ADHD and Addiction: The Truth About Substance Abuse
When shame and social stigma create feelings of inadequacy, some adults with ADHD turn to alcohol and drugs. Discover which ADHD medications don’t mix well with substances and why a 12-step program may provide the help you need.
As many as 20-30% of ADHD adults will abuse one or more substances in their lifetime. Abuse isn't defined by quantity or frequency of consumption, but by how a substance affects your relationships, health, work, school, and standing with the law. If a substance is causing trouble in any of those areas and you're still using it, then you might have a problem. Read on to learn everything you need to know about substance abuse and ADHD.
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Why ADHD Adults?
Recent survey data suggests that more than 15% of adults with ADHD have abused or been dependent on alcohol or drugs during the previous year. That's nearly TRIPLE the rate for adults without ADHD.
ADHD adults are at a higher risk for substance abuse due to untreated symptoms like impulsivity, the risk of self-medication, and genetic predispositions. The rate of substance use disorders in close relatives of ADHD adults is higher than average. Addiction can be hereditary, just like ADHD.
In addition, genes associated with risk taking or novelty seeking can predispose an ADHD adult to abuse substances. Life changes like moving, starting a new job, or having a child can activate that genetic vulnerability.
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When ADHD goes untreated, symptoms like impulsivity can make ADHDers more likely to try drugs. Many untreated adults also use alcohol and drugs as self-medication for active symptoms.
ADHD adults often complain of trouble concentrating, settling down their brains, relaxing in social environments, and falling asleep easily at night. Alcohol and drugs can be short-term solutions to these problems, but they also bring with them a new set of problems. The bottom line is that there are more effective ways to treat the symptoms of adult ADHD.
The good news is that ADHDers who treat their symptoms have the same risk for substance abuse as people without ADHD. People who are treated are 50% less likely than their untreated peers to abuse substances.
Alcohol and marijuana are the substances most commonly abused by ADHDers, but other recreational drugs like cocaine, amphetamines, opiates, Quaaludes, and prescription drugs can also cause problems.
Additionally, young adults with ADHD are more likely to smoke at an early age, and are more likely to become dependent on nicotine.
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Alcohol + ADHD Meds
There are risks associated with mixing alcohol with ADHD meds. Stimulant medication can intensify the effects of alcohol, marijuana or cocaine, making you feel drunker, faster.
If you can't stick to one drink, you should consider skipping your meds for the night, but remember that missing a dose can make you impulsive. Ask a friend to watch our for you. If you're on a long-acting med, this isn't an option. Always talk to your doctor first.
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Alcohol - ADHD Meds
While there are risks of drinking while taking ADHD meds, it can be even riskier in the long term to use alcohol without them. Statistics show that drinking with untreated ADHD makes you more likely to become dependent.
If you're not treating your ADHD symptoms, you could drink too much in an effort to self-medicate. This is not a healthy way to deal with daily frustrations and can take a toll on your emotional balance.
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Feeling ADHD Shame
Some addiction also stems from feeling of being different or fundamentally flawed — something many adult ADHDers hear from a society that doesn't understand attention deficit. Shame and despair lead some ADHDers to hide behind substances or to seek some kind of jolt from reality.
Involvement in relationships and groups where you are deeply valued and understood are critical for an ADHDer trying to overcome or avoid an addiction of any kind.
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Feeling Like You Don't Fit
Many ADHD adults report feeling outcast or awkward in social settings. Having a drink or a smoke can make you feel part of a crowd – one that doesn't care if you don't finish a sentence or wander off while they're talking.
The type of drinker who ends up in an AA meeting feels like they finally fit in once they have a beer, wine, whiskey. But staying sober, and embracing the positive aspects of how ADHDers think can help.
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ADHD inspires a million competing thoughts and ideas, making it difficult to focus while sitting through a long meeting or working on a tedious project.
Getting drunk or smoking marijuana can slow down a fast ADHD brain enough to concentrate, but that choice comes with serious long-term health risks. Exercise is a healthier solution that can help produce feelings of pleasure, and increase focus.
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The most effective treatment for addiction or substance abuse is a 12-step program. However, ADHD makes it tough to get through a list of long, involved steps comprising a treatment plan.
Enlist the help of family and friends to help you remember meetings, and bring them along to help you focus on the work of recovery.
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Coming to Terms with a Dual Diagnosis
Sharing your ADHD diagnosis at meetings can help you feel less alone. You are not the only ADHD adult with substance abuse problems. Meeting and connecting with others can help you find out what works from the best source – people who have walked in your footsteps.
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Begin writing in a daily journal, and make sure to get enough exercise to keep your mind engaged.
Use the HALT program.
Avoid Hunger: Eat 3 meals and 3 healthy snacks with low sugar and caffeine.
Avoid Anger: Learn to manage your emotions by talking about them or seeing a therapist.
Avoid Loneliness: Create a network of supporting people that replaces drug and alcohol use.
Avoid Becoming over-Tired: Get enough sleep, and let your doctor know if you're having trouble.
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Prevent a Relapse
A relapse is not a moment, but a process that unfolds over weeks, indicated by signs like feeling restless/irritable, trouble sleeping, or an impulse to hang out with an old drinking buddy.
Have a plan in case you feel a relapse is coming on. Will you call a friend? A coach? Your doctor to defuse the urge? Ask a family member to watch out for risky behaviors in case you have trouble with self-appraisal.
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Treating ADHD to Treat Substance Abuse
Maintain your sobriety by beginning an ADHD treatment plan designed to help you stick to your recovery plan. ADHD medication is not a magic bullet that will eliminate the impulses that drove you to addiction, but it can make it easier to focus on your recovery with less impulsivity. Medicating can help you take better stock of the things you’re supposed to be doing, and make wiser choices.
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Safety Using Stimulants
Research shows that methylphenidate (i.e., Ritalin, Concerta) isn't a gateway drug – it's not likely to lead to other addictions. The pills are long onset, and don't produce a cocaine-like high when taken properly. But people with a family history of addiction or past substance abuse should talk with their doctors, and use caution when trying new medications. Stimulants, like any drug, can be abused.
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Use long-acting, slow-release stimulants like Bupropion or Clonidine. Sign a written, therapeutic contract with your doctor spelling out clear consequences if abuse or violations occur. Have a family member store stimulants so you can only take them according to the prescription. Have your doctor write prescriptions for 1 week at a time. Surround yourself with doctors and family who will recognize drug-seeking behavior and help your stay sober.
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More on ADHD and Substance Abuse
For additional resources to learn about substance abuse and ADHD, visit the following links: