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Picture this scenario: You’re stressed about an upcoming exam. When you finally sit down at your desk to study, it becomes increasingly difficult to concentrate. You suddenly remember those sneakers you left in your online shopping cart, and because you’re already using your computer, you figure you’ll “check in on them.”
It’ll only take a minute, anyway, you tell yourself. One hour later, you have 13 tabs open, having gone from looking at sneakers to checking your email to remembering you need to pay your electricity bill to somehow landing on the Personal Life section of Robert DeNiro’s Wikipedia page.
The clock’s ticking, and you still haven’t cracked open a book, which makes you feel even more anxious. But you push those feelings away and promise yourself just five more minutes of doomscrolling…which turns into another hour. Panic ensues. Rinse and repeat.
When you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, it’s totally natural to have trouble focusing or issues completing tasks. But if this happens with more frequency or intensity, you might be wondering: Is this anxiety or ADHD? How can you tell the difference, and can you have both?
Many think of ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) as that condition that causes people to be easily distracted. And while it’s different from anxiety disorders, both share similar symptoms — which, understandably, can make things a little confusing when trying to figure out which condition you have.
While only your healthcare provider can officially give you a diagnosis, it’s helpful to have your own understanding of the symptoms of anxiety and how they compare to the symptoms of ADHD. In this overview, we’ll dig into their differences and how you can seek treatment for either — or both.
ADHD stands for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder). It can be experienced as hyperactivity, inattention, impulsiveness or a combination of those symptoms.
If you have ADHD, you might have trouble with things like paying attention, staying on task, being organized and controlling impulsive behaviors. Commonly diagnosed during childhood, ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that can last into adulthood. In 2020 alone, there were over 360 million global diagnoses of adult ADHD.
Plenty of us have occasional moments with difficulty focusing (i.e., mundane tasks like tackling your work emails can feel like torture). But for people with ADHD, inattention and impulsivity can interfere with everyday life in more severe ways.
For instance, in a 2017 study involving 423 young adults who gambled more than five times in recent years, ADHD symptoms were found in 20.3 percent of participants. However, only 7.3 percent had ever been given a formal ADHD diagnosis.
Now that you’re acquainted with ADHD, let’s switch gears and talk about anxiety.
Whether you’re interviewing for a job or starting a new relationship, it’s totally normal to experience levels of anxiety in everyday life. When you’re feeling anxious, you’re reacting to stress, which is associated with emotional or physical tensions, like relationship struggles or work pressure.
That said, some people experience symptoms of anxiety much more intensely. And like its cousin ADHD, untreated anxiety can take over aspects of your life, such as work, relationships and even activities you once enjoyed. If this sounds familiar, you could — along with over 19 percent of Americans — have an anxiety disorder.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) defines anxiety disorders as a group of mental health disorders that share common traits, like intense feelings of fear or worry, anxiousness, severe unease and panic.
There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to anxiety. In fact, there are many different kinds. Some of the most common types of anxiety include:
Generalized anxiety disorder. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is defined as a constant feeling of worry and fear that may make it more difficult to engage in everyday tasks and activities. This disorder is different from everyday anxiety, which everyone occasionally experiences on some level.
Panic disorder. Having a panic disorder involves experiencing panic attacks, which come from sudden, intense feelings of fear and/or losing control. Shaking, sweating and shortness of breath are just a few of the symptoms you might feel.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If a person has gone through a dangerous or traumatizing experience, they might be diagnosed with PTSD. Wondering if you have anxiety or PTSD? Read our guide for insight.
Social anxiety disorder. People who have social anxiety disorder are fearful of being perceived negatively during social situations, be it in the workplace or at a party with friends.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD is when a person has repetitive, recurring thoughts or behaviors they can’t control. This can look like anything from constant hand-washing to obsessively checking on things, like if the house is locked before leaving home.
It’s important to note that ADHD and anxiety can be comorbid, meaning the two disorders can exist simultaneously in one person. It also means diagnosing a person with ADHD can be tricky.
For instance, ADHD and anxiety can both cause stress, extreme fears, problems with memory and distractibility. They can further cause fatigue, insomnia and other sleep-related issues.
However, research suggests that if ADHD and its comorbidities — which commonly include mood and anxiety disorders, substance use disorders and personality disorders — are identified and treated early enough, there’s potential to change the trajectory of psychiatric morbidity later in life. A 2016 survey revealed that 60 percent of children between 2 and 5 with ADHD have at least one other behavioral or mental health disorder.
Let’s take a closer look at ADHD and anxiety’s individual symptoms.
Anxiety and ADHD can share physical and mental symptoms, such as:
Feelings of nervousness and restlessness
But there are also differences. Symptoms unique to anxiety can include:
Feelings of physical weakness and/or tiredness
Stomachaches, cramps, diarrhea and/or constipation
Hyperventilation (rapid breathing)
Trouble controlling feelings of worry
Symptoms unique to ADHD can look like:
Overlooking details or making careless mistakes
Seemingly not listening when spoken to
Avoiding tasks that require sustained mental effort
Difficulty following through on instructions
Fidgeting and squirming
Struggles with executive functioning
If you read any of the above symptoms and thought, Wait…that’s me, don’t stress. Both anxiety and ADHD are highly treatable, which we’ll dive into below.
Although treatment for ADHD and anxiety looks different for everyone, medication can be effective for both disorders.
Adderall is a stimulant commonly prescribed to those with ADHD. However, this medication comes with a risk of dependency and can potentially make some symptoms worse (i.e., you might find yourself with increased nervousness). Bupropion, sold under the name Wellbutrin®, is sometimes prescribed off-label for ADHD treatment as well.
When it comes to treating anxiety, antidepressants are usually the go-to medications. There are two types of antidepressants: SSRIs and SNRIs.
SSRIs (short for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) increase your serotonin levels — aka the “happy” chemical that helps regulate your mood.
The most commonly prescribed SSRIs include:
SNRIs (serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors) work similarly to SSRIs by also boosting your serotonin levels. Where they differ is that SNRIs target a neurotransmitter called norepinephrine.
Norepinephrine does a bunch of stuff for your body, including activating your cardiovascular system so your blood pressure and heart rate are happy, regulating your sleep cycle and playing a role in your body’s fight-or-flight response.
Typical SNRIs that are prescribed are:
If neither of these types of antidepressants is doing the job, other medications can be used to keep your anxiety at bay:
Buspirone, sold under the name BuSpar®, is an anxiolytic drug originally conceived as an antipsychotic for treating psychosis. Ultimately, it was found ineffective as an antipsychotic and is now mostly used for treating anxiety disorders.
Similar to Xanax, BuSpar® can provide more immediate relief for anxiety symptoms (like when you’re on the verge of a panic attack and need help ASAP), though it produces different side effects.
Bupropion, sold under the name Wellbutrin XL®, falls under a category of medication called NDRIs (norepinephrine and dopamine reuptake inhibitors). How do NDRIs work? They stop dopamine and norepinephrine from being reabsorbed by the brain so it has enough to function properly.
Also used to treat depression, the Wellbutrin XL® dosage prescribed for anxiety tends to be smaller. It’s also helpful in treating health conditions like seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and can even help people quit smoking.
Along with prescribing medication, your healthcare provider may recommend different types of therapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), as additional treatment. But if waiting around in a doctor’s office sounds like more trouble than it’s worth (we get it), another option is online therapy, which doesn’t even require you to leave home.
As we’ve established, anxiety and ADHD are two distinct disorders. But they share similar traits, making it sometimes difficult to pinpoint exactly which is which.
According to the Attention Deficit Disorder Association, someone with an anxiety disorder may have difficulty concentrating when they’re nervous or worried. But someone with ADHD may have trouble concentrating even if their brain isn’t swirling with worry.
Another contrast is that someone with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder may become worried or anxious about problems caused by their ADHD symptoms (i.e., repeatedly forgetting keys and getting locked out of the house).
On the other hand, someone with an anxiety disorder, like generalized anxiety disorder, might be anxious about different things they can’t explain. They might feel just a general, overwhelming sense of dread or fear.
ADHD symptoms can appear in younger children between 3 and 6. Sometimes, the symptoms can be confused for disciplinary or other behavioral problems.
Most kids who have ADHD get a diagnosis during their elementary school years. To get an ADHD diagnosis, a person’s symptoms must be chronic or long-lasting, impact their ability to function and cause them to have developmental delays.
ADHD symptoms can also change with time. For instance, as a kid, you might’ve been constantly told to stop fidgeting or to pay better attention in school. As an adult, though, the condition could manifest differently, playing more of a role in failed romantic relationships or trouble performing at work. If you were more hyperactive as a child, you mind find yourself less so as an adult but more inattentive.
That said, if you think you may have anxiety, ADHD or even both, the best way to find out is to speak to a healthcare provider, whether it’s your primary care provider or a psychiatrist.
To diagnose you, your provider might perform a mental health evaluation or use the DSM-5:
Mental health evaluation. Your provider may start the conversation by asking about your symptoms, as well as lifestyle habits like smoking and drinking.
DSM-5. The DSM-5 is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a criteria published by the American Psychiatric Association.
Having a mental health disorder can feel overwhelming, never mind having two. But whether you have anxiety, ADHD or a combination of both, plenty of mental health services can provide the support you deserve.
Navigating any type of mental illness can be daunting, but keep these takeaways in mind:
ADHD and anxiety are separate disorders. But they also share similarities and can even occur at the same time. It’s still unclear, though, if ADHD can cause a person to develop anxiety or if anxiety can cause a person to develop ADHD.
The first step is connecting with a healthcare provider. We’ve all spent hours Googling our symptoms in an attempt to diagnose ourselves, whether it’s a weird rash you got from hiking or more headaches than usual. But the reality is, a healthcare professional is the only person who can accurately diagnose you. They’re also the only one who can prescribe medication. Making an appointment is a great starting point (you can even do it online via the Hers telehealth platform).
Therapy can be a powerful support system. We’re big proponents of medication, but many types of therapy can also make you feel supported, be it talk therapy or CBT. There are even anonymous support groups you can join if you’d like more privacy.
Explore our online mental health resources today.
Dr. Beth Pausic is a clinical psychologist and oversees the therapy platform at Hims & Hers.
Prior to Hims & Hers, Beth worked in senior roles at several behavioral healthcare startups focused on the digital delivery of emotional support and treatment through both conventional and innovative approaches.
Her experience prior to working in telebehavioral health includes over 15 years as a Clinical Administrator and provider in diverse clinical settings. In her clinical work, she primarily focused on anxiety, depression and relationships.
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