ADHD means high risk of addiction

ADHD impacts the regulation of dopamine, leaving adults with ADHD short of the neuro-chemical responsible for interest, reward and stimulation. So we are under-stimulated, easily distracted by more engaging thoughts, daydreams or activities; more easily bored and dis-engaged; and less rewarded by positive outcomes and pastimes. The experience of being ADHD is like that of being in a desert without water, parched and desperate for a drink.

Parched in a desert

Two people walk side by side in the desert, one with a sporty backpack containing several litres of water, that has a tube ending just by their mouth. One has no water all all. The one with the water tube sips their water when they like, they can take their time, watch the camels crossing the dunes and can stroll across the sands. The other walker with no water is parched and distracted. They feel they may die of thirst very soon, constantly scanning the horizon looking for any kind of oasis. When an oasis does appear they run, hoping to drink deeply and relax, and stay for a long while. In ADHD, the desert is one of stimulation and our thirst is for interest and reward. Read more in my model of ADHD.

Rewards are not always healthy

Desperate to find reward where we can, it is often found in drugs from caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, cannabis and cocaine. Psycho-active drugs often target dopamine, releasing large amounts into the brain, to give a sense of reward and stimulation – “missing” in an ADHD brain. But of course drugs bring unwanted and unhealthy side-affects.

But it’s not just drugs that give this dopamine release: video games, internet browsing, Facebook, fast driving, TV, gambling, sex, food, dangerous pursuits, arguments, even approaching deadlines give a major dopamine boost that give a “fix” to someone with ADHD. With an impulsive, rule breaking nature combined with a disconnect from the future, it is easy to see why addiction is so prevalent in ADHD.

Depressing numbers

There’s a lot of scientific studies of addicts (thanks to Pete Quily), up to 4/5 addicts are ADHD: 35% of Cocaine Abusers in Comprehensive Psychiatry 1993, 24% of Psychoactive Substance Abusers in Jour Clin Psychiatry 2000, 32% of Cocaine Users and Alcoholics in American Journal of Drug Alcohol Abuse 1999, 70% of Crystal Meth (Methamphetamine) Inpatients had ADHD in Journal of Addiction Disorders 2005, 83% of Inhalant & 55% of Methamphetamine abusers in Japan in Psychiatry Clinical Neuroscience 2005.

Other pre-disposing factors

Of course other ADHD issues also lead us to be more prone to addiction: failure, depression, anxiety, impulsive behaviour, lack of restraint and novelty-seeking all play a part too. Of course many adults with ADHD don’t have any problems with addiction, or have resolved these challenges. I fall into that category and have had to part with several addictions along the way. I continue to have some addictive tendencies and in particular have to control my video game playing.

Catch-22, ADHD medications for ADDiction

ADHD medications help us overcome additions by levelling out reward levels and ADHD children on ADHD meds are statistically 50% less likely to abuse substances.
ADHD Coach, Andrew Lewis

Andrew Lewis

Andrew Lewis is an ADHD Coach, writer and founder of SimplyWellbeing. He has over 10,000 hours and 15 years of experience in coaching hundreds of ADHD executives, business professionals and creatives, and previously running a large ADHD support group and an ADHD diagnostic clinic. His business expertise comes from a twenty years career in software, from programming, through marketing, sales and running a few start-ups. His ADHD insight is personal, with decades understanding his own ADHD experience and in bringing up his ADHD daughter. He has published his writing primarily via this website, with interactive ADHD courses in development.


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