Idaho, Iowa, Des Moines
April 6, 2024

Understanding ADHD vs Anxiety: How to Tell the Difference

ADHD and anxiety are two separate mental health conditions. However, they often overlap, and they share many similar symptoms. It's common to feel uncertain about whether you're experiencing one, the other, or both. Many people, including healthcare professionals, struggle to differentiate between the two.

However, understanding the distinction is vital for effective symptom management, whether it involves general awareness, medications, or behavioral adjustments. So, how can you distinguish between anxiety vs ADHD in adults? Let's explore this further.

anxiety vs adhd

ADHD vs Anxiety

As I’ve talked about before, ADHD and anxiety often overlap. Some of the reasons for this are thought to be brain structure, stress, and coping mechanisms. However, they’re not the same.

ADHD falls under the category of neurodevelopmental disorders, characterized by differences in brain processes or developmental deficiencies that hinder personal, social, or occupational functioning.

In contrast, anxiety is a broad umbrella term encompassing various disorders as well as a normal emotional response to threats. It's marked by sensations of tension, racing thoughts, and physiological changes such as sweating and heightened heart rate.

Let’s take a look at some key characteristics of each.

ADHD:

  • ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by difficulties with attention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.
  • Inattention symptoms include difficulty maintaining attention in one task, making careless mistakes, being easily distracted, and forgetfulness.
  • Hyperactivity symptoms include fidgeting, restlessness, and difficulty staying still.
  • Impulsivity symptoms may look like impulsive decision-making (which can sometimes be risky, like in the case of sex or spending), interrupting others, and impatience or difficulty waiting.
  • Executive functioning skills are impacted. These include time management, focus, concentration, and task prioritization.
  • ADHD is frequently diagnosed in childhood, but more adults (especially women) get overlooked as kids and are being diagnosed with ADHD later in life. 
  • ADHD is thought to arise from a combination of genetic, environmental, and structural factors. 
  • Anxiety is commonly associated with ADHD, in part because of the stigma associated with ADHD, masking behaviors, and low self-worth due to functioning differently.

Anxiety:

  • Anxiety disorders involve excessive worry, fear, or nervousness that can significantly interfere with daily life.
  • Common anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and specific phobias.
  • Symptoms of anxiety can vary widely but may include persistent worry, restlessness, irritability, muscle tension, difficulty concentrating, and sleep disturbances.
  • Anxiety disorders can emerge from a combination of genetic, environmental, and psychological factors.

Shared symptoms may include:

Furthermore, both ADHD and anxiety:

  • Can impair multiple areas of life, including academic performance, work, relationships, and daily functioning.
  • Arise from a combination of genetic and other factors
adhd vs anxiety in adults

Distinguishing between ADHD vs Anxiety in Adults

As you can see, ADHD and anxiety share a lot of symptoms. And according to research, the likelihood of having both is quite high – the two share a comorbidity rate of around 50%. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and ADHD are particularly common co-occurring disorders.

The easiest way to distinguish between ADHD vs anxiety is to look at the root causes of your symptoms.

For example, difficulty concentrating is often a symptom of both. However, the underlying reason for difficulty concentrating when you have anxiety may be racing thoughts. But the underlying reason when you have ADHD may be executive function and structural brain differences.

However, even this can be tricky. It can still be a chicken-or-egg question. If you have ADHD, symptoms like difficulty concentrating or restlessness may contribute to feelings of anxiety. Likewise, people with anxiety may struggle with attention and focus because of their persistent worries and fears. 

Another example is insomnia. People with ADHD who struggle with insomnia often stay up because they’re hyperfocusing on something. Maybe they can’t get song lyrics out of their head, or perhaps they’re deep down an internet rabbithole about the history of Jazz music in America. They may have racing thoughts, but the thoughts may not be anxious thoughts. People with anxiety, on the other hand, usually struggle with anxiety because they’re worrying about something, or they can’t shake a general sense of unease or dread. Of course, people with anxiety can hyperfocus on things too, but this is more common in people with ADHD. 

If you’re still not sure which you’re dealing with, that’s okay. Distinguishing between anxiety vs ADHD may require working with a professional, like a doctor or neuropsychologist, who can give you tests and assess symptoms and functioning on a deeper level. Additionally, working with a coach or therapist can help you understand and manage your symptoms so you can regain control of your symptoms and live a better life.

Ongoing Support for ADHD and Anxiety

If you want support learning how to manage your anxiety, ADHD, or both, I’m here to help. 

Together, we can look at your symptoms and work on changing the most challenging ones first. I’ll help you learn how to course-correct when you’re having anxious thoughts, mitigate your symptoms, and improve your daily life with ADHD or anxiety.

Learn more about my therapy services (including EMDR and talk therapy) if you’re located in Idaho or Iowa. For all other locations, check out my coaching services. My coaching program offers all the same expertise, tools, and guidance as therapy in a more direct and goal-oriented approach that you can benefit from anywhere. 

Reach out today to schedule a complimentary consultation and see if we’re a good fit. Let’s start building a better future together. 

Meet the author

Danielle Wayne

Danielle is an anxiety therapist and perfectionism coach. She specializes in helping busy millennials dial down their anxiety and ADHD, so they can perform at their best. Danielle has been featured on Apartment Therapy, SparkPeople, Lifewire, and Now Art World. When Danielle isn't helping her clients, she's playing video games or spending time with her partner and step children.

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