Co-occurring disorders: ADHD and addiction

This Page was last reviewed and changed on February 17th, 2022

Content Overview

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and addiction are two mental disorders that can cause huge difficulties in a person’s life. They are common conditions that often occur simultaneously. The two mental disorders can feed off each other, which can magnify the symptoms and make it difficult to follow a treatment plan.

However, there are very effective treatment and support options that can help to transform the life of somebody who is suffering from these co-occurring disorders. This page will discuss ADHD and addiction in-depth, explaining some of the common causes, signs and symptoms, how the two disorders impact one another and the available treatment options.

What is ADHD?

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), sometimes called attention-deficit hyperactive disorder, is a common psychological and mental health condition that affects millions of people around the world. ADHD is a disorder that affects the capability of a person to focus and pay attention, and can also cause the person to act impulsively.

Despite common misconceptions, this condition can take form as childhood ADHD and adult ADHD, with both mental health conditions having a major impact on a person’s life. ADHD symptoms are distinct to every individual, but the most common symptoms include:

  • Difficulty focusing or paying attention
  • Fidgeting or squirming while seated
  • Trouble completing tasks that require focus and concentration for an extended period of time
  • Talking excessively
  • Learning disabilities such as dyslexia (reading and writing), dysgraphia (spelling), and dyscalculia (numbers) and dyspraxia (physical coordination)
  • Interrupting conversations
  • Poor organisational and time management skills
  • Impulsive behaviour or a lack of self-control
  • Forgetfulness
  • If you notice any of these symptoms in yourself or a family member, particularly a child or young person, it may be worth booking an appointment for an ADHD assessment with a medical professional.

    What are the different types of ADHD?

    ADHD is a complex condition with a number of different types and levels that often overlap. While pigeonholing someone into one category of disorder is never ideal in terms of diagnoses, there are three main degrees of ADHD which act as useful reference points:

    1. Inattentive type ADHD

    This is the most common type of ADHD and primarily involves problems with focus and organisation. It is categorised by symptoms such as difficulty focusing on a specific task, having a hard time staying organised, frequently losing or misplacing items, difficulty paying attention to conversations, becoming easily distracted and finding it difficult to sit still. Many children are initially diagnosed with inattentive type ADHD because the symptoms can be apparent from a young age.

    2. Hyperactive-impulsive type ADHD

    This is the second most common type of ADHD and occurs when a person experiences impulsive behaviour or hyperactivity. Symptoms include talking excessively, having trouble waiting your turn, impulse control issues such as blurting out inappropriate comments, interrupting people during conversations and struggling to stay seated.

    3. Combined/Combination Type ADHD:

    This form of ADHD involves both problems with inattentiveness as well as impulsivity and hyperactivity issues. It has many symptoms that are similar to those found in the other two types, with some people showing more symptoms of one type than the other, while others exhibit equal symptoms of both.

    What is life like for someone with ADHD?

    Having ADHD can be incredibly difficult and frustrating, especially when others do not understand the challenges that a person with this disorder may face. When someone has combined type or hyperactive-impulsive type ADHD, they will often find it hard to sit still.

    This constant need to move often leads to attention issues, making it harder for a person with ADHD to focus on tasks even if they are interested in them. People suffering from ADHD also tend to struggle more with multitasking, with most individuals finding it difficult to complete tasks that require a high level of focus for an extended period.

    Children and adults with ADHD are often very forgetful and regularly misplace items or end up off-schedule. Childhood ADHD can affect the educational potential of children and young people, while for those with adult ADHD, performance at work, career prospects and relationships can all be impacted.

    What causes ADHD?

    The cause of ADHD is thought to be mainly genetic. There are several genes that have been linked with the development of ADHD, although it is unclear how these genes impact brain function or behaviour.

    In addition to genetics, studies suggest that there may also be some environmental causes that can contribute to the onset of the disorder. These causes may include:

  • Birth complications such as low birth weight and prematurity
  • Conditions affecting the central nervous system at key developmental stages
  • Exposure during childhood to environmental toxins such as pesticides or heavy metals
  • The use of tobacco products while pregnant
  • Food and drink containing artificial food colours
  • There may be various other factors that trigger or exacerbate ADHD symptoms. More research is needed to get create full picture of the condition and its exact cause.

    What is the link between ADHD and anxiety disorders?

    There is a strong link between ADHD and anxiety disorders, with a diagnosis of both conditions often causing similar symptoms. These can include:

  • Difficulty concentrating on tasks
  • Problems staying organised or finishing work quickly
  • Acute or continuous anxiety over an extended period
  • Erratic sleeping and eating patterns
  • Low self-esteem
  • A lack of self-control
  • An increased tendency towards substance use and addiction
  • Some people with ADHD may also be suffering from another mood disorder or mental illness such as depression or bipolar disorder. These complex combinations of mental health conditions make effective treatment difficult, as the mental disorders can fuel and trigger each other’s symptoms at any time.

    How is ADHD treated?

    The best way to treat ADHD symptoms is through a combination of medication and therapy. The most common types of medications used are stimulants which act on the neurotransmitters that control impulsivity, hyperactivity and inattentiveness. These include medications such as Methylphenidate, which is sold under the brand name Ritalin, and Dextroamphetamine, also known by its trade names Dexedrine or ProCentra.

    Many people find it helpful to attend behavioural training sessions with an ADHD specialist therapist. These sessions will help patients learn effective coping strategies for dealing with their symptoms, as well as develop positive lifestyle choices such as getting enough sleep and following healthy eating patterns.

    One person comforting another about mental health addiction

    What is addiction?

    Addiction is a brain disorder that compels an individual to compulsively seek out, consume, or participate in a substance or activity despite any harmful consequences. Common addictions include alcoholism, drug addiction, food addiction, gambling addiction and sex or pornography addiction.

    Addiction is often defined by the presence of three key elements:

  • Loss of control over substance intake despite any negative consequences
  • Increased tolerance towards a certain substance
  • Withdrawal symptoms when unable to access a substance or addictive activity
  • What causes addiction?

    There are many factors that can trigger addiction, including genetic vulnerabilities as well as social influences. Some addictions form during adolescence. This developmental period marks important changes in the development of the brain’s reward system, which increases vulnerability towards substance dependence.

    Other people develop an addiction during difficult moments in their life. They begin engaging in substance misuse or participating in a particular activity as a coping mechanism. This is also similar for many people who have experienced trauma, who may turn to a particular substance or activity for relief.

    What are co-occurring mental disorders?

    A co-occurring mental health disorder is a term used to describe the presence of two or more psychiatric conditions. One of the most common examples of this is someone who has both ADHD and an alcohol or drug addiction. This is partially due to the similarities between addiction and ADHD symptoms such as impulsivity, hyperactivity and restlessness.

    Co-occurring disorders have become increasingly prevalent over time, in part because many people initially fail to seek treatment for either condition. This results in the two disorders feeding each other, which can significantly worsen the symptoms of both conditions.

    What is the relationship between ADHD and addiction?

    People who have combined type ADHD or hyperactive-impulsive type ADHD are more likely to develop an addiction than those without the disorder. This is because people struggling with these types of ADHD typically find it difficult to sit still and focus on tasks, making school or work very challenging.

    As a result, they may turn to substances such as alcohol or drugs so that they do not feel constantly restless and frustrated. Additionally, many individuals use drugs and alcohol as a way of self-medicating for other problems associated with ADHD, such as depression, anxiety and low self-esteem.

    Once someone with ADHD starts using drugs or alcohol, they will also find it much more difficult to stop using them, as people with ADHD typically have a very hard time resisting impulses. If they continue to engage in alcohol or drug abuse, this can worsen their symptoms of ADHD.

    How do ADHD and addiction affect each other?

    ADHD and addiction can significantly impact each other in many ways. For example, ADHD is associated with impulsivity, which means that individuals are more likely to engage in risky or dangerous behaviours – such as driving dangerously fast or excessive substance abuse – use without considering how this will affect their health. People struggling with both conditions often feel constantly restless and frustrated, which can result in further drug and alcohol addiction.

    In some cases, using drugs or alcohol may mask the signs and symptoms of ADHD, which means some people will stop seeking treatment. This can ultimately make their condition far worse.

    What is the effect of addiction and ADHD on mental health?

    Many individuals suffering from ADHD and addiction will withdraw from social situations, as they believe their ADHD makes them socially awkward or causes conflicts with other people. This can result in feelings of loneliness and isolation, which can make an individual more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviours such as substance misuse.

    It is crucial for anyone struggling with either condition to seek professional help so that they can manage their symptoms effectively and prevent further problems.

    How are ADHD and addiction diagnosed as co-occurring disorders?

    Someone suffering from ADHD and addiction will be given a dual diagnosis of a co-occurring disorder. This will usually involve undergoing specialised therapy for both conditions as well as being prescribed medication to help with symptoms. Some common therapies for ADHD include:

    • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
      Making sense of both ADHD and addiction as disorders and improving coping strategies.
    • Behavioural modification techniques
      Including methods such as positive reinforcement to reward good behaviour with certain privileges. Often used when treating children with ADHD, adults with ADHD and addiction to incentivise making lifestyle changes.

    Two people embracing in group therapy

    What addiction treatment options are available?

    There are many different types of addiction treatments that can be used depending on an individual’s specific needs. The most common forms of treatment include:

    Residential rehab (the UKAT approach)

    This involves undergoing inpatient treatment in a specialist rehabilitation centre which allows individuals time away from external triggers and environmental factors. At UKAT, we offer eight residential rehab clinics around England which provide a safe, comfortable and holistic recovery environment for our clients to focus to their alcohol or drug addiction recovery.
    It is imperative that clients are mentally stable enough to enter an inpatient rehabilitation centre.

    While we don’t treat ADHD or any other mental health disorders other than addiction, the medical and therapeutic treatment we provide should also improve other conditions such as ADHD. Our amazing team of medical professionals offer medications for various mental health disorders to keep our clients safe, but this will always be a pre-approved prescription and monitored by an on-site doctor.

    Day rehab

    This involves outpatient treatment for those who would like to continue living at home but still receive specialist care and support. This can be effective in mild cases of co-occurring disorders, but day rehab is a limited technique. This is because individuals are still exposed to their triggers and don’t have the holistic treatment environment which is usually required to treat alcohol and drug use effectively.


    This is the process of eliminating all drugs and/or alcohol from an individual’s system before they can begin their therapeutic intervention. The length of this will depend on how much a person has been using as well as their specific needs.
    Detox on its own is also a limited treatment approach because it does not address the mental or psychological aspects of addiction and will not help people with their ADHD symptoms. It is effective, however, as the first step in more comprehensive inpatient addiction treatment.

    Potential alcohol and drug addiction withdrawal symptoms

    While detox is a very important stage in the treatment process, it can also be extremely dangerous if not practiced with medical supervision because it can lead to severe withdrawal symptoms. These may include:

  • Seizures
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart problems
  • Dehydration
  • Mental confusion
  • The length of time that withdrawal symptoms last is highly variable. For example, opioid withdrawal can take many weeks to subside, whereas alcohol withdrawal typically lasts for a few days. It is crucial to get professional help when detoxing so that you are safe throughout the process. We give all of our clients a full medical assessment before they begin detox so we can identify if they will need extra medical assistance during the process.

    What happens after addiction treatment?

    Once your time in rehab is complete, we will also help to connect you with support groups which will provide you with the assistance you need to prevent any relapses. There are various support groups for different addictive substances, such as Narcotics Anonymous for drug addiction and Alcoholics Anonymous for alcoholism.

    Call us now for help
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    Seeking help for ADHD and addiction

    At UKAT, we are committed to providing our clients with the support and assistance they need to overcome addictions to alcohol, drugs and other addictive behaviours. We know the significant role that ADHD symptoms can play in exacerbating addiction.

    Get in touch with us today to learn more about our addiction treatment programmes and how to get the support you need to make a successful addiction recovery.

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    If you successfully complete our 90-day inpatient treatment programme but experience a relapse within 30 days of leaving, we will welcome you back for complimentary 30 days of treatment.*

    * Click here to learn more or contact UKAT directly for rehab availability.

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