I’m not just talking about self-medicating ADHD with booze and drugs…
I’m talking about self-medicating our ADHD with any of a number of things we’re eating, drinking, smoking, watching — and even thinking — that are giving us a sense of “relief” from our pain and frustration.
We ADHDers tend to have low levels of neuro-chemicals that are key in regulating our focus, emotions and moods. And just as prescription ADHD meds can boost our levels of these key brain chemicals, other substances (and activities) can do the same.
Which is why we are prone to gravitate toward various forms of “self-medication.”
As my friend, Rick Green (of TotallyADD fame) says, “We ingest or inhale or sign up for something that wakes up the brain. We treat ourselves. With substances or behaviors. Or misbehaviors.” Let’s take a look at the range of these…
First, the Worst Kinds of Self-Medication
In my TED Talk, I shared the sad statistics around undiagnosed ADHD adults and teens, and their significantly greater use of drugs and alcohol. But even if we’re diagnosed — and properly treated — we are at risk for medicating ourselves in the unhealthiest of ways. For instance…
Cocaine & Speed: According to WebMD, “Children with ADHD are twice as likely to abuse or become dependent on cocaine as those without the condition.” I, for instance, unwittingly self-medicated with cocaine throughout college — and ended up a stone cold junkie.
Alcohol: Up to one half ADHD adults abuse alcohol or are outright dependent on it. We think booze helps “settle down our mind,” but in reality it’s a depressant, impairs our ability to focus and think — and over time, “can damage your heart, brain, and liver, and makes you more likely to get cancer,” per WebMD.
Tobacco: While nicotine, a stimulant, can boost short-term focus, research shows that it can backfire and make us more hyper and your ADHD symptoms harder to manage.
Cannabis: Smoking weed, you might argue, is relatively mild stuff, and many ADHDers say it helps them quiet their mind and reduce anxiety. But while many believe it can ease ADHD symptoms, according to WebMD, “…research has found almost no proof of this. In fact, cannabis can actually worsen your attention, impulse control, focus, and organization.”
Keep reading to the end to find not-really-healthy and truly healthy ways we can “self-medicate” our ADHD symptoms…
Self-Medicating ADHD with “Healthier” Stimulants
Yes, the following are probably better than cocaine or even cigarettes, but they all represent a slippery slope that we ADHD adults are at risk of sliding to the bottom of.
Caffeine: Sure, coffee, tea and caffeine-packed soda pop and energy drinks are relatively harmless. Relatively. Caffeine is generally a mild stimulant, but when over-consumed can affect sleep and even mood. Oh, and it’s addictive, resulting in painful withdrawal headaches when discontinued.
Sugar: Countless ADHDers are walking around much of the day with a sugary beverage in hand. Every sip sends a tiny burst of glucose (our brain’s primary fuel) to the brain, providing a brief bit of mental energy. But a minute later they crash. And then must sip again. And again. And… Sugar — whether in drinks, snacks or breakfast cereal — is a lousy source of mental fuel.
Adrenaline: Extreme sports and other risky behaviors can give us a charge and elevate us out of our ADD restlessness. I, for instance, race motorcycles, which I insist “flushes my brain toilet.” However, as I write this I’m in my third month of recovering from no fewer that 14 bone fractures, a collapsed lung and other internal and external injuries, thanks to my cherished hobby. A price I’m willing to pay — I’ll be racing again in two months — but it could cost me much more one day, and so could your risky driving, clowning around or other on-the-edge behaviors.
A few more activities that self-medicate us with adrenaline and other yummy neurochemicals are: Shopping, Gambling and Games. All of which are addictive and not only can cost us lots of money, but also burn tons of precious time and energy. And speaking of wasting time and energy…
Self-Medicating ADHD with Social Media
As I noted in Crusher™TV Episode 15: Get More Done with Less @#$!, according to GlobalWebIndex, the average user logs 1.72 hours per day on social platforms. And it’s increasing every year. Why? Because it gives us dopamine hits, which our ADHD brains can never get enough of.
That’s why it’s so easy to be working on some important thing and then, “Juuusssst for a minute I’m gonna check my Instagram feed” or flitter off into some other social time-burner. We think this is resting our brain. It is not. It’s burning out our dopamine receptors and it’s burning mental energy. Ditto for YouTube.
And as Tristan Harris, former Google designer and now Silicon Valley ethicist says: As you scroll your social media or click on one YouTube video after another, know that behind your screen are a thousand skillful engineers whose only job it is to make you scroll or click one more time. And then again. And again.
Yes, they KNOW it’s addictive and they’re perfecting that addictiveness every day.
CrusherTip: Calendar your social media or web-surfing sessions. Use them as rewards for completing work, NOT as a “rest” that interrupts that work.
Self-Medicating ADHD with Pseudoproductivity
Just as with social media, we get mini-dopamine hits from doing low-impact and even meaningless, totally unimportant tasks. A few examples:
Checking email more frequently than needed. Deleting emails. Looking at and re-writing our to-do list. Excessive office chat. Working on certain tasks because they are easier than the tough, important task we’re avoiding.
CrusherTip: Make a note of how many things you’re doing RIGHT NOW. Do you have more than a few browser windows/tabs open? Is your email open? Is your phone in your hand or right in front of you? Have you texted or emailed or checked social media in the last 15 minutes? Are you “escaping” into easy work knowing a big project needs your focus? If you’ve answered yes to all or most of these, consider if any of theme are actually making you more productive. Most likely, they’re just giving you teeny bits of ‘medication.’
Another form of pseudoproductivity is rumination. Yes, our thinking can be self-medication. When we ruminate on past mistakes, anxieties about the future, generally feeling bad about this or that, we are altering our brain chemistry. And that “altered state” can be addictive.
Now for the REAL Healthy Ways of Self-Medicating ADHD
Exercise: Dr. John Ratey famously said, “Exercise produces a brain chemical that acts like Miracle-Gro® for your brain.” It also produces all the ADD-crushing neurochemicals we so desperately need. Which can make any consistent exercise regimen a wonderful addiction.
Meditation: I won’t dive into all the research around the benefits of even modest meditation, but there’s a reason so many people who’ve adopted a daily practice of it tend to find it indispensable for their ADHD management: it feels goooooood!
Passion: Hopefully, you’ve got a hobby or side-hustle and/or a loved one you’re passionate about. Go be with that more often. And be more present when you’re are. You’ll get more of the feel-goods that make less-noble feel-goods less appealing in contrast!
Connection: One of the world’s most famous long-term studies has been examining what factors lead to a longer, happier life since the 1930’s. The #1 factor is social connection. And I’m not talking clicking Like on your friend’s travel photo. Reach out to someone you haven’t spoken to recently!
Coaching: Want the most impactful “treatment” for ADHD that doesn’t come in a bottle? Try an ADHD coach or a coaching group. The right coach/group will have you addicted to progress toward living to your potential!
A Closing Thought
If you’d like to learn more about my own dark journey into self-medication (i.e., drug addiction and alcohol abuse) and how I climbed out of that hole, download the article I wrote for Attention magazine.
And remember, whatever’s in your way…is yours to crush!
P.S.: Want to know more ways to beat back your ADHD symptoms? Tricks to beat procrastination? How to get prioritized and manage your time? Have you heard about my award-winning video/audio program ADD Crusher™? Learn more HERE.
Alan P. Brown, an internationally recognized Productivity Coach, TEDx Speaker and #1 Best Selling Author of Zen and the Art of Productivity: 27 Easy Ways to Have More Time, Earn More Money and Live Happier is the host of Crusher™TV, where he and his Guest Experts share simple ways to get more done in less time with less stress. Follow Alan on Twitter and on Facebook.