ADHD and Trauma Symptoms: How to Tell Them Apart and Treat Both
Tuesday, January 23 2018 Noelle Matteson
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and trauma or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms can overlap, making the combination difficult to correctly diagnose or treat. The two conditions share certain symptoms and can be hard to distinguish. Sometimes PTSD exacerbates ADHD and ADHD slows recovery from PTSD. Though challenging, treating the combination of ADHD and trauma is not insurmountable.
What ADHD and Trauma Symptoms Have in Common
Both ADHD and PTSD can manifest the following symptoms:
- Anxiety and hyperawareness or hyperarousal
- Emotional sensitivity and reactivity
- Sleeping problems
- Depression, hopelessness, and low self-esteem
- Difficulty concentrating, likely due to inattentiveness in ADHD or traumatic dissociation
In addition, both ADHD and trauma can cause problems throughout someone’s lifetime. One study in Sweden found that a large number of people who took extended sick leave due to “emotional exhaustion syndrome” (better known as “burnout”) also suffered from undiagnosed PTSD and/or ADHD. Researchers found that a quarter of those suffering from burnout likely had ADHD and more than half had strong symptoms of PTSD. Those living with trauma already live with high levels of stress, and researchers note that those with ADHD have a difficult time maintaining “balance in stressful settings.”1
One study found that, “children diagnosed with ADHD also experienced higher levels of poverty, divorce, violence, and family substance abuse,” indicating that stress heightens ADHD symptoms or that trauma is sometimes misdiagnosed as ADHD.2
PTSD and ADHD Treatments
Fortunately, doctors find that addressing ADHD often assuages PTSD symptoms and vice versa. Treating ADHD improves engagement in trauma work, and working on PTSD lessens the anxiety and restlessness caused by ADHD. Certain medications used to treat ADHD might also work on trauma and depression, perhaps because stimulants affect dopamine (neurotransmitters that help motivate us) and allow the brain to focus on the present rather than on past trauma.3
Commonly recommended treatments for trauma include eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), appropriate medication, and reducing stress in everyday life. Creating routines and learning how to manage emotions help both PTSD and ADHD, and ADHD likewise benefits from coaching, therapy, and/or medication. Experts also recommend exercise, sleep, and healthy food to almost everyone.
In short, if you think you have ADHD and PTSD, try to address both issues. See what treatments work. If it feels as though something is missing though you are working through trauma, you might also have ADHD. If stimulants and ADHD coaching don't cut it, you might also have PTSD (15 Common Signs of Unresolved Trauma).
Have you ever been misdiagnosed as having trauma or ADHD? If you have both, what do you do to address them? Let me know about your experiences in the comments. Hopefully, this is the beginning of a helpful conversation.
- Brattberg, Gunilla. PTSD and ADHD: Underlying factors in many cases of burnout. Stress and Health.
- Ruiz, Rebecca. How Childhood Trauma Could Be Mistaken for PTSD. The Atlantic.
- Davenport, Liam. ADHD Drug May Improve PTSD, TBI Symptoms. Medscape.