What is ADHD?
To clarify the relationship between anxiety and ADHD, lets first define each. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurological disorder that begins in early childhood, usually between ages 3 and 6, and may continue into adulthood. It affects a child’s ability to focus or concentrate and may affect their ability to be still. The most common symptoms of ADHD are:
- fidgeting or inability to sit still
- difficulty completing tasks
- careless mistakes
The cause of ADHD is still unknown but research suggest some possible causes include genetics, premature birth, and environmental toxins. Anxiety does not cause ADHD. Let me say that again, anxiety does not cause ADHD. In other words, children do not develop ADHD due to anxiety in their life. One common misconception about ADHD that I’ve heard time and time again is that it is an anxiety disorder. This is absolutely false.
What is an Anxiety Disorder?
Anxiety disorders are a form of mental illness where people feel stressed, panicked, uneasy, or scared when those feelings are unwarranted. They may experience shortness of breath, panic attacks, nightmares, tremors, sweating, insomnia, etc. The symptoms can get so severe that it impacts their daily activities, relationships, school, or work. The most common symptoms of Anxiety Disorder are:
- fear with no apparent cause
- inability to control worry
- trouble sleeping
- stomach aches
Relationship Between Anxiety and ADHD
ADHD and Anxiety Disorders are two very different types of medical conditions. ADHD is a neurological disorder, things are wired differently in the brain while Anxiety is purely mental. Anxiety does not cause ADHD, nor does ADHD cause Anxiety Disorders. However, the conditions can coexist and ADHD can cause some anxiety.
In fact, the Anxiety Disorders Association of America estimates that almost 50% of people with ADHD also have an anxiety disorder. This may present in the form of “obsessive-compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, phobias, social anxiety, or panic disorder,” according to clinical psychologist and clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School, Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D.
ADHD can be highly intrusive and cause many more negative situations than normal. For example, children are often judged for being fidgety or impulsive. They may forget their homework frequently and therefore get into trouble more often. They find that adults are frequently angry with them or disappointed in them. These negative situations often cause some overwhelming stress and anxiety, especially for those sensitive children that hate to disappoint. Children with anxiety may have trouble concentrating when they’re feeling anxious. But children with ADHD have trouble concentrating almost always, no matter how they feel. Children that avoid situations that cause them fear typically feel anxiety. Children with ADHD are typically impulsive and act without thinking about it so much.
Another thing to consider with the relationship between anxiety and ADHD is that both show similar symptoms that can be mistaken for another underlying condition. For example, when my son was 3 he was afraid of airplanes flying by. We lived in a third floor apartment just blocks from the airport. This fear seemed to be anxiety related and we questioned a possible anxiety disorder, we called them irrational fears.
What we later found out was that my son had Sensory Processing Disorder, he was sensory defensive toward sound and it was the loud noise of the jets flying by that bothered him and caused the fear. Another example, my son would often twitch or jerk randomly. Suddenly his leg would kick out while sitting on the couch watching TV and he didn’t know why that happened. His pediatrician associated that with ADHD fidgeting. ADHD was his first diagnosis. However, after more testing and more specialists, we found that my son actually has Epilepsy. What we were seeing was seizure activity. Epilepsy is his primary diagnosis. According to his neuropsychologist, the ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorder, chronic tics, Narcolepsy, etc. are all secondary conditions that are exacerbated by the Epilepsy.
How Can You Help?
The problem with these disorders, like the relationship between anxiety and ADHD, is that they all share similar symptoms and mimic each other. Common people and pediatricians alike have trouble distinguishing which symptoms belong to what medical condition without extensive testing. We see the smoke and try to put out the fire before determining what is causing the fire in the first place. While Anxiety and ADHD can share symptoms and can co-exist, they are two very different disorders and treating them incorrectly can make the problem even worse.
Concluding that ADHD is a made up label for children that are simply experiencing anxiety can cause many problems. Being misunderstood, children experience many more negative situations and without teaching them how to understand and address them appropriately, situations can get drastically worse and lead to much more dire situations such as chronic depression and suicidal thoughts.
You can help by raising awareness on these different conditions and being more understanding with both children and parents when you see what appears to be misbehavior in public. These invisible conditions cause some really harsh judgements that only make situations worse for the children suffering with the condition and the parents trying to help them cope with it. Don’t be so quick to dismiss the labels we use when we attempt to gain a little understanding. The conditions are real. The suffering is real. Put yourself in their shoes.
If you’ve experienced similar issues and would like to share, please let us know what you’ve experienced!