ADHD vs. Anxiety: How Do You Tell the Difference?
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and anxiety are two mental health disorders that can be difficult to differentiate between. Because the two diagnoses often mirror each other in terms of signs and symptoms, you may often wonder what is causing your symptoms – ADHD or anxiety. There are slight differences between the two as each mental health disorder has its own set of unique symptoms, and we can aid in helping to spot the difference between these two.
One of the main similarities between ADHD and anxiety is that patients will often experience difficulties with concentration and focus, and the ability to show sustained attention. About one quarter to one third of children and adults with ADHD have also been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. For this reason, it is important for mental health professionals to consider that anxiety and ADHD often coexist with each other, so each patient’s treatment should be specifically tailored to each case.
As told above, patients with anxiety disorders may present with complaints of difficulty concentrating, but what makes it different from those suffering with ADHD is that these patients typically only experience concentration difficulties in situations or settings that cause them to feel anxious. Individuals with anxiety disorders may feel fearful or anxious for many reasons or report feeling like they are in a constant state of worry or fear.
As previously mentioned, patients with ADHD may have complications with concentrating and keeping focus. Unlike individuals with anxiety disorders, patients with ADHD may report concentration difficulties in settings or situations where they are not experiencing anxiety. Individuals with ADHD may get anxious, but often report that their anxiousness stems from struggles related to their ADHD diagnosis, which includes prioritizing, planning, starting or finishing tasks.
Another way to effectively distinguish between ADHD and anxiety is to consider the onset of attention and focus difficulty symptoms. According to the CDC addressing the diagnostic criteria for ADHD, several instances of inattention or hyperactivity are present before the age of 12 years old. There are some instances in which ADHD symptoms are not recognized until later in life, however, these patients should be further questioned about their childhood history to decide when the onset of ADHD symptoms occurred (Brown, 2018).
In addition to timing the onset of symptoms, ADHD and anxiety disorders can be further distinguished by the presence of deficits in executive function. Executive function can be defined as mental skills that are critical to everyday survival, such as memory, flexible thinking and self-control. Executive function allows us to organize our behavior in ways that will allow us to reach future goals. Individuals with ADHD typically have reduced executive function, in contrast to those who suffer from anxiety disorders. In individuals with ADHD, this reduced executive function can lead to problems with memory, problem-solving, organization and regulation of emotions.
If you or someone you know is having difficulty with some of the symptoms listed and believe that ADHD may be a problem instead of anxiety, we at iTrust can certainly help. Getting help is as easy as filling out our quick self-referral form under the “book an appointment” tab on our website. You will be treated quickly and comprehensively, as our patients do not typically wait any longer than 1-2 weeks for an appointment. Getting the proper diagnosis as quickly as possible will help maximize treatment outcomes.
Proper and prompt diagnosis and treatment of both ADHD and anxiety are important in improving the quality of life for patients who suffer from these disorders, which is why increasing the understanding of how these two disorders differ is imperative.
Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA), (2023, January 6). The difference between ADHD vs. anxiety in adults. ADDA - Attention Deficit Disorder Association. Retrieved March 31, 2023, from https://add.org/add-vs-anxiety/
Barkley RA. Differential diagnosis of adults with ADHD: the role of executive function and self-regulation. J Clin Psychiatry. 2010 Jul;71(7):e17. doi: 10.4088/JCP.9066tx1c. PMID: 20667287
Brown, Ph.D., T. E. (2018). ADHD: Beyond DSM-5 | psychiatric news. Psychiatric News . Retrieved March 31, 2023, from https://psychnews.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.pn.2018.3a20
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2022, August 9). Symptoms and diagnosis of ADHD. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved March 31, 2023, from https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/adhd/diagnosis.html#:~:text=DSM-5%20Criteria%20for%2n.d.HD.%20Often%20runs%20about%20or,go%E2%80%9D%20acting%20as%20if%20%E2%80%9Cdriven%20by%20a%20motor%E2%80%9D.
Pliszka, S. R. (2019). ADHD and Anxiety: Clinical Implications. Journal of Attention Disorders, 23(3), 203–205. https://doi.org/10.1177/1087054718817365