Self-medicating and ADHD sometimes go hand in hand. If you’ve used substances like nicotine, alcohol, or other drugs to help keep your ADHD at bay and boost levels of feel-good dopamine in your brain, you’re not alone.
Unfortunately, self-medication with ADHD can be a slippery slope. Substance use can be risky, addictive, and harmful to your overall health, even if it seems to help you cope in the moment.
But what about self-medicating with caffeine? Ingesting extra caffeine is super common in people with ADHD – especially those who haven’t been diagnosed and aren’t medicated. But is it actually helpful?
In my private practice, I work with millennials struggling to manage their ADHD and anxiety. I’m not a doctor and can’t give medical advice, but I’ve seen similar patterns of behaviors and reactions during my years of experience with clients. Here’s what I’ve learned about caffeine use and ADHD.
Caffeine in any form – an iced latte from your favorite coffee shop, non-herbal tea, some squares of dark chocolate, or a carbonated beverage – is something most people consume throughout the day.
The reason? Caffeine tastes and feels good to a lot of people. And if you have ADHD, it can be even more enticing.
Caffeine is a stimulant, which means it speeds up brain and central nervous system activity. Stimulants of any kind impact things like heart rate, cognitive functioning, breathing, memory recall, and body movements.
Stimulants are also the class of prescription medications used to help with ADHD symptoms.
There are well-known benefits to ingesting the right amount of caffeine – it can improve cognitive functioning, mood, athletic performance, concentration, and even memory.
Caffeine also increases production of dopamine in the brain. If you have ADHD, you probably know that this neurotransmitter, which is responsible for reward and pleasure, is found in lower amounts in ADHD brains than in neurotypical brains.
Given the benefits, it makes sense why ADHD self-medication with caffeine is so common. It essentially reverses some of your natural executive dysfunction and can help you move more easily through the world.
While caffeine use is generally considered safe and helpful for many people, there are some drawbacks to heavy dependence on it.
Caffeine use can be both a blessing and a curse if you have ADHD.
Caffeine is a stimulant that boosts dopamine production and improves things like focus, memory, and attention. It’s no wonder why people with ADHD sometimes use it heavily to self-medicate.
But consuming too much of the stimulant can cause other problems. Too much caffeine can cause things like irritability, anxiety, restlessness, sleeplessness, and decreased focus. It can make you feel jittery and wound up. And it can combine poorly with prescription medications for ADHD.
It might be easy to overdo it on caffeine consumption and then feel jittery, irritable, and unfocused throughout the rest of the day. Drinking too much coffee or soft drinks, particularly later in the day, can also reduce sleep quality. If you’re too dependent on coffee, you may feel the need to continue increasing the amount that feels useful over the course of weeks, months, or years. This can create a vicious cycle of caffeine dependence and can cause legitimate withdrawal for people.
Depending on the types of caffeine you consume, you may also be ingesting a lot of extra sugar or added chemicals. Sodas and coffee shop lattes can pack a heavy and sugary punch that spike and then cause an energy crash soon after.
You know your body best and are the only person who can decide whether using caffeine feels helpful or harmful to you daily and in the long run.
Whether you should self-medicate using caffeine depends on a variety of factors, like your personal tolerance for the stimulant and how much you take. Ingesting a moderate amount can be great and helpful for some. For others, it’s not particularly helpful or doesn’t feel good in the body.
So what can you do? Here are some questions you can consider asking yourself when trying to decide how to manage self-medication with caffeine:
Having answers to some of these questions can help you decide whether caffeine use is helpful for you or not. And if you like caffeine but need help regulating your use of it, that’s valid and normal. Many of my clients want to work on creating a better relationship with caffeine and other substances in their lives.
Trying prescription medication instead of self-medicating with caffeine is an option to consider. Caffeine use in people with ADHD tends to decrease after getting on prescription medications. Using medication is a personal preference – some people find it useful and life-changing, and others don’t like it for a variety of reasons.
Another way to reduce any dependency on caffeine you might have is to try therapy with someone who specializes in people with ADHD and anxiety, like me. Therapy introduces you to a wide variety of healthy coping tools you can use to help ease your ADHD symptoms.
If your ADHD feels unmanageable without the use of caffeine or some other substance, therapy can help.
I’m here to help you navigate all your experiences with ADHD.
Together, we’ll find useful and healthy coping mechanisms to ease executive dysfunction. We’ll discuss whether you should seek help from a doctor regarding prescription medications. And we’ll work on new and different ways to manage ADHD symptoms so you can live an empowered and confident life.
I’m ready if you are. Reach out today to schedule a complimentary consultation.
Danielle is an anxiety therapist. She specializes in helping busy millennials dial down their anxiety and ADHD, so they can perform at their best. Danielle has been featured on Apartment Therapy, SparkPeople, Lifewire, and Now Art World. When Danielle isn't helping her clients, she's playing video games or spending time with her partner and step children.