ADHD and Alcohol: Does One Make the Other Worse?

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It’s not uncommon for people who struggle with alcohol to also be diagnosed with (or believe they have) ADHD. But is there actually a connection between ADHD and drinking? Or is the link between ADHD and alcoholism mostly a coincidence?

The answer, as usual, is that it’s a little bit of both. Here’s a look at how ADHD and alcohol abuse can impact each other, and healthy ways of dealing with both disorders.

What Is ADHD?

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Photo by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash

Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common disorder that both children and adults can experience. The name is a bit misleading, as many people with ADHD don’t have hyperactive symptoms.

Rather than being hyperactive, many people with ADHD are more inattentive. As children, they may have spent a lot of time fantasizing or reading books. Since these symptoms are less likely to disturb others, those with this inattentive type can be overlooked, and go undiagnosed. They might be seen as having their “head in the clouds,” rather than having a frustrating condition.

ADHD can continue into adulthood, causing a whole new set of problems. Here are some common symptoms that may present for adults with ADHD:

  • Struggling with and overlooking details
  • Difficulty with organization
  • Losing things often (including important items like keys and phones)
  • Struggling with complex instructions
  • Problems concentrating and completing boring tasks

Other symptoms connected with the more hyperactive type of ADHD include:

  • Fidgetiness
  • Excessive talking
  • Frequently interrupting others
  • Restlessness
  • Problems waiting or sitting still

Many people have a combination of inattentive and hyperactive symptoms, or may shift between feeling distracted and hyperactive.

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ADHD and Drugs and Alcohol

Some studies have shown links to alcohol misuse among those with ADHD in late adolescence and early adulthood. These tend to level off in later adulthood, when the misuse of stimulant substances is more common among those with ADHD.

On an interesting note, research shows those with prescribed stimulant medication for ADHD tend not to abuse illegal stimulants. This may be because the symptoms are better managed, and the person isn’t attracted to other drugs.

Alcohol Makes ADHD Worse

The most direct connection between alcohol and ADHD seems to be that it makes the immediate effects of alcohol worse, and vice versa. Those with ADHD are found to be more impulsive and less inhibited when drinking, compared to those without the condition.

In turn, alcohol can make it difficult to concentrate, to control impulses, and to manage motor control. These are all affected already by ADHD. So, it makes sense that alcohol and ADHD symptoms don’t help each other.

ADHD and Alcohol Recovery

placing white post-its in a square, getting organized in recovery
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

It can be difficult to deal with both alcohol recovery and ADHD symptoms simultaneously. While the cause of ADHD symptoms can’t be cured, many people do learn to manage these symptoms much more effectively.

Simple annoyances such as losing keys or a phone throughout the day can lead to quite a bit of distraction from work and personal life. It can also cause frustration in friends and coworkers, even affecting relationships. Getting a better grip on these problems could actually help decrease the need for unhealthy coping skills.

Here are some basic tips that can help with managing daily ADHD symptoms:

  • Create simple organization systems. For example, choose a specific place to keep your keys, both at work and at home. This is typically on a hook or table near the door. Create a reminder to help you practice doing this every day.
  • Cut back on tasks and responsibilities. Many people with ADHD tend to overestimate what they can get done, and take on more responsibility than is reasonable. Try to reduce this as much as possible.
  • Eliminate physical items when you can. When possible, go paperless, and/or ask someone to help you clear out clutter at home and at your office. The less you have around, the easier it is to organize it.
  • Pad all deadlines and times. It can be difficult to estimate travel time and task completion with ADHD. When you have a major deadline, convince yourself that it really needs to be done a few days early. If you believe it will take 30 minutes to get to a place, double that when planning your travel.

Having ADHD can make any day stressful. On top of the usual challenges, you may be spending much of your day dealing with complications from losing and forgetting things. You may also struggle to concentrate, causing ordinary tasks to take longer than they ideally would.

Alcohol can make all of these problems worse, but it can often feel like it’s easing your stress in the short term. If you struggle with drinking for this reason, simplifying your life can help. It also helps to find healthy, productive ways to soothe yourself—like having some green tea, taking a bath, or going for a walk. All of these can help with symptoms, while also decreasing stress.

If you find that drinking is making your ADHD worse, or that ADHD makes cutting back or quitting harder to navigate, Ria Health can help. Our expert medical team can design a custom treatment plan for your unique needs, while our recovery coaches can help you learn new coping techniques for daily life. Best of all, the whole thing can be done from your smartphone.

Learn more about how telemedicine for alcohol treatment works.

Written By:
Jennie Lannette, LCSW
Licensed therapist, writer, and published author, with a focus on trauma recovery.
Reviewed By:
Evan O'Donnell
NYC-based content strategist with over 3 years editing and writing in the recovery space. Strong believer in accessible, empathic, and fact-based communication.
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