ADHD And Alcohol: How Alcohol Abuse Affects ADHD

By Nicole Beasley |Updated May 23, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Melinda Santa, LCSW

ADHD and alcoholism often go hand in hand with teens and adults, but the reason might not be what you think. Many people have a misconception that ADHD medications are a gateway to other drugs and alcohol abuse. However, most of the people with ADHD who abuse alcohol are not diagnosed with ADHD or seek treatment until after they have engaged in alcohol abuse. Here's what you need to know about ADHD and alcohol, including treatment, how alcohol affects ADHD symptoms, and why they are frequently combined.

How Can ADHD And Alcohol Abuse Be Linked?

What Is ADHD?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, is a mental health condition that affects almost 5 percent of the adult population. Less than 20 percent of adults with ADHD seek treatment for it, and about 40 percent of all cases of ADHD in adults is considered severe. Men are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than women, particularly in adulthood.

ADHD causes many symptoms, primarily the inability to focus or concentrate. People with ADHD are also likely to be impulsive and hyperactive, both of which are triggers for alcohol and drug abuse. Teens and adults who are not diagnosed or treated for ADHD but have the condition are ten times more likely to abuse alcohol than those without the disorder.

What Is Alcohol Abuse?

Alcohol abuse is about more than just the consumption of alcohol. When alcohol is consumed in large quantities or frequently, and use of alcohol affects relationships, work, and family, yet continues, this constitutes abuse. You will know that you have a problem with alcohol abuse if you continue to drink alcohol even though it is detrimental to your relationships and career, and you continue to abuse alcohol even though it is affecting your life in negative ways.

How Common Is ADHD And Alcohol Abuse?

ADHD and alcohol abuse is very common. About a third of children who are diagnosed with ADHD continue having problems with the disorder into adulthood. According to Web MD, statistics about ADHD and alcohol abuse are staggering. About 25 percent of adults being treated for alcohol abuse also have ADHD.

Children who have ADHD are more likely to abuse alcohol in their teen years, and they are more likely to continue to abuse alcohol as adults. In fact, 40 percent of children with ADHD go on to abuse alcohol by the age of 14, compared to 22 percent of children without an ADHD diagnosis. Teen use of alcohol is a strong predictor of alcohol abuse in adulthood.

Why Is ADHD And Alcohol Abuse Linked?

According to Dr. Carl Sherman with the ADHD publication ADDitude, ADHD and alcohol abuse are likely linked because people with ADHD self-medicate. In a research study that was conducted, only 30 percent of young adults with ADHD and alcoholism said that they drank or used drugs to get high. An overwhelming 70 percent said that they use alcohol and drugs to try to counteract the symptoms of their disorder, such as insomnia, hyperactivity, and social awkwardness.

In fact, there is a common myth that ADHD medication leads to drug and alcohol abuse, but the opposite is true. People with ADHD who seek treatment and take medication to control their symptoms are much less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. This is because people who have ADHD who are either undiagnosed or untreated are trying to control their symptoms themselves as best they can. There are many reasons that people might be undiagnosed or untreated, including restricted access to healthcare due to the financial situation or lack of medical insurance.

There may also be a biological link between ADHD and alcohol abuse. The same genes that are associated with risk-taking and impulsivity are also the same genes associated with ADHD. People who have parents or close relatives with alcohol abuse or ADHD or both are more likely to have both disorders themselves.

How Alcohol Abuse Affects ADHD Symptoms

Many people with ADHD abuse alcohol and other drugs because they are trying to self-medicate, meaning that they are trying to cope with their symptoms. Alcohol is a depressant, which can mean that it makes the brain slow down considerably. Many adults with ADHD lose physical hyperactivity over time, but they are still internally hyperactive. Their thoughts race so fast that they are unable to be productive. Alcohol seems to slow their thought processes, and it makes them more comfortable and feel calmer.

Yet the opposite is true of alcohol abuse. The effects of alcohol in a healthy individual without ADHD are much the same as the effects of ADHD itself. Both ADHD and alcohol abuse affects the frontal lobe of the brain, which dampens a person's ability to think clearly. Even though thoughts may not be racing along, concentration and focus can still be greatly lacking in individuals who use alcohol to treat their ADHD symptoms.

The biggest problem with this is that people tend to find themselves in a binging situation. They want to alleviate their symptoms and feel better, so they drink. Then the drinking causes further complications with unclear thinking, so they continue to drink trying to reach the right "balance." The result is that people with ADHD who drink to self-medicate are much more likely to become addicted and have an alcohol abuse problem. It is a vicious cycle that is difficult to break.

Treating Both Disorders

It is important to understand that if you have alcoholism and ADHD, you will need to treat both disorders to overcome them. Adults who seek treatment for alcohol abuse but have undiagnosed or untreated ADHD are more likely to have a relapse. This is because you have not removed the reason that you started drinking in the first place.

Treatment for ADHD usually involves behavioral therapy as well as medications. Medications for ADHD usually consist of stimulants (which have the opposite effect on patients with ADHD). Stimulants of this nature can be addictive and are controlled substances. Many people feel that this means they should stay away from these medications if they already have an addiction to alcohol. Yet the fact of the matter is that adults with ADHD who take these medications as prescribed are much less likely to abuse alcohol and drugs.

Your first step to seeking help for ADHD and alcohol abuse is to seek substance abuse treatment from a facility that can also begin treatment for ADHD. If you have never been diagnosed with ADHD, but you have the symptoms of the disorder, you must talk to a psychiatrist so that they can give you an accurate diagnosis. Most alcohol treatment programs offer psychiatrists to treat underlying disorders such as ADHD because many people who find themselves abusing drugs and alcohol started doing so to self-medicate for another disorder. It is very common.

What You Can Do Right Now

There are some things that you can do right now to combat the problems of ADHD and alcohol abuse. Your first step is to stop drinking to self-medicate or cope with symptoms. If you are unable to stop abusing alcohol on your own, seek out a treatment center or 12-step program to assist you. Your second step is to schedule an appointment with a psychiatrist so that you can begin getting an appropriate diagnosis and treatment of your ADHD disorder.

If you use alcohol to self-medicate, you may not necessarily believe that you have an alcohol abuse problem. After all, alcohol abuse is defined as using alcohol excessively even though it is causing problems in your life. If you are not experiencing difficulties related to your alcohol abuse, or if you are not drinking frequently, you may think that you do not have an alcohol abuse problem. While this might be the case, it is still important that you stop self-medicating with alcohol and seek out professional treatment instead.

If you still aren't sure where to go from here, whether or not you might have ADHD, or whether or not you should seek alcohol abuse treatment, seeking out professionals can help. Talking to a licensed therapist can greatly assist you in seeing patterns in your behavior and recognizing the problems that ADHD and alcohol are causing in all aspects of your life.

How Can ADHD And Alcohol Abuse Be Linked?

Contacting a therapist is often the first step to finding resources and taking the next steps to ensure your physical and mental health. With BetterHelp, it is easier than ever to talk to a therapist that can help you on your journey to health and wellness. With online chat or text, video chat, or phone chat, BetterHelp therapists can help you at any time of the day or night. You can continue with therapy at your own pace and at the times and days that are convenient for you rather than relying on transportation or scheduling at a brick and mortar therapist. With options like these, there is no reason not to take action now and contact a therapist today.

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