Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a condition that can co-exist with virtually any other mental health disorder. What makes that tricky is when ADHD is hard to recognize due to the symptoms of the other condition. For example, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and ADHD are often co-morbid and have a large amount of overlap.
Both ADHD and PTSD can trigger one’s “fight-or-flight” response while causing changes in the prefrontal cortex. On top of that, both disorders are frequently misunderstood — even by medical practitioners — and they may have a genetic link. All of this adds up to a situation that requires more awareness about the relationship between these two disorders.
Does PTSD “Cause” ADHD?
It very well might. More research must be done but there is growing evidence that traumatized people are more likely to eventually be diagnosed with ADHD. This is especially true when the trauma happens during childhood. PTSD can “rewire” a young person’s brain in such a way that negatively impacts impulse control and emotional regulation.
Conversely, there is no reason (as of now) to believe that ADHD leads to PTSD. That said, someone with ADHD is often more prone to traumatic events and thus, PTSD. Once again, this reality highlights the need for awareness — even in the medical community.
What Are the Differences and Similarities Between ADHD and PTSD?
ADHD is a developmental/neurological disorder that can be present at birth. Typically, symptoms don’t become obvious until early childhood. Physical changes in the brain of someone with ADHD can seriously hamper their day-to-day functioning in areas like:
- Interacting with and relating to others
- Decision making
- Staying organized
- Completing work tasks
PTSD is a condition caused by exposure to a traumatic event or an ongoing series of events. It also causes changes in one’s brain — keeping them in high-alert and overloaded with a stress hormone called cortisol. They feel unsafe and therefore, distracted from the details of daily life. This is precisely how and where its symptoms overlap with those of ADHD.
Both PTSD and ADHD can present signs and symptoms like:
- A high level of distractibility
- Poor concentration, focus, and memory
- Sleep disturbances
- Irritability and restlessness
- Poor impulse control
- A tendency to self-medicate
- Low self-esteem
- You are easily startled
Diagnosing and Treating PTSD and ADHD
It may sound obvious but it bears repeating. Find a health professional with experience working with both populations. Help them take as detailed a history as possible. Sometimes, what prevents misdiagnosis is awareness of seemingly small details. If you have one of the two disorders, a skilled therapist can design a treatment plan that targets that condition.
If both conditions are present, the client and therapist will be called on to make certain that all bases are covered. The treatment for each disorder separately is discrete and nothing can be left to chance. As daunting as that might sound, there are some potentially positive aspects built into the process.
When the symptoms of one are reduced, that can serve to soothe a symptom of the other. For example, proper management of ADHD has been shown to decrease sleep disturbances. Since such disturbances are a hallmark of PTSD, the client may experience double the relief.
What’s the Next Step?
If any of the above information resonates with you, it’s important not to try self-diagnosis. At the same time, your awareness of your feelings is crucial in diagnosis and treatment. Your detailed input positions the therapist to make the most accurate possible assessment. I’d love to talk more about this and invite you to start that conversation by reaching out to learn more about trauma therapy.