How many times have you heard someone claim to have ADHD, but really just have trouble focusing? The reality is, we misunderstand the concept of ADHD. If you have navigated to this page, odds are you struggle with a dual diagnosis of ADHD and addiction (or only one of the two).

These two mental illnesses may seem foreign to each other, however, they are much more connected than we may initially think. We will be discussing ADHD and addiction today. Before we begin let’s run through what exactly we will be talking about. We will be discussing ADHD, why we misunderstand it, what it actually is, why we should understand addiction as a proper illness, what a dual diagnosis is, then finally the connection between ADHD and addiction (and how to cope).

Before we begin, if you struggle with ADHD and addiction, or even one of the two, please reach out for help. The road to recovery may seem daunting, but we at the Discovery Institute want to help you. We are here for you, and want to make that daunting path seem much easier. Now, let’s take a look at the connection between ADHD and addiction.

Do We Really Know What ADHD Is?

The sheer number of people who have misunderstood ADHD is massive, odds are we all lack an understanding of ADHD. Unless you are someone diagnosed, it may seem like a normal personality quirk, excessive energy, fidgety-ness, etc.. However, ADHD is a real mental illness, and we must treat it as such. The stigmatizing and lack of a proper understanding has led individuals who are struggling with ADHD to feel misunderstood, or feel as though people lack empathy. If we were to truly understand ADHD, we would stop comparing it to such trivial matter and take those who have it seriously.

What Is ADHD?

Attention-Deficit/Hypersensitivity Disorder is a disorder that affects people’s ability to focus, or causes hyperactivity. The inability to focus manifests itself in lacking the drive to stay focused on asks, losing interest and walking away from conversations, a lack of persistence, and disorganization.

None of these are caused by defiance or a lack of comprehension. The hypersensitivity manifests itself as moving about constantly, needing to fidget all the time, and adults may appear restless or wear others out.

There is a third aspect: impulsivity. This means the person with ADHD will constantly make impulsive decisions based on instant gratification, with no regard for consequences. This can appear as social intrusion, excessive interruption, and only short-term decision making.

Why Is ADHD Misunderstood?

The sad reality is that those who have ADHD will often be looked down upon by teachers, parents, or peers early on in life. This is because many misunderstand ADHD in children and adolescents as defiance.

Individuals exhibiting symptoms of nonstop talking, having a “motor on overdrive,” constantly interrupting, losing focus on basic tasks, leaving seats when staying seated is expected, constantly fidgeting, or any other symptoms similar to those described above should be taken to a psychiatrist and diagnosed. ADHD can manifest itself early, and continue into adulthood.

Can Addiction Be Considered A Disease?

Recently, the Surgeon General has declared addiction to be a disease. This has sparked controversy in the community, alongside loved ones affected by addiction. Many argue that this enables addicts to continue to use, and argue from the basis that addiction is inherently a choice. The idea stems from the notion that since addicts choose to use narcotics, alcohol, etc., then addiction is a moral failure.

However, misunderstanding the idea of addiction has stigmatized it (which is one connection between ADHD and addiction). The stigmatization has done harm than good, even though it makes sense on the rational level. It makes sense that since people choose to use narcotics and alcohol, then addiction is a choice. 

However, in order to properly understand the connection between ADHD and addiction, and even to understand addiction in itself, we have to move on from this notion. Addiction is a chemical imbalance in the brain, and while there certainly are some who choose to use narcotics and alcohol; nobody chooses addiction

There are other diseases similar to addiction, such as lung cancer and diabetes. No one would say these people chose their disease, yet it functions in much the same way as addiction. Even in addiction, there are certain people who have become dependent upon medically prescribed opioids, alcohol is encouraged by our culture and no one knows how much it takes to become dependent, and even those who use narcotics do not desire to become dependent upon them. This is not to enable the use of substances, instead, treating addiction as a disease actually works better for addicts than vice versa.

Why the Disease Model?

Many readers may be wondering, “so what?” Well, the answer is that referring to ADHD and addiction as a disease is not just scientifically accurate, it also is more effective in getting treatment. When someone uses a substance such as alcohol or narcotics, the substance affects the way our brains work. We get that hit of dopamine and serotonin, and our brains mistake this for something beneficial to life. However, they start to change our brains. Literally, they rewire our memory, motivation, and pleasure centers. Thus, the addict can no longer feel normal without the substance. This means that it is not a black and white choice. 

However, when we refer to addiction as a moral failure, this instills feelings of guilt, shame, depression, stress, and can even isolate the addict from loved ones. In trying to help, and in trying to not enable bad behavior; we end up instilling triggering feelings in the person we are trying to help recover. On the other hand, when we refer to addiction as a disease it simply means the person is sick and must go to the doctor to get better. This takes away feelings of guilt and replaces them with feelings of relief. Dealing with a chronic illness like ADHD and addiction means a person must deal with this disease for the rest of his or her life, but it is treatable. 

What Does Choice Have to Do With It?

Although the decision to become addicted is undeniably not a black or white choice, the choice to seek recovery is in your hands. It takes courage, support, and persistence. Yet, recovery is the greatest journey someone with substance use disorder can embark on. At Discovery Institute, we want you to know that you never have to walk that road alone. We are always here for you. Please consider choosing recovery today.

What is A Co-Occurring Disorder?

A co-occurring disorder, or dual diagnosis, is what happens when two illnesses (such as ADHD and Addiction) occur simultaneously. One would be remiss to assume that these are two separate diseases, and one should treat two diseases separately. However, when people have co-occurring disorders, it means these two disorders intertwine and strengthen each other. Thus, many are moving to want the whole person treated, and suggest we should treat dual diagnosis as one disorder. This is what happens in the case of mental illness and addiction, and is the reason it is so imperative to understand addiction in the vein of disease. 

It is uncertain which causes which in regards to co-occurring disorders, but one thing is certain; co-occurring disorders are disorders that fuel each other. When one is being experienced, the other is either being triggered or at risk of developing. Particularly in the case of mental illness and addiction. Many of the symptoms of mental illness are also causes of addiction. Alongside this, addiction causes many feelings that lead to mental illness. This can be seen in the way isolation, depression, stress, and escapism all trigger or can lead to an addiction. In the same way, addiction can produce feelings of stress, sadness, guilt, and so forth. These are all feelings that also come with mental illness.

What is the Connection Between ADHD and Addiction?

The connection between ADHD and addiction is that these are two disorders that can feed into one another, and often cause a co-occurring disorder. ADHD and addiction occur in unison more than we would hope. The staggering statistics reveal that about twenty-five percent of people who get treatment for addiction also struggle with ADHD. In other words, ADHD and addiction are experienced in tandem amongst around 25,000 Americans. This is a massive problem that needs to be addressed. (Particularly since that statistic only counts 10% of people who struggle with addiction. Thus, the actual number of people experiencing ADHD and addiction is likely much higher). 

The staggering statistics reveal that about twenty-five percent of people who are treated for addiction also struggle with ADHD. In other words, ADHD and addiction are experienced in tandem amongst around 25,000 Americans. This is a massive problem that needs to be addressed. (Particularly since that statistic only counts 10% of people who struggle with addiction. Thus, the actual number of people experiencing ADHD and addiction is likely much higher). 

More About Addiction and ADHD

It is not difficult to see why these two illnesses are connected. The distractions, impulsiveness, and desire to always be experiencing something are all hallmarks of ADHD and addiction. Since many dual diagnoses stem from an attempt to self-medicate in order to cope with a disorder: one can infer that many when we experience ADHD we turn to addiction in an attempt to slow down, focus, or relieve our constant hyperactivity.

The sad truth is that those who struggle with ADHD must constantly be on the move, never lacking stimulation. Individuals with this disorder often turn to anything they can to keep going. Substances like drugs and alcohol offer a quick fix for a lack of stimuli. 

ADHD is a disorder that causes people to lack a long-term view and act impulsively. So, many people who have this disorder turn to “quick fixes” in order to find relief. Medications, alcohol abuse, and illicit drug use might provide that relief. So, people who have ADHD may act impulsively and use these substances. This can result in an addiction problem.

Although this is understandable, it should also motivate individuals to seek treatment for our dual diagnosis.

Recognizing the Symptoms

Some individuals who have ADHD and substance abuse may be even more hyperactive. They might lack even more focus or seem more impulsive than normal. Individuals with ADHD and addiction may experience withdrawal symptoms, or feelings of anxiety. They also may isolate themselves from loved ones out of guilt, shame, or hiding our addiction. 

If you or a loved one is trying to understand what someone is going through, or if you think your loved one is experiencing these problems; seek help for them immediately. You may need to help by staging an intervention.

Interventions are great ways to show our loved ones we care about them, and want them to get help. However, they can be tricky, so we may want to learn how through the Discovery Institute’s intervention guide. We want you to be as equipped as possible when you confront the person you care about.

How Can I Get Better?

ADHD and addiction can be a daunting diagnosis. However, there are plenty of ways to recover; such as holistic care, community, and therapy. These are a few ways that we should try to recover. Holistic care focuses on caring for the whole person; mind, body, and soul. This means going out into nature, practicing meditation, learning to be mindful, and trying to be our truest self. For a disorder that needs us to constantly go fast, slowing down can be a very helpful practice.

Developing a community through recovery is also imperative. We were designed to be social and should be amongst others in recovery. Alongside this, seeking to improve ourselves through group therapy or individual therapy are great ways to recover. All in all, we want to seek treatment. Above all else, we should stick with recovery treatment, and embark on the daily journey to recovery.

Getting Help

It is never too late. You owe it to those who care about you, the recovery community, and yourself to take your life back. Dealing with ADHD and addiction is very difficult, but it is not impossible. We at Discovery Institute want you to know that we are here for you. If you need anything, help is one phone call away. We have experts available for connection at all hours. Taking recovery one step at a time is extremely important. Visiting this page was a great first step. Now, it is time for you to embark on the journey to a whole new life, please consider contacting us today.

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by Dr. Jeffrey Berman, MD

Dr. Jeffrey Berman, MDDr. Jeffrey Berman is a psychiatrist in Teaneck, New Jersey and is affiliated with Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital. He received his medical degree from State University of New York Upstate Medical University and has been in practice for more than 20 years. He also speaks multiple languages, including French and Hebrew.