Relationship Between ADHD and Anxiety

Written by Colleen M. Story | Published on June 19, 2013
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on June 19, 2013

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 “subtype.”

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:

  • hyperactivity
  • lack of attention
  • lack of impulse control
  • fidgeting and trouble sitting still
  • difficulty organizing and completing tasks

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
  • irritability
  • trouble sleeping
  • headaches and stomachaches
  • trouble controlling worry or fear
  • insomnia

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 others.

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 to school.

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 symptoms.

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.

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