The ADHD/Anxiety Link
Children with ADHD are more likely than other children to
have additional psychiatric conditions, including anxiety disorders. Research published in 1999
noted this relationship. A 2001 study
suggested that ADHD with anxiety might warrant classification as an ADHD
How might these two disorders be
related, and what does it mean for the patient?
What Is ADHD?
Attention deficit hyperactivity
disorder (ADHD) is an ongoing condition that often starts in childhood and may
continue into adulthood. It affects an individual’s ability to concentrate, and
may result in behavioral problems, such as:
- lack of attention
- lack of impulse control
- fidgeting and trouble sitting still
- difficulty organizing and completing
Doctors aren’t sure what causes ADHD.
However, some theories suggest it may be related to genetics, environmental
toxins, and premature birth.
Learn why people with ADHD act the way they do »
What Is Anxiety Disorder?
Though everyone experiences anxiety once in awhile, a true
anxiety disorder is much more serious and longer lasting. An anxiety disorder is
a form of mental illness that causes people to feel distressed, uneasy, and
excessively frightened in benign situations.
Symptoms can be so severe that they affect one’s ability to
work, study, enjoy relationships, or otherwise go about daily activities.
Comorbidity: ADHD and Anxiety
According to the Mayo Clinic, ADHD
doesn’t cause anxiety disorders. However, those who have ADHD are more likely
than others to experience them. When both occur at the same time, the symptoms
can be very problematic.
Sometimes, the two conditions mirror each other, making it difficult
to tell whether the person has one, the other, or both. In these cases, only a
full evaluation by a professional can determine the answer.
What Are the Symptoms of Anxiety?
A person with an anxiety disorder may have chronic feelings
of worry or nervousness. Additional symptoms include:
- fear without apparent cause
- trouble sleeping
- headaches and stomachaches
- trouble controlling worry or fear
Anxiety can also create a fear of
trying new things, including certain treatment methods. Although medications
can be helpful for some ADHD patients, they can exacerbate anxiety symptoms in
What Are the Symptoms of ADHD?
The symptoms of ADHD are slightly different from those of
anxiety. They primarily involve issues with focus and concentration, rather
than nervousness and fear.
A person with ADHD has trouble concentrating or paying
attention. They often leave tasks unfinished, show forgetfulness, and make
careless mistakes. They’re unable to focus for long periods of time and have
trouble listening to instructions.
How Can You Tell the Difference?
Though a professional evaluation is necessary, family
members may be able to tell the difference between ADHD and anxiety. The key is
to watch how the symptoms present over time.
A child with anxiety may not be able
to concentrate in situations that cause them to feel anxious. On the other
hand, a child with ADHD will find it difficult to concentrate most all the
time, in any type of situation.
Other Ways to Distinguish the Two
Avoidance of certain fearful situations is a telltale sign
that someone is suffering from anxiety. For example, a child who complains of a
stomachache first thing in the morning may be experiencing anxiety about going
A child who always acts on impulse without thinking is more
likely to have ADHD.
When the Two Occur Together
If a person suffers from both ADHD and anxiety, one will
likely exacerbate the other. According to Roberto
Olivardia, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist, anxiety
makes it even more difficult to pay attention and follow through on tasks.
On the other hand, ADHD can create
anxiety. Patients who worry that their symptoms will disrupt their work or cause
them humiliation may suffer increased anxiety as they struggle to manage these
Treatment Is Critical to Success
Scientists have speculated that genetics may be to blame for
why ADHD and anxiety disorders can co-exist. The important thing is that both conditions
need to be treated to help the patient best manage their symptoms.
Cognitive and behavioral therapy, relaxation techniques,
meditation, and sometimes medication can help calm the nervous system and allow
patients to live their lives to the fullest.