Understanding symptom overlap between anxiety and ADHD


Anxiety and ADHD are separate conditions, but a lot of people experience symptom overlap between the two disorders. About one-third of children who have ADHD are also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. By the time we reach adulthood, about half of those with ADHD also experience anxiety. Understanding symptom overlap between anxiety and ADHD is essential for any parent or adult struggling with ADHD and anxiety.

How to tell the difference between ADHD and anxiety

Although the symptoms of ADHD and anxiety look similar, the two conditions are very different. 

Dr. Roey Pasternak, a psychiatrist in New York and New Jersey who treats ADHD in children and adults, says: "An inability to focus and concentrate is seen in many people who suffer from depression and anxiety. Untreated ADHD can also lead to anxiety and depression."

While ADHD causes difficulty with focusing attention and concentrating on specific tasks, anxiety can cause these behaviors as well. Both anxiety and ADHD can make it more difficult to plan, organize, and learn new things. As a result, some people misinterpret anxiety for ADHD. When you are excessively worried, it is difficult to concentrate and focus.

If at times your anxiety is severe enough to trigger the fight or flight response, it is even more difficult to concentrate or focus on a task. When the brain is focused on danger or the threat of danger, our higher cognitive processes such as learning and memory are suppressed. The impact of high anxiety on our ability to focus our attention is out of control. When we are worried, we need to attend to what is causing our fear before we can focus on anything else.

If a child or adult is constantly anxious and worried, they will have difficulty concentrating. This is why anxiety can be mistaken for ADHD, especially in children as children are often not able to adequately verbalize what they are experiencing and why

In order to determine what is causing an inability to concentrate and learn, we need to look at what is going on with the underlying cognitive and neurological processes.

How anxiety and ADHD influence each other

Anxiety and ADHD can influence each other in a bidirectional manner, meaning the presence of one will exacerbate the other. Anxiety can make ADHD symptoms worse which in turn will increase anxiety. When ADHD causes you more stress in general as you struggle to finish tasks, get yourself organized, or forget important things, naturally your anxiety will increase.

Sometimes anxiety can develop as a result of the challenged often caused by ADHD symptoms. Children and adults with ADHD often face difficulties in relationships, academics, and job performance. These difficulties can understandably cause anxiety in certain people.

The presence of anxiety is associated with more severe ADHD symptoms.

Anxiety, ADHD and sleep

The issue of sleep is often not thought of in the management of anxiety and ADHD. However, sleep is important to our health as well as our ability to function well. When anxiety begins to interfere with sleep, more problems arise. ADHD in both children and adults is associated with sleep problems. The effects of anxiety will compound the problem. 

An adequate amount of good quality sleep is important for learning and memory. Sleep is also important for mood and overall wellbeing. If you or your child is having problems sleeping be sure to discuss this with your therapist.

Accurate diagnosis for effective treatment

As stated above, while the behavioral symptoms of anxiety and ADHD can look the same, the causes are very different. We do not want to treat the wrong disorder. Your therapist needs to know if you are dealing with anxiety, ADHD, or both. This information is essential and determines how you proceed with any method of treatment whether you are using therapies such as cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), medications, or both. In order to reach a successful treatment outcome, you need to adequately understand the problem. 

If you or your child is struggling with anxiety, ADHD, or possibly both, the importance of an accurate diagnosis cannot be overstated. With the proper care, you can get your symptoms under control and set you on a path to a productive future that will be free from unnecessary worries and uncontrolled ADHD symptoms.

Click here for a list of therapists in your area who treat anxiety, and click here for a list of therapists in your area who treat ADHD.

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