Mental health diagnoses are often regarded by the public as belonging to neat categories: Check off a certain number of symptoms, and you likely meet the criteria for a positive diagnosis.
However, in medical practice, it can be common to see individuals diagnosed with not one, but multiple ailments, for example, ADHD accompanied by anxiety.
While ADHD doesn’t outright cause anxiety, roughly a quarter to half of individuals with ADHD will be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. The trouble is, with overlapping manifestations, it can be difficult to determine which symptoms are which.
Do You Have Anxiety?
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Impulsive? High-energy? It May Be ADHD
Breaking down the acronym, ADHD as a disorder refers to both “attention deficit” and “hyperactivity.” Where attention is concerned, ADHD individuals often experience difficulty staying on task. It’s not that they don’t want to focus or pay attention to a specific event, but rather that they can’t.
In many cases, even preparation through simple planning and organization can be a chore. Once their attention is honed in on an assignment, there’s a risk of not finishing, leaving careless mistakes, or insufficiently following directions.
Added to these struggles is the other element: Hyperactivity. As their brains frequently command them to “do something,” the common result is fidgeting, tapping, squirming, and experiencing difficulties in just staying still. Their internal energy cannot be easily contained and often manifests through physical tics.
Another aspect of hyperactivity is the risk of poor impulse control, which can lead them to jump from task to task or act on the first idea that comes to mind. This is not only hard on their ability to stay on track, but potentially distracting for those around them.
Avoidant? Experiencing Bodily Stress? It May Be Anxiety
If you haven't yet, make sure you take our free 7 minute anxiety testOne of the core traits of anxiety is fear without apparent cause. Anxious individuals have trouble separating which of their fears are rational and justified and which are not. Just like the ADHD individual, they may have trouble completing their work, but this may be due to preoccupying concerns or worry about potential failure.
As these alarms often lead them to avoid trying new methods for fear of the consequences, getting them to seek out treatment for their afflictions can be extremely challenging, as they often imagine “worst case scenarios” that will follow.
A possible means of separating the two is in how the anxious person experiences their stress. While the threats may be only in their minds, the physical symptoms are typically quite real. In their interactions, they may be frequently irritable or avoid others. In their bodily functioning, indigestion, chronic headaches, and difficulty sleeping are all common manifestations.
More extreme cases of anxiety may present themselves in panic attacks, shortness of breath, or trouble regulating a normal heartbeat rate. These are not the case with ADHD. Even though both show a struggle to focus, it is uncommon for someone with ADHD to show these types of symptoms.
When ADHD and Anxiety Combine
Each of these ailments on their own can be tough to cope with, but when combined, new complications often arise. While ADHD doesn’t specifically cause anxiety, and anxiety doesn’t specifically lead to ADHD, the two do have many links that can affect each other:
- The Effects of ADHD Can Cause Anxiety - Individuals with ADHD may recognize how their ADHD symptoms disrupt their concentration or could lead to the humiliation of social missteps or failing to reach targeted goals. Many also struggle with their self-esteem. This may in turn feed into the anxiety’s symptoms, resulting in further distress and doubts as to whether they ever will manage to achieve what they set out to do.
- Reckless Behaviors – Those with ADHD may be more prone to potentially dangerous behaviors. For example, those with ADHD are more likely to use drugs and alcohol. Drugs and alcohol can also make it harder to cope with anxiety, and possibly lead to the development of anxiety symptoms.
- Lack of Social Support – Some individuals with ADHD find it hard to maintain friendships. But friendships and relationships are critical for obtaining social support, and social support is an important factor in stress coping. Without good friends to make you feel calm and confident, anxiety may follow.
- Anxiety Triggers Worse ADHD – Stress is one of the known triggers for more severe ADHD. Anxiety is a cause of stress. Those that feel calm and relaxed may be able to keep their ADHD under control, but anxiety makes it harder to feel calm and relaxed.
In other words, ADHD and Anxiety are not necessarily related directly, but they can thoroughly contribute to each other in a variety of ways, and contribute to each other’s growth.
Treatment for ADHD and Anxiety
A common approach when dealing with both ADHD and anxiety is to seek multiple options for relief, dealing with the more severe of the two in the hopes that the other’s effects may diminish.
However, this can also be incredibly complicated. Stimulants often prove effective for ADHD but may worsen anxiety symptoms. SSRIs may help with anxiety issues but do little to improve overall concentration.
Combining options such as medication with behavioral approaches such as cognitive therapy, meditation, or self-care practices like regular exercise and improvements to diet is often the surest way to help reduce symptoms and regain control over one’s life.
If you’re interested in a medicine-free way to start controlling anxiety now, take the CalmClinic anxiety test today.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Mar 27, 2018.