The Relationship Between ADHD And Addiction

Senior woman comforting a mature man in group therapy

FG Trade/iStock/Getty Images

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by difficulty with attention, executive functioning, hyperactivity, and difficulty with impulse control. People with ADHD are at higher risk than those who do not have ADHD for developing substance use disorders and addiction.

In this article, we explore the connection between ADHD and addiction, how ADHD contributes to an individual’s risk for addiction, and how ADHD impacts treatment for substance use disorders.

The Connection Between ADHD and Addiction

According to the International Collaboration on ADHD and Substance Abuse, approximately one out of six adults with a substance use disorder has ADHD. While there is not one exact reason why people with ADHD are at higher risk for substance use disorders compared to those who do not have ADHD, a few different variables are thought to contribute to this connection:

  • Genetics: We know that there are genetic components to both ADHD and substance use disorders, and it is possible that some of the genetics that make someone more at risk for a substance use disorder also increase the likelihood that they will have ADHD.
  • Impulsivity: People with ADHD have more difficulty regulating impulses compared to those who do not, which can increase risk for using addictive substances.
  • Dopamine Seeking: ADHD brains process dopamine differently than non-ADHD brains. This difference may contribute to higher risk for substance dependence among those with ADHD. Daisy, who has ADHD and struggles with cannabis dependence, said: “I definitely feel that weed gives me dopamine which my [ADHD] brain lacks, so it would help me focus and sometimes get stuff done that I normally wouldn't have been able to.” Maya, who also has ADHD and a history of substance dependence, also shared, “I hated harming myself with that poison but my ADHD cried for stimulation and thrill.”
  • Self-Medication: Barriers to appropriate, evidence-based treatments for ADHD and common comorbid mental health issues may drive some to attempt to self-medicate with substances, which can lead to addiction. Maya said that her substance use “allowed me to hide my disability.” Daisy shared that substance use helps her process her emotions. 
  • Trauma: People with ADHD are more likely than those without ADHD to have a history of childhood trauma and abuse. Trauma history increases the risk for developing a substance use disorder.

Complications of ADHD and Addiction

Individuals who have ADHD are at higher risk for developing a substance use disorder in their lifetime, and ADHD can complicate recovery from a substance use disorder. Impulse control issues and dopamine seeking can make quitting especially difficult for someone with ADHD. Regarding her experience with cigarettes, Maya shared, “Nicotine satisfied my constant ADHD need for stimulation.”

Of course, those with ADHD can still overcome their addictions! They may just need specialized treatment and care from providers who understand the unique intersection of their symptoms.

Diagnosing ADHD and Addiction

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental diagnosis, meaning that it develops early in life. Although many people are not diagnosed until adulthood, symptoms typically begin in early childhood. A qualified evaluator will use various psychological assessments to determine whether or not someone meets the diagnostic criteria for ADHD.

A substance use disorder, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, occurs when an individual engages in “a pathological pattern of behaviors related to use of the substance” and continues using the substance despite “significant substance-related problems,” such as losing jobs or harming relationships as a direct result of the substance use.

If an individual finds that they cannot regulate or control their substance use, experiences cravings when they are unable to use, develops tolerance to the substance, experiences withdrawal when not using the substance, or continues use despite negative consequences, they might be experiencing a substance use disorder.

If you feel like you are struggling with your substance use, talk to a qualified provider about help and support. You can also contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration for resources and support. Their hotline is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, at 1-800-622-HELP.

Treatment for ADHD and Addiction

It is vital to remember that no study has shown a link between stimulant treatment for ADHD and increased risk for substance dependence or stimulant use disorder. In fact, appropriate treatment for ADHD can regulate impulsive behaviors and mitigate self-medicating, effectively reducing the risk for substance dependence.

Some people with ADHD prefer not to use medication in their treatment, or to use non-stimulant medication. Some find that their stimulant prescription helps them greatly. Both choices are valid and between the individual and their treatment team.

Each individual must determine the treatment options and plan that is right for them, and what works best for one person may not be the best option for someone else. Current research suggests that the most effective treatment for ADHD with comorbid substance use disorder is a combination of either stimulant or non-stimulant medication and outpatient therapy such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

Maya shared that CBT was helpful to her in overcoming her addiction, as well as learning about the underlying reasons behind her substance use. She said, “It took me years to learn this but ultimately I gained the knowledge and insights and could stop.”

Coping With ADHD and Addiction

Community support can be huge for addiction treatment, especially for those with ADHD. Daisy shared that she joined a discord server for people struggling with similar issues. She said, “Being able to talk to people going through the same thing is a godsend.” Maya has also found support from online groups and connecting with others going through similar challenges.

Addiction and substance use can be triggered by the environment and reminders of past use. This combined with impulsivity related to ADHD can put someone at risk for relapse. Because of this, changing your habits and staying away from situations where you used to use can help you cope with cravings and triggers.

It can be challenging to overcome addiction, which is particularly true for people with ADHD. However, treatment and support are available. It is okay to ask for and receive help. If you struggle with addiction and have ADHD, remember that addiction is not a moral failing but something that you can overcome with appropriate treatment and support.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Hernandez M, Dambreville N, Levin FR. ADHD and co-occurring substance use disorders. In: Akerele E, ed. Substance and Non-Substance Related Addictions. Springer International Publishing; 2022:19-37.

  2. Van de Glind G, Brynte C, Skutle A, et al. The international collaboration on adhd and substance abuse (Icasa): mission, results, and future activities. Eur Addict Res. 2020;26(4-5):173-178.

  3. Wimberley T, Agerbo E, Horsdal HT, et al. Genetic liability to ADHD and substance use disorders in individuals with ADHD. Addiction. 2020;115(7):1368-1377.

  4. Yufei X. Research on the alternate neurobiological models of adhd. In: 2020 International Conference on Public Health and Data Science (ICPHDS). IEEE; 2020:355-359.

  5. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).

  6. Johnson J, Morris S, George S. Managing comorbid attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (Adhd) in adults with substance use disorder (Sud): what the addiction specialist needs to knowAddictive Disorders & Their Treatment. 2021;20(3):181-188.

  7. Taubin D, Wilson JC, Wilens TE. Adhd and substance use disorders in young peopleChild and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America. 2022;31(3):515-530.

By Amy Marschall, PsyD
Dr. Amy Marschall is an autistic clinical psychologist with ADHD, working with children and adolescents who also identify with these neurotypes among others. She is certified in TF-CBT and telemental health.