Reviewed by Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC
Feeling anxious is likely nothing new, particularly if you have lived with some form of learning or developmental disability. For children and adults alike, navigating the difficulties associated with living with a learning disability can be severe, impacting areas as diverse as work, school, and relationships. Although anxiety and other mental and developmental health issues are often linked, they are not typically associated. The presence of one has the unfortunate potential to overshadow the other's presence. Could ADD be at the root of your anxiety?
What Is ADD?
ADD is an outdated term used to describe the symptoms of the condition, more commonly known as ADHD. ADD stands for Attention Deficit Disorder and was used to describe a condition in which attention and focus were absent enough to negatively impact schoolwork and relationships. Many symptoms of ADD may have initially been attributed to personality qualities, and children with ADD may have been identified as daydreamers, shy children, or clumsy. While these characteristics are understandable identifiers, they failed to recognize the wide-reaching impact of ADD symptoms and attributed a learning disorder to personality—a distinction that precludes assistance.
ADHD Vs. ADD
ADD and ADHD are often confused, as “ADD” has fallen out of use in medicine but is still commonplace in conversation and in circles of friends or families who once received an ADD diagnosis. Nevertheless, there is often still some differentiation between ADHD and ADD in people who have already received a diagnosis or an identifier of “ADD.”
ADHD stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, while ADD stood for Attention Deficit Disorder. Rather than categorizing the two as different disorders, ADHD was adopted as the sole diagnosis, with subcategories, including Inattentive, Hyperactive, and Combined. To match the symptoms of ADD, an individual would likely receive a diagnosis of Inattentive ADHD. An Inattentive ADHD diagnosis can be confusing for some families, who have noticed that their children, partners, or other family members exhibit overwhelming inattention symptoms but do not exhibit any real symptoms of hyperactivity. In these cases, the term “ADD” can be useful, if not technically correct: attention deficit disorder may more accurately categorize some ADHD cases.
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a type of disorder known for chronic, intense, and excessive worry or fear. Phobias are an example of an anxiety disorder. At the same time, it is perfectly normal to be afraid of a poisonous spider. It is not typical to experience a panic attack and an impending sense of doom when a spider is spotted. While it is a standard response to feel stress when a well-formed plan has gone awry, it is not typical to feel that the entire world is crumbling when things do not go according to plan. These are examples of anxious responses: responses fueled by excessive and almost entirely irrational fears or concerns. This is not to say that anxiety is a personal or moral failing; instead, it acknowledges that the effects of anxiety are very real and can be debilitating.
Anxiety is the general term used to describe a host of disorders, all of which involve fear and worry that is not commensurate to the issue at hand. Although phobias are not the usual example used to describe anxiety disorders, they provide an important window into the nature of anxiety: outrageous and overwhelming fear. This fear can drive virtually every decision made in someone with anxiety and can negatively impact far more than just the area in which anxiety resides. General Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and other anxiety disorders can involve far more than just a general form of anxiety, social situations, and former trauma. Instead, anxiety symptoms can begin to creep into other areas of life, including existing disorders and conditions.
Anxiety And ADD: A Surprising Overlap
Anxiety and ADD are actually commonly linked. ADHD can actually function as an increased risk factor for an anxiety disorder, particularly when children are involved. Although the exact link is unknown—does anxiety cause some of the symptoms of ADHD or the other way around?—children with ADHD are more likely to develop anxiety disorders. This is considered to be due, at least in part, to the challenges people with ADHD face: struggling to do well in school can cause a great deal of anxiety, whether that anxiety stems from a fear of getting into trouble, a fear of failure, or a fear of being laughed at. ADHD can also cause anxiety in relationships, as people with ADHD may struggle to focus on, remember, and pay attention to the small details that keep relationships functioning. Although Combined-Type ADHD and Hyperactive/Impulsive ADHD may struggle in different ways, all types of anxiety have the potential to be more prone to anxiety.
53 percent of adults with ADHD also experience anxiety symptoms, while around 30 percent of children with ADHD display anxiety symptoms. Although the two may not initially seem to be closely related, the pervasive nature of ADHD makes a concurrent anxiety disorder reasonable: ADHD can negatively impact work, school, and relationships. Whether inattention is the subtype identified, combined is the identified subtype, or hyperactive/impulsive is the identified subtype, the fact remains: ADHD is far more than a learning disability because its effects extend far past the classroom.
Anxiety can come from ADHD due to a fear of getting into trouble and come along with genetic predisposition. The same genetic material that may contribute to ADHD could also contribute to the onset of anxiety. Those same links have also been identified with depression, Autism Spectrum Disorder, other mental illnesses, and developmental disorders.
Treating Anxiety And ADD
Treating ADHD, anxiety, and other conditions concurrently can present an interesting conundrum; some anxiety medications can exacerbate ADHD symptoms, and vice versa. People who require medication for both anxiety symptoms and ADHD symptoms may first be given a medication for one condition before the other to measure exactly how medications might interact and how practitioners might circumvent any issues that arise with the two types of medications.
ADHD is often treated with therapy apart from medication, the most common of which is Occupational Therapy, which teaches patients how to effectively manage day-to-day activities as diverse as social situations and personal hygiene. Occupational therapy can help people with ADHD learn how to more effectively manage their symptoms and cope with the unique challenges of ADHD, whether that means practicing social interactions or finding alternative ways to release some of the inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity associated with ADHD.
Conversely, anxiety is more likely to be treated with psychotherapy—a modality that may be used for ADHD in adulthood but is not typically utilized in childhood. Psychotherapy can help people with ADHD develop strategies that minimize the effects of ADHD. Some of this can come from a simple understanding of how ADHD affects decision-making and focus and can reveal simple ways to manage difficulty concentrating or controlling impulses. Psychotherapy is also used in anxiety treatment, making the fusion of ADHD and anxiety treatment potentially more straightforward in adulthood than in childhood.
Anxiety Vs. ADD
Anxiety and ADD or ADHD can also be confused because they do have some symptoms in common. Although ADHD is considered a developmental or learning disorder and anxiety is specifically a mental health condition, they both frequently possess the following symptoms: difficulty concentrating, difficulty sleeping, difficulty in relationships, and feelings of restlessness. Although these may not seem to be enormous symptoms, they can describe a significant portion of both anxiety and ADHD symptomology. That being said, anxiety and ADHD can exist without the other, and determining which is at play can involve an online test but frequently requires a mental health professional's expertise. Irregular symptoms of ADHD and anxiety can both mimic one another, even in cases in which the two are not co-morbid conditions.
Living With Anxiety And ADD
Living with anxiety and ADD can be difficult for many reasons, not the least of the potentially negative interactions with different medications. While they may not initially seem related, anxiety and ADHD (or ADD) are frequently tied, with between 30 and 50 percent of people with ADHD also exhibiting anxiety symptoms. Treatment for ADHD and anxiety frequently involves combining medications and involving different types of therapy, including Occupational Therapy and psychotherapy.
Many of the symptoms of ADHD and anxiety overlap, including some that might not initially, seem related, including difficulty concentrating, difficulty sleeping, and difficulty maintaining relationships. Living with ADHD could mean living with anxiety. Although effective treatment options for both treating anxiety and ADHD concurrently can take some time and maneuvering, both for children and adults. Anxiety might be related to the symptoms of ADHD, and could stem from those symptoms, or could be related to genetic factors responsible for both conditions.