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How You Are Self-Medicating Your ADHD

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

Self-Medicating ADHD TEDxIn 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 Blog

                                       It’s not just nicotine, alcohol and illicit drugs!

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.

Cost of Self-Medicating ADHD Adrenaline

                     The occasional price paid for self-medicating with adrenaline…

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.

Self-Medicating ADHD Social Media

        Harris: “Tech is ‘downgrading humans'”

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.

ADD Crusher Program



Alan P Brown CrusherTVAlan 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.


14 Responses to “How You Are Self-Medicating Your ADHD”

By Sarah Scott - 15 April 2022 Reply

Thanks for your article! I felt particularly called out at the “writing and re-writing to-do lists” as a form if “psuedoproductivity” lol.

I have a question though: do you have any tips for how to get started exercising more? I have an entire laundry list of motivating factors for why I *should*, and helping my ADHD brain is now another one to add to it, and yet, for some reason, I can’t ever bring myself to actually get up and do it. I don’t know what this mental block is regarding this but it’s incredibly frustrating and demoralizing. Any ideas/help would be greatly appreciated!

By ADD Crusher - 16 April 2022 Reply

Hi Sarah. So glad this post resonated with you. Indeed, pseudoproductivity is just as much a “thief of time” as outright procrastination — so keep an eye out for that.

On the exercise, there’s on proven path to starting exercise in the absence of increased motivation: making the exercise as easy as possible. So, let’s say you wanted to do some running a few times a week. You’d start by just getting out and walking once or twice a week. Doesn’t need to be a big walk. Could just be 10min or 20min — which is about 1/2mile to 1mile. Just start there, make it part of your week, and build on it!!! Let me know how it goes — and feel free to grab a 15min spot on my calendar if you’d like to dig deeper into that: https://www.timetrade.com/book/VXRDJ Bless! APB

By Samantha - 12 April 2021 Reply

This is so useful. For most of my adult life I’ve done all of these things, almost all day. I just thought I was lazy or not trying hard enough. The covid pandemic has made it a lot worse: there’s no-one to stop me if I take a “tea break” mid afternoon that involves watching several full length episodes of something on Netflix.

I self-medicate with many things on this page but one specific one is my random hobbies. Since the start of this year I have gone from learning guitar to learning French to learning sculpture to learning basket weaving to learning… you get the idea. I have stuck at virtually none of these things but my flat is full of abandoned instruments and sculpting tools and half-made crafts!

Yet there’s an odd part of this that rarely gets addressed: there are some random hobbies I have stuck at, like painting. They’re more like addictions, and I’m not terribly good but after 20 years of random painting, I can have long conversations with people about painting. I get called an artist. Yet I don’t think I get any deep sense of satisfaction out of painting except the occasional feeling of, “huh, that looks cool.” It’s just that it’s been my main procrastination tool for so long that I’m now reasonably good at it and people associate it as something I care about.

I find this so odd. I wonder if there’s a difference between an addiction and a meaningful passion. When I was learning piano as a child I had a genuine sense of satisfaction from it. But sometimes caring too much about something is exactly what puts me off; like with art I never cared how bad I was or how much I’d forget, but I did care with piano and I’d get upset as a consequence so I didn’t stick at it.

That sounds nuts written down but in my head it seemed perfectly logical.

By ADD Crusher - 12 April 2021 Reply

Hi Samantha. First let me applaud you for taking the time to put down those thoughts. They all ring so true for so many of us. The last two paragraphs hold some real good stuff to think about. First, re: is there a difference between an addiction and a passion? Yes, one is healthy and the other not, BUT there is the common brain reward system at work in both!!

There’s also something worth exploring in, “But sometimes caring too much about something is exactly what puts me off” — where perhaps having “cared too much” about things in the past have resulted in pain or disappointment???

Lastly, “Sounds nuts written down but logical in my head” — this is why it’s so important for us to WRITE THIS STUFF OUT!! It forces us to look at it more objectively!!! -apb

By Tyler - 21 December 2020 Reply

Some people are far gone and traumatized, or have comorbid issues. Do not invalidate the people who actually need drugs to function, because their brain does not work like society expects it to.

These articles help to an extent, but the invalidation of drug use leaves me furious. How uneducated.

By ADD Crusher - 21 December 2020 Reply

Agree that we should not invalidate those who need drugs to function. I’m one of them. 20+ years on two ADHD drugs and two bouts of depression, treated with antidepressants. Not sure where in the blog I suggested otherwise. Perhaps you can point to the offending text? Thanks, APB

By Anahi Pozzatti Schlichting - 8 March 2020 Reply

I relate too much to pseudoproductivity and social media… I’m not sure I have ADD but I identify with many symptoms.

By ADD Crusher - 8 March 2020 Reply

Hi Anahi — this is indeed a very common complaint of busy people. It’s affecting most cultures around the world, but particularly in the West. But if you suspect you might be ADHD, take an online test like this one: https://add.org/adhd-test/ Good luck to you and keep in touch! -Alan

By Jennifer - 18 August 2019 Reply

Pinterest! Oh I’m looking up ideas for my class..oh I’m creating materials for my class which I could sell one day on Teachers Pay Teachers ……5 hrs. Later lesson plans not written materials not ready.

By ADD Crusher - 18 August 2019 Reply

Pinterest is a big problem for many of us — we tend to be “visual/spatial” thinkers, so all those wonderful images are like candy to us. #CrusherTip: Set a clear objective for your Pinterest search, then set a timer — and when the timer alarm rings, STOP and see if you have gotten close to your objective! -AB

By Guy-Harald Hofmann - 17 August 2019 Reply

Dear Alan,

special thanks for your offered article about how you got out of the rabbit hole.

I “only” got as far as alcohol and thanks to AA sobered up. That was back in august 2015. Besides​ two relapses clean.

Unfortunately getting clean had major impact on my marriage (5 minors), since “being a helper and carer” seemed to be another of my addictions. Besides thinking, ruminating, etc.

Anyway. Today I am fine, despite the struggles at my work places. Haven’t yet quite found the right place.

For the record/statistics.
Got diagnosed ADHD aged 53 after some years of suspicions that that could be the case and some false other diagnoses.
After four years of psychotherapy we ended up with PTSD due to early childhood violence in a dysfunctional family.

Today I am 59, divorced and still making progress.

Sports helped a lot!! Leaving the comfort zone starting walking at 4:30 am.
Exercise is it! START WALKING.

Thanks for your videos and newsletters.

From Lower-Saxony in Germany

By ADD Crusher - 18 August 2019 Reply

Thanks Guy for sharing some of your story. In many ways, “classic” — and a lot like mine! Keep up that exercise! As Dr. John Ratey says, “Exercise creates a neurochemical that makes your brain GROW!” -AB

By Yolanda Solo - 13 August 2019 Reply

For me cutting out sugar made a huge difference to my ability to concentrate. I underestimated the effect it had until I put the wrong fuel in my car after eating a bag of skittles!

Then I started looking at the kids in my academy who were struggling to concentrate. When they came in for afternoon classes half asleep I started asking if they had pasta or white bread for lunch. The answer was yes – every time!

I´ve cut down the caffeine to just one cup in the morning as any more than that causes a crash later on in the day.

By ADD Crusher - 13 August 2019 Reply

This is so good to hear — that you identify a culprit and altered course. And FUNNY! And also distressing by reminding us that too many kids are eating CRAP that not only turns their brains to mush, but sets them on a course for countless health issues down the road!!! -AB

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