ADD / ADHD and Addiction: A common Link and the Solution

It’s estimated that more than 25 percent of adolescents with substance use problems fit the diagnostic criteria for ADHD. But it’s not just children affected by ADHD.

Approximately 60 percent of children with ADHD in the United States alone become adults with ADHD; that’s about 4 percent of the adult population or 8 million adults.

It’s not uncommon for people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) to turn to addictive substances.

These can include: 

  • Alcohol
  • Marijuana
  • Heroin
  • Prescription tranquillizers
  • Pain medication
  • Nicotine
  • Caffeine
  • Sugar
  • Cocaine
  • Amphetamines
  • Gambling
  • Sex 

ADHD is synonymous with restlessness. In an attempt to soothe irritable feelings, people turn to these harmful substances. They help reduce anxiety and angst, and they lessen the feelings of hyperactivity.

In short, they calm us down and help us numb ourselves. 

But self-medicating for ADHD and ADD (Attention deficit disorder) is not a viable solution. Sure, the short-term effects might help you mask symptoms, but they won’t solve your problem.

If anything, they’ll exacerbate your feelings and make you dependant on harmful, dangerous substances.

Putting out fires with petrol: ADHD and addiction

Approximately 25 percent of adults that go to a treatment centre for alcohol and substance abuse also live with ADHD.

Self-medicating can work… at first. It provides a way out of feeling hyper and unnecessarily energetic. For some, drugs such as nicotine, caffeine, cocaine, diet pills and ‘speed’ help with the ability to focus and follow through with ideas and tasks. Others chose to soothe their 

ADHD symptoms with alcohol and marijuana.

Unfortunately, there’s a stigma with drug abuse. Oftentimes, people will judge a substance user as ‘bad’ and ‘out of control’. But we know this is not the case.

Those addicted to substances are, in most cases, desperately trying to escape their thoughts, feelings and emotions. They’re self-medicating as a way to escape the hardship of having ADHD, ADD and other issues. 

The problem is, self-medicating brings on a host of addiction-related concerns. Over time, this may make day-to-day living near impossible, and can even lead to overdoses and fatalities. 

What may start out as a solution can cause: 

  • Addiction
  • Impulse-related crime
  • Domestic violence
  • Increased high-risk behaviours
  • Lost jobs
  • Burned relationships
  • Families fallout 
  • In severe cases, death. 

Because addiction and ADHD often go hand-in-hand, many who enter rehab are diagnosed with a co-occurring disorder.

What could be a less complex treatment approach, then, becomes something more intricate and difficult to resolve. It’s no longer about just treating ADHD, it’s about overcoming an addiction along the way. 

Self-medicating ADD with alcohol and other drugs is like putting out a fire with petrol.

You have pain and problems that are burning out of control, and instead of trying to reduce those flames, we tend to throw more fuel on.

Who can become addicted?

Everyone is vulnerable to abusing any mind-altering substance or behaviour to diminish the gut-wrenching feelings that accompany ADHD. 

There are a variety of reasons why one person becomes addicted and another does not. Unfortunately, no single cause for addiction exists. Rather, a combination of factors is usually involved.

These include: 

  • Genetic predisposition
  • Neurochemistry
  • Family history
  • Trauma
  • Life stress
  • Many other physical and emotional problems 

Part of what determines who becomes addicted and who does not is the combination and timing of these factors. People may have genetic predispositions for alcoholism, for instance, but if they choose not to drink, they will not become alcoholic. The same is true for drug addictions.

The bottom line is this: people with ADHD are more likely to medicate themselves with substances or behaviours than those who do not have ADHD. 

Research has shown that about 21 percent of males with ADHD and 13 percent of females with ADHD abuse drugs or alcohol. When we see ADD it is important to look for substance abuse and other addictions. And when we see substance abuse and addictions, it is equally important to look for ADHD.

Prevention and Early Intervention

“Just Say No!” may sound simple. But if it was that simple, we would not have millions of children, adolescents, and adults using drugs every day. 

For many, their biological and emotional attraction to drugs is so powerful that they cannot conceptualise the risks of self-medication. 

This is especially true for the person with ADHD who may have an affinity for risky, stimulating experiences. This also applies to the person with ADHD who is physically and emotionally suffering from untreated restlessness, impulsiveness, low energy, shame, attention and organisation problems, along with any social concerns. 

It’s hard to say ‘no’ to drugs when you have difficulties controlling your impulses. It’s even harder to say ‘no’ when you’re struggling with concentration, focus and anxiety, and you are tormented by a restless brain or body.

The sooner we can treat children, adolescents, and adults with ADHD, then, the more likely we are to help them minimize the risk of self-medication. But, unfortunately, it can be difficult to see how treating ADHD with medication will lead to addiction. 

Not all people with ADHD need to take medication. For those who do, prescribed medication that is closely monitored can prevent and minimize the need to self-medicate. When medication helps people to concentrate, control their impulses, and regulate their energy level, they are less likely to self-medicate.

But medication isn’t essential to overcoming ADHD. In many instances, the right therapy treatment, guidance and support can just as effectively help a person conquer their feelings of ADHD and regain control. 

Untreated ADHD and addiction relapse

Untreated ADHD contributes to addictive relapse. This can often make those recovering feel miserable, depressed, unfulfilled, and even suicidal. 

Many individuals in recovery have spent countless hours in therapy. Many have worked through childhood issues and got to know their inner child. And many have analysed why they abuse substances and engage in addictive behaviours. Much of this soul-searching, insight and release of feelings is vital to recovery. 

However, for some people, relapse is inevitable. It is in a relapse that the fear of overdose and death is heightened. Those who relapse will face more shame, more loneliness and more mental health issues, and this is a cause for concern.

Treating both ADHD and addiction

It is not enough to treat addiction and not treat ADHD. Equally, it is not enough to treat ADHD and not treat a co-occurring addiction. Both need to be diagnosed and treated for the individual to have a chance at ongoing recovery.

A comprehensive ADHD and addiction treatment program can look like:

  • A professional evaluation for ADHD and co-occurring addiction.
  • Continued involvement in addiction recovery groups or Twelve Step programs.
  • Education on how ADHD impacts each individual’s life, and the lives of those who love them.
  • Building social, organisation, communication, and work or school skills.
  • ADHD coaching and support groups.
  • Closely monitored medication when medication is indicated.

The stages of recovery

Depending on a person’s stage of recovery will depend on how a person is treated. Each patient enters rehab at a different stage, and some will require more intervention than others. 

ADHD and addiction recovery can be divided into four stages: pre-recovery, early recovery, middle recovery, and long-term recovery.


Pre-recovery is the period before a person enters treatment for their addiction. It can be difficult to differentiate ADHD symptoms from addictive behaviour and intoxication. 

The focus here is to get the person into treatment for their chemical and/or behavioural addiction. This is not the time to treat ADHD with psychostimulant medication.

Early recovery

During the early recovery period, it is crucial to abstain from substances and to ‘sober up’. It is also difficult here, but not impossible, to differentiate ADHD from the symptoms of addiction. Many of the symptoms can look the same, including:

  • Distractibility
  • Restlessness
  • Mood swings
  • Confusion
  • Impulsivity

Much of what looks like ADHD can disappear with time in recovery. The key is in the life-long history of ADHD symptoms dating back to childhood. 

In most cases, early recovery is not the time to use psychostimulant medication, unless the individual’s ADHD is impacting his or her ability to attain sobriety.

Middle recovery

By now, addicts and alcoholics are settling into recovery. This is usually the time for more intervention therapy, addressing problems that did not disappear during early recovery. 

It is much easier to diagnose ADHD at this stage, and medication can be very effective when indicated.

Long-term recovery

This is an excellent time to treat ADHD with medications when warranted. By now, most people have moved beyond an intense focus on staying clean and sober.

Their recovery is an important part of their life, and they also have the flexibility to deal with other problems such as ADHD.

Medication and Addiction

Psychostimulant medication, when properly prescribed and monitored, is effective for approximately 75-80 percent of people with ADHD. 

These medications include Ritalin, Dexedrine, Adderall, and Desoxyn. It is important to note that when these medications are used to treat ADHD, the dosage is much less than what addicts use to get high. 

Those who are properly medicated should not feel high. Instead, they will report increases in their abilities to concentrate, control their impulses, and moderate their activity level. The route of delivery is also quite different from unguided medication. ADHD medication is taken orally. Outside of a supportive environment, self-medication is often injected, snorted or smoked.

Wellbutrin, Prozac, Nortriptyline, Effexor and Zoloft can also be effective in relieving ADHD symptoms for some people. These medications are frequently used in combination with a small dose of a psychostimulant.

However, many are hesitant for good reasons to use medication, especially psychostimulants. In most cases, once a recovering person becomes willing to try medication, the chance of drug abuse is very rare. 

The key to conquering ADHD and addiction, then, is a comprehensive treatment program.

This involves close monitoring of medication, behavioural interventions, ADHD coaching and support groups, and continued participation in addiction recovery programs.

There is hope

For the last few years at Camino Recovery, we have witnessed the transformation of lives that were once ravaged by untreated ADHD and addiction. 

We have worked with people who had relapsed in and out of treatment programs for ten to twenty years, and we have treated those people for previously undiagnosed ADHD, helping them get sober forever.

We’re lucky enough to have witnessed people with ADHD achieve a full recovery once their addictions were treated.

If you or someone you love is in the grips of Addiction and ADD/ADHD, call us today for an immediate assessment and to learn about the admission process to our centre.


Get in Touch

We treat all of our clients with the utmost care, dignity and respect. Call now for a totally confidential, no obligation conversation with one of our professionals.

Whether you’re calling for yourself or someone you know, you needn’t suffer alone.

If you or someone you know could benefit from our services please do not hesitate to contact us.