ADHD vs anxiety in adults are closely related. Many people with ADHD (up to 50%) also deal with anxiety at some point in their lives. Anxiety is more common in those with ADHD, and the two conditions share similar symptoms, making it tricky to diagnose when both are present.
Often, inattentive-type ADHD seems to have a higher rate of co-occurring anxiety, making diagnosis more complicated. It can be difficult to determine if inattention is caused by anxiety or ADHD without hyperactivity.
Additionally, ADHD often comes with secondary anxiety, which is different from general anxiety disorder. This secondary anxiety is about struggling with executive functions, like managing time and tasks, rather than overarching worries.
So, telling the difference between ADHD and anxiety in adults can be challenging, especially when symptoms overlap.
ADHD vs. Anxiety in Adults
Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a mental health condition that affects your behavior and ability to concentrate. It can come with symptoms like being easily distracted, lacking the ability to organize and plan, interrupting conversations, and finding it difficult to wait your turn.
Anxiety, on the other hand, includes things like feeling an impending sense of danger, trouble controlling feelings of worry, constantly feeling nervous or on edge, and trembling.
Here is an image summarizing the main symptoms of ADHD and anxiety.
ADHD Symptoms in Adults
The first step to determining if you have ADHD vs anxiety as an adult is to learn the symptoms. If you were diagnosed with ADHD as a child, you may notice your symptoms diminish slightly as you get older and approach adulthood. This is because being treated for ADHD, especially with therapy, can help you build systems that reduce the impact your symptoms have on your life.
That being said, if you’re newly diagnosed as an adult, or if you didn’t get all the help you needed, you may continue to feel symptoms that significantly impact your daily life. These can include:
This is the bread and butter of ADHD. You may constantly zone in and out, daydream, or be thinking about something else during conversations. Usually you’re able to recover smoothly because you’re used to having multiple lines of thought running at once, but occasionally, it can come back to bite you when you truly did not hear a word someone said.
You may also find repetitive, routine, or boring tasks incredibly challenging, causing you to fall behind or procrastinate. In some cases, it may almost be painful to force yourself to do something you don’t want to do.
This symptom is often derided for being our fault. Believe me when I say it’s not your fault you forget things. In the ADHD brain, you are thinking about multiple things at once. If you do something, put something down, or say something while focusing on a different line of thought, you won’t have “saved” the thing you just did to memory, because you’re not focused on it. You might find yourself stopping all lines of thought and looking pointedly at where you place your wallet to try to remember where it is later. If you do this, you are more likely to remember it later.
Losing track of belongings isn’t the only time this occurs. It also happens when we agree to things, commit to important dates, or schedule meetings. We can totally forget that those things happened if we don’t have a system in place to stay on top of it.
Organization and Prioritization Issues
Our brains tend to value novelty over importance, which means that instead of writing my paper on microplastics that’s due tomorrow, I may choose to spend my time playing the new video game I just got or watching a new Youtube video by my favorite creator. These things bring me dopamine, and my paper decidedly does not. Remember when I said that forcing ourselves to do something we don’t want to do can be almost painful sometimes? It’s especially painful when we’re foregoing something interesting or novel to focus on something we don’t want to do.
Restlessness and Fidgeting
We tend to find it hard to keep still. Movement is another small way we can get dopamine into our brains, so you may need something like a fidget toy at your desk to focus. I would also recommend getting a standing desk if you can. It helps by letting your legs do most of the fidgeting so that you can focus on whatever you need to get done.
People with ADHD can also experience tics and other uncontrollable behaviors.
People with ADHD may say or do impulsive things regularly. We could say something totally off the rails, purchase a big-ticket item without consulting our partners, start a new hobby out of the blue, or perform other actions without considering the consequences. Again, this is all about getting those dopamine hits to the brain.
People with ADHD find it really hard to regulate their emotions. This, combined with our impulsiveness, can result in frequent conflicts, irritability, a short temper, and unpredictable mood changes. This is because we tend to feel emotions “harder” than others, which can cause us to become emotionally “flooded”. If you find it hard to control your feelings, it may be a symptom of ADHD.
Anxiety Symptoms in Adults
Anxiety is not only a common disorder, but everyone experiences some anxiety from time to time. Some just feel it much more often and with much more intensity than others. Anxiety normally comes with some obvious symptoms, and generally speaking, if they impact your life in a frequent and meaningful way, you may have an anxiety disorder. These symptoms can include:
This is due to the fact that people with anxiety are caught up in the thing they are anxious about, so it can be difficult to pay attention to, or even hear, what other people are saying. It can also be difficult to focus on tasks and priorities if you’re overcome with anxiety.
Problems with Sleep
Anxiety can cause insomnia, an issue where you may find it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep through the night. It can be difficult to sleep when you’re up late worrying about things coming your way. Things like racing thoughts and hypervigilance can keep you awake, and nightmares or night terrors can wake you back up if you do fall asleep.
Excessive Fear or Stress
Excessive is a subjective thing, but, generally speaking, if it impacts you to the point that you can’t normally go about your day and live your life, or if it gets in the way of accomplishing tasks, it is considered excessive. For example, some people are unable to drive to the grocery store alone. That would be considered excessive fear of driving and/or being alone in public.
When that excessive fear creeps in, it can be easy to avoid whatever is causing it. In the example above, the person in question may simply avoid driving or going to the grocery store at all, and instead opt to have groceries delivered every week. A person with a social anxiety disorder may avoid social situations for fear of being judged or embarrassed.
How to Tell ADHD vs Anxiety in Adults Apart
As we’ve seen, ADHD and anxiety definitely share some overlapping symptoms, but it’s not impossible to tell them apart. Let’s look at each of the shared symptoms and determine what the difference is between them.
Someone with ADHD has trouble concentrating in all situations, even when their mind is calm or happy. In contrast, someone with anxiety only has difficulty concentrating when they are feeling nervous or worried.
Feelings of Restlessness
Similarly, ADHDers often experience restlessness even when they otherwise feel fine. Anxiety, on the other hand, causes restlessness when the person feeling anxious is nervous about something. They may feel the urge to act in order to mitigate any impending consequences or potential threats.
People with ADHD do experience anxiety, but only insofar as they are unable to keep up with their responsibilities. Anxiety in ADHD increases in adulthood as we take on more responsibility, and that can be hard for the person with ADHD to keep track of. They may feel anxious when they’re procrastinating, spending too much money, or otherwise behaving impulsively. People with an anxiety disorder experience anxiety regardless of their other behaviors. They may feel anxious even when everything is going exactly as planned.
Anxiety keeps you up at night. You worry about tomorrow, that weekend, or whatever the next thing you have planned is. You might fall asleep and then have an anxiety-related nightmare that wakes you back up. In contrast, those with ADHD struggle with things like keeping a consistent bedtime routine, sleep hygiene, and bedtime procrastination.
ADHD and Anxiety Treatments
The medications used to treat anxiety and ADHD are different. If you are experiencing both, treatment can become even trickier, because certain ADHD medications exacerbate anxiety symptoms.
Adult ADHD Treatment
The most effective treatment for adult ADHD is a combination of medication and therapy. Non-medication methods of managing ADHD can include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy: This type of therapy helps you identify unhealthy mindsets, beliefs, ways of thinking, and behaviors, and reframe them into healthier patterns and habits. CBT may also help with tackling poor time management and disorganization. It’s a great tool to help you start to get those systems put into place.
- Marriage or family counseling: This therapy will help if you experience some tension within your family because of ADHD. Find a specialist who can help you shed light on your symptoms and why they occur, and help you and your loved ones find balance in your relationships.
- ADHD Coaching: An ADHD coach will help you come up with personalized strategies for overcoming daily struggles, staying focused, and increasing motivation.
Medically, stimulant medications like Adderall and Ritalin are usually used first to treat ADHD because they are the most effective. These medications help regulate your brain activity, but they also come with addictive qualities and anxiety-inducing side effects like a racing heart, so they must be monitored carefully. If stimulant medication doesn’t seem to work for you, your doctor may recommend non-stimulant medications like antidepressants, which also have some effects that regulate the ADHD brain.
Anxiety Disorder Treatment
Medication and therapy are also used to treat anxiety. The most effective form of therapy for anxiety is Cognitive Behavioral therapy, which can also help you to identify unhelpful patterns and replace them with more helpful ones, slowly changing your mindset and perspective over time.
There are a variety of medications to choose from when it comes to treating anxiety. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and selective serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) both help to increase the amount of serotonin in the brain, which can decrease levels of anxiety. SNRIs can also increase norepinephrine, which calms the body down. These medications can have a lot of interactions with other medications you may take, including ADHD meds. In this case, your doctor may prescribe an antihistamine like hydroxyzine instead, which also provides anxiety relief.
Getting a Medical Evaluation
It is vital to talk to a specialist if you suspect you have ADHD, anxiety, or both. Treatment can help significantly, and you will be able to return to a more productive life. If you are seeking therapy for ADHD or anxiety in adults, Modern Era Counseling boasts a team of ten experienced therapists, all suited to help you through your struggles.
If therapy sounds like the right option for you, don’t hesitate. Give us a call at (704) 800-4436 or click here to shoot us an email and get matched with a therapist today.