Many people associate ADHD with hyper, unfocused young boys. But the truth is, ADHD is much more complex than that. Of course if you have ADHD, you know it’s a lot more than hyperactivity. ADHD isn’t just about trouble concentrating; it also comes with emotional dysregulation, sensitivity to rejection, trouble with organization, and anxiety.
But wait, you might be thinking: anxiety is its own diagnosis! How can it be part of ADHD? To put it simply... It's complicated.
Let’s pick this apart and make it make sense.
Anxiety and ADHD
Mental health on a spectrum
Like many mental health conditions, ADHD exists on a spectrum. Some people are so mildly affected, they never even get diagnosed. And sometimes ADHD is so challenging, it makes it difficult to maintain a job and a stable life. The same is true for anxiety. Anxiety disorders also exist on a spectrum, and can affect your life to varying degrees.
Okay, I know that doesn’t offer much clarity, but bear with me. I’m getting there, I promise.
ADHD comorbidities and overlapping symptoms
Many people with ADHD also have other mental health conditions (called comorbidities) like depression, substance use disorders, OCD, and anxiety. Like a lot of mental health conditions, ADHD and anxiety have overlapping features and symptoms. Because of these overlapping features and behaviors, we are sometimes misdiagnosed. Getting the wrong diagnosis can actually make our quality of life worse, such as taking medication that isn’t helpful for your actual condition, or getting a less-than-ideal kind of therapy.
So what’s the difference between ADHD and Anxiety? Can you have both? Thank you for asking, because I have a long-winded answer for you!
What is ADHD?
ADHD is classified as a neurodevelopmental disorder, which is a fancy way of saying that your brain and central nervous system (CNS) developed a little differently than other folks’. Some people use the term “neurodiverse” to describe people with ADHD. Though ADHD stands for "Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder", it’s a lot more complicated than that. Below are some common behaviors associated with ADHD.
You probably have ADHD if you…
- are easily distracted
- struggle to pay attention for long periods of time
- often appear to be ignoring or not listening to someone
- are forgetful or frequently lose things
- are disorganized at home, school, and work
- talk excessively and interrupt others
- are impulsive
- have an intense fear of rejection, or perceive rejection that isn’t there
- avoid work/personal tasks, social events, or new opportunities
What is anxiety?
Pretty much all humans experience anxiety — a feeling of worry or unease, usually about a future event or outcome—at some point in their lives. Anxiety disorders are how we label anxiety that is so intense or frequent that it negatively impacts your life. Common terms for anxiety disorders include Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), phobias, panic attacks or Panic Disorder, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
You probably have anxiety if you…
- experience excessive, frequent worry about many things
- often feel a sense of doom or impending disaster
- have an increased heart rate when thinking/worrying about something
- hyperventilate, sweat, or shake when anxious or worried
- frequently feel nervous, uneasy, or on edge
- have gastrointestinal problems such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
ADHD symptoms vs. anxiety symptoms
Yes, you can have both ADHD and an anxiety disorder. Though they have similarities, they are still distinct diagnoses. Frustratingly, these similarities can make it hard to get the right diagnosis. ADHD symptoms can mask symptoms of other disorders, and vice versa, which can delay you in getting the right treatment.
Similarities of ADHD and anxiety
Here’s how ADHD and anxiety look similar:
- Avoidance: not taking opportunities due to fear
- Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria: intense fear of rejection and/or extreme reaction/upset in response to what you interpret as rejection
- Guilt: Feeling guilt or shame over everyday, innocuous interactions, a.k.a. “little things”
- Fear and worry about social events, work, relationships, etc.
- Trouble sleeping
Differences between ADHD and anxiety
Here are some ways ADHD and anxiety are different:
- Anxiety disorders make you feel nervous or anxious most of the time; you might feel anxious about just about anything (or even everything). With ADHD, your anxiety may be more fleeting, and is often a reaction to rejection (or you’re anxious about rejection that might occur in the future).
- Anxiety can be part of ADHD, but it’s not the main symptom. If your main symptom is frequent anxiety, but you don’t experience other ADHD symptoms (disorganization, impulsivity, etc.), you probably don’t have ADHD.
Things to watch out for when you have anxiety and ADHD:
- ADHD stimulant medications like Adderall and Ritalin may make anxiety worse. If you have both anxiety and ADHD, talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of stimulants. If these meds make your anxiety worse, it might be time to explore a different solution, like CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) or nonstimulant medication.
- Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria is a common challenge with ADHD. RSD usually features at least some anxiety, usually related to feeling rejected or fearing you will be rejected. Addressing your RSD with things like therapy or the Inflow app can help you manage your anxiety and ADHD at the same time.
Statistics to remind you that you’re not alone:
- More than 65% of people with ADHD have at least one other coexisting condition (like anxiety)
- Up to 30% of children and 53% of adults have an anxiety disorder
- Women are twice as likely to have an anxiety disorder than men
ADHD and anxiety are both chronic conditions that can make life, work, and relationships challenging. It’s not always easy to know if you have ADHD, anxiety, or even both.
If you’re questioning your anxiety or ADHD diagnoses — or looking to get diagnosed with one or both — you should listen to your instincts. Do some self-reflection via journaling, asking friends/partners for feedback, and observing your day-to-day moods. If you feel your current diagnosis (or lack thereof) isn’t quite right, reach out to your doctor. You deserve an accurate diagnosis, because that will lead to proper treatment. And that will ultimately result in a calmer, happier life.
Whatever you find, remember that you are so much more than your diagnoses. You can still lead an amazing life with ADHD and/or Anxiety... I promise.