ADHD and Anxiety: Is There a Correlation?

adhd and anxietyIf someone is diagnosed with ADHD, it is highly likely that they also suffer from some sort of anxiety disorder. This could be anything from obsessive compulsive disorder, social phobia, another specific phobia or simply general anxiety disorder. It’s important to first understand what ADHD is – since it is so commonly misdiagnosed these days. It is then important to understand exactly what constitutes an anxiety disorder; it can be difficult to determine what symptoms point to a real disorder and what point to normal, every day anxiety.

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What is ADHD, Anyway?

ADHD stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. It’s a very common behavioral disorder found in children (although does carry over to adulthood), classified by impulsive actions, difficulty focusing and hyperactivity. The problem with diagnosing this disorder is that these symptoms tend to describe most children at one point or another during their young years. Enter a room full of kindergartners during playtime, and they’ll all seem like they’re bouncing off the walls and unlikely to follow any sort of direction anytime soon. Those with ADHD may be fully aware of what it is that they are supposed to be doing, yet are so restless that they cannot follow through with the task. It can be especially difficult to diagnose this disorder because many children simply don’t want to focus on subjects and tasks that don’t interest them, whether it’s at school, home or play.

There are a handful of telltale signs to look out for if you’re worried that your child may have ADHD. There are two main types of ADHD – hyperactive-impulsive and inattentive.

  • Hyperactive-Implusive: The child with hyperactive-impulsive ADHD constantly finds it difficult to sit still and focus on the task at hand. They may show signs of squirming or fidgeting during a lesson, and cannot remain seated for long periods of time. Often they will get up and roam around the classroom during a lesson they don’t like. Hyperactive-impulsivity can lead to climbing all over things they are not supposed to be climbing on and raised voices during quiet time. These children are the little chatterboxes of the classroom; they always have something to say, and they often blurt out answers before the teacher is even finished asking the question. They may interrupt their peers or find it difficult to wait their turn – whether it be speaking or choosing a toy for playtime.
  • Inattentive: The child with inattentive ADHD finds it incredibly difficult to pay attention to the small details in games and tasks at school and home. They tend to make careless mistakes due to their inability to fully concentrate, and they find it difficult to pay attention to directions long enough to follow them through. They may simply refuse to follow through with tasks that require a great deal of mental effort, and they are commonly disorganized in nature. Because they are so disorganized, they may frequently lose important things such as their homework or their favorite toy.

There is also a type of ADHD known as the combined type, which is less common yet exhibits signs and symptoms of both main types of ADHD – making it even harder to diagnose. If you’re still worried that your child is showing signs of ADHD, it’s important to observe them over a longer period of time and throughout various scenarios. If they still continue to show these symptoms at school, at home and while hanging out with friends, it may be wise to get them evaluated by a doctor.

It’s important to note that most children display some or all of these symptoms at various points while growing up. ADHD only becomes a serious problem if it begins to negatively affect their lives either academically or socially.

Where Does Anxiety Play In?

When symptoms of ADHD are more extreme, they begin to negatively affect the child’s life in all areas. The inability to focus or take full control of their actions can become extremely stressful, which can lead to many sorts of anxiety disorders. Maybe the child forgets important homework assignments so much that he or she is failing their class. After forgetting important homework assignments on a handful of different occasions, they may end up conditioning themselves to believe that they will always forget these assignments, leading to a constant overwhelming anxiety about forgetting things.

When people with ADHD are forgetful, disorganized and impulsive (or one of the three), they tend to feel overwhelmed in many different situations. Maybe they are constantly letting down their peers or getting the worst grades in the class; whatever the reason, ADHD symptoms can bring a lot of negativity. Those with ADHD also tend to be more sensitive than their peers, making them more vulnerable to the feelings of anxiety.

It’s important for a professional to determine whether this anxiety disorder is primary or secondary – meaning whether it exists outside of the normal stress of the ADHD symptoms or it is merely a result of such. If a child has often had symptoms of anxiety even before ADHD symptoms, the anxiety is most likely primary. If the anxiety symptoms began to appear after symptoms of ADHD, it is most likely secondary.

Could it Be Just One or the Other?

While ADHD and anxiety often show up hand-in-hand, it could be that your child diagnosed with one actually has the other instead. Let’s say little Olivia can’t seem to focus during school, no matter what the subject. She is often seen fidgeting in her seat, not making eye contact with other students, and having trouble focusing on her schoolwork. Her teacher worries that she may have ADHD, and when given the symptoms, her doctor believes the same thing. He prescribes her with a stimulant to help balance out the chemicals in her brain. However, her symptoms didn’t seem to improve, even after a number of weeks. In fact, they actually worsened! She began to have trouble sleeping and couldn’t stand to be alone, even though she wouldn’t interact much with her peers if she was around them.

The problem was not ADHD, but was in fact an anxiety disorder that was overlooked. Due to being prescribed a stimulant, her anxiety symptoms doubled and she had an even harder time focusing in school. The same goes for those with ADHD who are diagnosed with anxiety disorder. There are specific medications prescribed for both, and when a child is misdiagnosed with one and not the other, those medications can cause even more unwanted symptoms.

Problems in Treatment

adhd and anxietyWhen children are diagnosed with ADHD, often a doctor will prescribe them with a stimulant. While this may seem counterproductive, especially for the hyperactive-impulsive child, stimulants actually help balance out chemicals in the brain and sharpen focus on daily tasks. The problem with this sort of treatment, especially in a patient who is also exhibiting signs of an anxiety disorder – is that stimulants can actually worsen anxiety symptoms – as you saw in the case of Olivia above. While many of these heightened negative symptoms will begin to subside over a matter of weeks, those with extreme anxiety may not be able to handle the medication at all.

So what can you do when both disorders are truly present? Treatment doesn’t only include medication. Often it is in addition to behavioral therapy, which helps the child become more organized and focused. This may include setting a specific daily schedule that the child must adhere to and making sure to remove any obvious distractions. The schedule can begin as simple as waking up, getting dressed and eating breakfast at the same time every day, followed by homework at the same time after school.

And, unfortunately since the symptoms of both of these disorders can be so up in the air, sometimes it is truly a matter of trial and error. If ADHD medication does not seem to be working, or exacerbates symptoms, a doctor may switch to anxiety medication and vice versa.

Treating All Symptoms

Symptoms of both ADHD and anxiety can begin to be alleviated at home without the need of prescription medication, especially if the symptoms aren’t too overwhelming. Participating in simple relaxation techniques, eating a well balanced diet and getting enough sleep are often three simple tasks that can help renew mental focus and tranquility. Being surrounded by a positive, uplifting support group is also incredibly helpful. The more you focus on one particular negative symptom, the more you’ll notice that symptom and the worse it will get. If you constantly forget things, you’ll begin to think that you constantly forget things, and then you will constantly forget things, etc etc. Although ADHD and anxiety can be a vicious circle, it is possible to get out of it.

Do you find it incredibly difficult to focus on simple tasks? You may have mild (or not so mild) symptoms of ADHD. Learn more about this behavioral disorder and how to overcome it through Udemy’s course on mastering your ADHD brain!