of ADHD may help prevent the patient from moving into a harmful addiction. Researchers at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital concur, stating that young adults who took ADHD prescription medications showed lower chances of abusing drugs and alcohol.

Addiction experts like Wendy Richardson say a total-person approach to recovery is best, involving both the ADHD symptoms and the substance addiction. This may involve completing a 12-Step recovery program for addictions before beginning prescriptions for ADHD.

With a combination of strategies such as counseling, group support and carefully prescribed medications, the outlook for recovery and management of both addiction and ADHD is hopeful.