It can be easy to confuse anxiety with ADHD, and vice versa. Because even though they’re separate disorders, they have some overlapping symptoms. And for many people, ADHD and anxiety can coexist. We talked to certified ADHD coach and clinical psychologist Janina Elbert about how the two conditions are connected — and what that means when it comes to diagnosing them.
Janina Elbert, PhD - Janina Elbert is a certified ADHD coach and a clinical psychologist. She helps individuals with ADHD navigate obstacles and challenges that come with the neurodevelopmental disorder.
What’s the difference between ADHD and anxiety?
Let’s start with ADHD. It’s driven by a lack of concentration and focus. And it includes signs and symptoms such as difficulty with fidgeting, restlessness, sleeping, concentration, attention to detail, getting or staying organized, and following instructions.
Anxiety, on the other hand, causes feelings of worry and fear. And there are different anxiety disorders that have different symptoms. Including: generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and phobia-related disorders. Some common symptoms of an anxiety disorder include sweating, chronic feelings of worry or fear, fidgeting, restlessness, irritability, difficulty sleeping, headaches, stomach aches, and difficulty concentrating.
“When you look [at] the surface level of these two disorders, anxiety and ADHD look very similar and have similar symptoms,” said Elbert. That can be tricky, because some people may think they have one condition, when in reality they have the other (or neither) — which can make diagnosing these disorders more difficult.
How else are ADHD and anxiety connected?
Anxiety isn't a symptom of ADHD, and vice versa. But it's common to have both. “About 50% of people who have ADHD also have anxiety,” said Elbert. That's particularly true for women, who are often socialized to mask and internalize ADHD symptoms. That can be problematic, as they can go undiagnosed until later in life when compared to men — who are twice as likely to be diagnosed.
ADHD doesn’t cause anxiety, but anxiety can develop as a response to ADHD because of the inconsistency it can create. Example: Someone with ADHD may feel anxiety around forgetting appointments, missing deadlines, or their ability to complete a task. That anxiety may exacerbate their ADHD symptoms, potentially making it harder to focus, juggle everyday tasks, and manage time. That can result in more anxiety. It can be a vicious cycle, to say the least.
Just because you may have one disorder, doesn't mean you're guaranteed to have the other as well. “If you have anxiety, you might also have ADHD-like symptoms,” said Elbert. “For example, [not] being able to organize certain things or get tasks done. But that doesn't mean that it's actually ADHD.”
What should I do if I think I have ADHD or anxiety (or both)?
Make an appointment with a psychiatrist, psychologist, or your PCP. Despite how many TikToks or Instagram posts on ADHD or anxiety you might have seen, Elbert warned that these aren’t conditions you can diagnose yourself.
Your doctor may treat whichever symptoms are the most prominent, she explained. So if anxiety is the most disruptive in your life, they may start with anxiety treatment. That may include therapy and/or medication. And if you’re still showing signs of ADHD symptoms after being treated for anxiety, explained Elbert, they might explore a potential ADHD diagnosis and treatment. “They kind of take the top layer off and then reveal what's underneath,” she said. If you get diagnosed with ADHD, your doctor may treat it with medication and/or provide coping strategies to help you navigate it. Coping strategies may look like creating a routine that works for you or breaking tasks down into manageable sizes, said Elbert.
While they're often linked together, ADHD and anxiety are separate conditions. But it's important to know the similarities and differences so you can advocate for yourself and get the treatment you need. Especially if you don’t think you’re being diagnosed properly.
Subscribe to Skimm Well
Sign up here to receive our wellness newsletter filled with actionable advice, expert-vetted content, product recs, and more — delivered directly to your inbox.