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Why ADD/ADHD Increases the Odds of Addiction - And How to Get Better

The odds of addiction go way up for people with ADD/ADHD, and untreated ADD is one of the leading causes of substance abuse in America today. Stimulant type medications work in the treatment of ADD/ADHD symptoms, but these medications may not be advised for people with addictions, due to their potential for abuse.

ADD and Addiction Facts

  1. 7% of children between the ages of 3 and 17 have ADHD1
  2. 40% of children and teens with ADHD have a co-occurring disorder of Oppositional Defiance Disorder, 21.6% have minor depression (dysthymia) and 15.2% have an anxiety disorder2
  3. Studies of adults with ADHD have found co-occurring alcohol abuse disorders at rates ranging from 17% to 45% and drug abuse or dependence at rates ranging from 9% to 30%3
  4. Studies have shown that people with ADHD are more likely to develop a substance abuse problem at a younger age, more likely to require lifetime substance abuse treatment and more likely to develop protracted substance abuse problems throughout life.4
  5. Medication treatment reduces the risks of substance abuse by 85% amongst teen patients with ADHD5

Symptoms of ADD/ADHD

A large number of ADD/ADHD sufferers never get properly diagnosed, and some get misdiagnosed with bi-polar disorder. The risks of addiction for untreated ADD/ADHD increase dramatically, and although there has been controversy surrounding the medicating of young children, and a concern that by "drugging" these kids with potent psycho stimulants we would predispose them to addiction, the reverse has in fact been found true. People medicated appropriately are far less likely to develop substance abuse problems.

Anyone who believes they may have ADD/ADHD should get a professional diagnosis, and treatment.

Some ADD/ADHD symptoms include:

  • Impulsivity
  • Forgetfulness
  • A lack of focus
  • Impatience
  • Thrill seeking
  • Day dreaming
  • Restlessness
  • Unusual sleep patterns

ADD/ADHD patients are often very creative and due to unusual thought processing are sometimes more able to grasp big picture concepts quickly. Many very successful people achieve even with a diagnosis of ADD/ADHD, but in general, the disorder makes academic and work performance more difficult, and less likely.

Why Are ADD/ADHD Patients More Vulnerable to Addiction?

While ADD/ADHD addiction, like addiction in general, remains only partially understood, there are certain known characteristics of the ADD/ADHD patient that make the development of an addiction more likely.

ADD/ADHD is very highly correlated with poor academic and professional performance. Unfortunately, for many ADD/ADHD sufferers, enduring constant underperformance throughout the developmental years of childhood and adolescence hurts self esteem - and low self esteem is well correlated to high levels of substance abuse.

Some ADD/ADHD patients also have trouble forming meaningful relationships, both friendships and love relationships. They tend to get more isolated, lack strong social support, and feel lonelier. They are also more likely to suffer depression. Isolation and depression are very highly correlated with an increased risk for substance abuse.

There is a theory that ADD/ADHD patient may suffer an altered dopamine response. Dopamine, the reward (feel good) neuro chemical, may be released in lesser amounts in those with ADD/ADHD, causing them a lessened inability to feel normal pleasure. They may need to seek out normal pleasure levels through intoxication or thrill seeking behaviors.

Although drugs such as alcohol, cocaine or meth can produce temporary symptoms betterment, these substance over time will worsen ADD/ADHD severity.

Treatment for ADD/ADHD and Addiction

As for any dual diagnosis, for addiction treatment to work, treatment must integrate therapies for addiction management with ADD/ADHD symptoms management. Treating either condition in isolation won't work. Untreated ADD/ADHD will quickly prompt relapse and abuse, and untreated addiction will worsen ADD/ADHD symptoms. Treatment must occur in concert.

ADD/ADHD addicts and alcoholics do not require any unusual treatments for their substance abuse behaviors, and provided their ADD/ADHD symptoms are managed, conventional addictions treatments prove quite effective.

Treatments for ADD/ADHD symptoms include medication, exercise and diet modification, psychotherapy and a lengthy participation in peer based recovery groups.


The most widely used treatment for ADD/ADHD symptoms control are stimulant type medications, such as Ritalin or Adderall. These medications will work for approximately 80% of patients, both children and adults. These medications, although not intoxicating when used as directed, do carry some risk for abuse, and so should be used with care for the treatment of an ADD/ADHD addict in recovery.

Alternative medications, such as the antidepressants Wellbutrin, Eflexor or SSRI's can be used without risk of abuse.

Although the use of potent psycho stimulants in the treatment of ADD/ADHD symptoms has been, and continues to be controversial, they remain widely prescribed because nothing else works as well.

It is vital that ADD/ADHD symptoms moderate for any chance of a recovery from addiction, and medications that may help need to be considered.

Exercise and Diet

Behavioral choices on diet and activity levels can have a significant impact on the severity of ADD/ADHD symptoms expression. A healthy diet, low in carbohydrates promotes balanced blood sugar and an evenness of mood and energy.

Vigorous exercise also helps to stabilize mood and attention, and certain balance type exercises (such as yoga or martial arts) have been shown to exert an impact on hypothalamic functioning, increasing an ability to focus.

Anyone in recovery benefits from a healthy diet with exercise and meditative movements, and these behavioral choices seem especially important for the ADD/ADHD addict in recovery.


Therapy benefits the ADD/ADHD patient for several reasons. Many enter into substance abuse in part from lowered self esteem, a lack of confidence, and an inability to form lasting friendships. Medication can help to alleviate symptoms of the disorder, but unless the underlying psychological distress gets dealt with, lasting recovery is unlikely.

Working with a therapist, patients can better understand their disorder, understand how their disorder and their self worth must be distinct entities, and learn effective life and coping skills.

Therapists can help patients to organize structured daily routines which minimize relapse (and ADD/ADHD symptoms provoking) boredom and frustration.

Peer Recovery

All addicts and alcoholics in recovery require a lasting participating in aftercare for the best chance of sobriety, and ADD/ADHD patients need this more than most.

Regular reinforcement of recovery lessons help those that have difficulty focusing on long-standing goals incorporate recovery techniques into everyday life. The meetings also provide additional daily structure – structure that can help a lot.

Additionally, many ADD/ADHD patients in recovery find aftercare peer groups such as AA or NA great places for social support, often making lasting friendships with like minded people. Many alcoholics in recovery suffer from ADD/ADHD, and there can be an understanding and fellowship in recovery groups that is hard to find in regular society. Sober support helps.

ADD/ADHD increases the likelihood of an addiction, it also complicates the treatment, but any treatment that works concurrently on issues of addiction and ADD/ADHD symptoms has a great chance of success.

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