Addiction and ADHD

Do you know which lauded Olympic Gold medalist and champion has ADHD?

If you guessed swimmer Michael Phelps, you’d be correct. He has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder … and he’s the most decorated athlete in the history of the Olympic Games.

Here’s what Phelps had to say about the power of perseverance:

“There will be obstacles. There will be doubters. There will be mistakes. But with hard work … there are no limits.”

Here, we’ll explore how addiction often overlaps with ADHD, and help you in your next steps if you have a dual diagnosis. Our belief is that, if you’re willing to find help and do the work of recovery, then Phelps is spot on – there are no limits on your life.

What Is ADHD?

According to the American Psychiatric Association, Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a mental health condition that affects millions of Americans each year.

Characteristic symptoms of ADHD include:

  • Lack of focus, inability to stay on task / pay attention for prolonged periods
  • Excessive movement / hyperactivity
  • Lack of impulse control / problematic impulsivity

Note that the items on this list – particularly lack of impulse control – are also symptoms of other mental health conditions, such as borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder. That’s one reason why it’s important to have a thorough evaluation by a trained, experienced mental health professional to assess your condition.

There’s growing awareness around the ADHD diagnosis, which is wonderful. However, it also means that some people may self-diagnose inaccurately.

Myths and Facts About ADHD

Myth: Only children can have ADHD.
Fact: Though it’s one of the more prevalent mental health diagnoses for children, ADHD can affect individuals across the lifespan.

Myth: Having ADHD means that you can’t control your impulses or stay sober long-term.
Fact: With appropriate mental health treatment (which we’ll outline below), people with ADHD can and do recover from substance abuse and addiction.

Myth: Having ADHD means that you’re less (or more) intelligent than most.
Fact: There is no certain correlation between intelligence and ADHD. One does not predict the other!

How Does ADHD Overlap with Autism?

People who have an Autism Spectrum Disorder often have co-occurring ADHD. The Spectrum News article Decoding the overlap between autism and ADHD cites the recent DSM-V updates that include an autism/ADHD dual diagnosis.

The article notes that, “An estimated 30 to 80 percent of children with autism also meet the criteria for ADHD and, conversely, 20 to 50 percent of children with ADHD for autism.”

For more on the dual diagnosis of autism and addiction, check out Addiction and Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Are ADHD and Addiction Linked?

ADHD and addiction are connected. First, there’s the obvious link between an ADHD diagnosis and possible abuse of prescription amphetamines such as Adderall. In 2013, The New York Times did a feature highlighting how some teens fake symptoms of ADHD in order to gain access to amphetamines.

But what about the people who truly do have ADHD? Are they more likely than others to develop an addiction? Unfortunately, the answer is yes.

According to American Addiction Centers, adults who struggle with alcohol abuse are 5-10 times more likely to have ADHD than the general population. And up to a quarter (25%) of people in treatment for substance abuse have ADHD.

That’s a significant overlap. So, why does it occur?

Some Reasons for the ADHD/Addiction Overlap

Certainly brain chemistry plays a role in the link between ADHD and addiction, and some research indicates that people with ADHD may turn to drugs to raise low dopamine levels. That said, there’s also a psychosocial component.

ADHD typically begins in early childhood, which we now know is a key time in terms of psychosocial development.

Ages three to five are particularly important for practicing initiative and learning impulse control. If there are problems during this stage of life – such as trauma, loss, or neglect – then we might see the development of ADHD and/or addiction.

Psychosocial development in early childhood is important. If we don’t learn the lessons of initiative and self-command, we tend to become impulsive, which can be a big contributor for substance abuse later in life.

Finally, the social isolation, sense of otherness, self-judgment, and shame that often accompany ADHD can precipitate anxiety, depression, and despair … the same underlying core issues that lead to addiction.

Treating Co-Occurring Disorders of ADHD and Addiction

While ADHD does affect impulse control, lasting recovery is about more than just managing impulses. It’s about healing the underlying core issues that trigger the impulses to use in the first place.

That’s how you break the addictive cycle: by stopping it before it starts.

This requires that we take a close look at what’s happening inside of you the moment before you feel the impulse to use.

Is your thinking stressing you out? Are you trapped by self-judgment or limiting beliefs? Or are you experiencing an emotion that you don’t want to feel? Are you spiraling through shame, or reeling with grief?

When you’re able to pinpoint the mental and emotional level issues that arise on a regular basis, then you have found your path to healing. You can learn how to apply love to the parts of yourself that hurt, and in doing so, you’ll heal.

Working with an experienced, well-trained therapist can empower you to forgive your judgments, let go of your limiting beliefs, and even discover the positive purpose of your addict aspect.

(And yes, working with a qualified mental health professional is imperative if you have a dual diagnosis of ADHD and addiction.)

Conclusion: Keep Working at Your Recovery

You don’t have to let your ADHD and addiction limit your life. Instead, you can take proactive steps toward recovery. Seek out dual diagnosis rehab, put in the effort, and watch your life turn around.

Addiction and ADHD

Joe Koelzer

Joe Koelzer is a co-founder and CEO of The Clearing. He has years of counseling experience and a master’s degree in Spiritual Psychology from the University of Santa Monica.

After observing how depression and substance abuse impacted his wife Betsy’s life, Joe realized how broken our current system is for addiction and related mental health treatment.

He witnessed firsthand how an evidence-based approach coupled with Spiritual Psychology saved Betsy and enabled her to gain control of her life.

In co-founding The Clearing, Joe realized his dream of creating and sharing this innovative approach with others in a structured clinical setting.

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APA Reference
, . (2018). Addiction and ADHD. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 5, 2020, from


Last updated: 22 Jun 2018
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