ADHD & Anxiety: Differences & Similarities

Reviewed by Robert P. Bogenberger, Ph.D.

Anxiety vs. ADHD

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a developmental disorder that typically starts in childhood and involves difficulty focusing, sustaining attention, restlessness, and fidgeting. Anxiety is a mental health disorder that involves excessive nervousness, worry, and fear. 

ADHD often occurs at the same time as other mental health disorders, such as anxiety. In fact, symptoms of the two conditions often overlap. 

For example, someone who has anxiety might fidget and struggle to sit still due to nervousness. Someone who has ADHD might display these same symptoms due to a short attention span. 

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA)1, half of all adults who have ADHD also meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder. The exact reason why these two disorders occur together so frequently is unclear, but there may be a number of environmental and genetic factors at play. 

What Is ADHD?

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is common in children but can affect people into adulthood as well. The main symptoms of ADHD are inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. 

Common examples of inattention in someone who has ADHD include:

  • Not paying attention to details
  • Frequently making mistakes in school or at work
  • Difficulty managing time and tasks 
  • Losing important things often
  • Trouble listening when others are speaking
  • Difficulty following instructions 
  • Being easily distracted

Common examples of hyperactivity and impulsivity in someone who has ADHD include:

  • Constantly fidgeting or tapping 
  • Talking excessively 
  • Interrupting others
  • Difficulty staying seated for long periods 
  • Always being on the go
  • Difficulty waiting and often being inpatient

What Is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a common mental health concern that involves excessive worry and fear that is difficult to control. Everyone experiences some anxiety, especially prior to an important event or presentation. However, those who have an anxiety disorder experience severe symptoms of anxiety that disrupt their everyday life.

There are many different types of anxiety disorders, such as social anxiety, separation anxiety, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and specific phobias

Common symptoms of an anxiety disorder include:

  • Feeling a sense of panic or doom
  • Uncontrolled worry
  • Avoiding certain things or situations that trigger fear
  • Nervousness and restlessness
  • Sweating excessively 
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Digestive problems
  • Frequently feeling tired 

ADHD & Anxiety Symptoms

ADHD and anxiety often occur at the same time, but it can be difficult to determine if one caused the other. 

Some common symptoms of both disorders include:

  • Trouble with socializing
  • Working at a slower pace
  • Struggling to meet deadlines
  • Fidgeting
  • Struggling to pay attention
  • Difficulty starting new tasks

For some, ADHD and anxiety might occur at the same time. However, for others, ADHD can cause anxiety symptoms. Some signs of anxiety in those with ADHD include:

  • Struggling with socializing
  • Having outbursts or struggling with emotional regulation, especially in group settings
  • Intentionally isolating oneself
  • Lying about incomplete tasks or responsibilities

How to Tell the Difference Between the Two

Differentiating between anxiety and ADHD can be challenging due to their similarities. However, there are some things to watch for when determining which disorder might be present. 

Someone who has anxiety experiences nervousness, fear, and worry. They may have trouble concentrating, but this is typically during occasions that make them feel nervous or anxious. 

ADHD is marked by difficulty paying attention and a lack of focus. Unlike those who have anxiety, someone who has ADHD isn’t likely to be a perfectionist or show compulsive behaviors. However, someone who has ADHD may struggle to meet deadlines and forget assignments, leading to symptoms of anxiety. 

If you’re struggling to understand the difference between anxiety and ADHD, a professional therapist can help

ADHD & Anxiety Treatment

Medication

Medications are often prescribed to those who have ADHD to help with difficulty concentrating and hyperactivity. However, non-stimulant medications might be best for those who have both ADHD and anxiety. Anti-anxiety medications might also be considered. 

ADHD Medication & Anxiety

Stimulant ADHD medication, such as Adderall, can cause symptoms of anxiety, such as nervousness, difficulty sleeping, rapid heart rate, and trembling. This can cause someone to develop anxiety or lead to worsened anxiety in those who already have the disorder. If these symptoms occur, non-stimulant medication might be considered instead. 

Therapy

There are many different therapeutic techniques that can be used to help someone manage their symptoms of ADHD and anxiety. Therapies used to treat both include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT can help someone change their thought patterns, leading to positive behavioral changes and reduced anxiety that may be caused by ADHD. 
  • Acceptance & commitment therapy (ACT): ACT relies on observance and acceptance to help people make committed changes. It is often useful for people who struggle with executive dysfunction (a common symptom of ADHD) as well as those who struggle with perfectionism and anxiety.

Coping with Anxiety & ADHD

In addition to the appropriate therapy or medications, those who are struggling with ADHD and anxiety can practice a number of techniques in their daily life to help improve their symptoms. These include:

  • Getting enough sleep each night
  • Exercising regularly
  • Socializing regularly
  • Improving nutrition
  • Meditating to help reduce stress
  • Following a regular schedule
  • Setting realistic timelines for tasks 
  • Journaling to clear the mind

Getting Help for Your ADHD & Anxiety

ADHD and anxiety can be difficult to manage on your own. If ADHD and anxiety symptoms are affecting your daily life, it might be time to seek professional help. A therapist can help you determine if your symptoms are related to ADHD, an anxiety disorder, or both, and set up a plan for treatment. Find a therapist for ADHD and anxiety near you today.