ADHD and OCD are often misdiagnosed for each other, and it’s also possible to have both. What’s the link between these two conditions?
Both obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can make it difficult to carry out daily tasks, concentrate, and manage time — albeit for different reasons.
Regardless of whether you have ADHD, OCD, or both, it might be helpful to talk with a mental health professional. They can assist you in reaching a diagnosis and creating a plan to help you manage your symptoms.
One of the main differences between ADHD and OCD is that OCD is an anxiety disorder while ADHD is a neurodevelopmental condition.
Although everybody with ADHD is different and there are different types of ADHD, the condition may involve patterns of:
- inattention and difficulty focusing
Symptoms of ADHD typically show up in childhood and are diagnosed around the age of 12.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental disorder that can affect both children and adults.
OCD typically involves two main symptoms:
- Obsessions: intrusive, persistent, unwanted thoughts
- Compulsions: urges to do certain rituals or acts to relieve the distress associated with those thoughts
Many people develop OCD without a clear cause. Research suggests that people who develop OCD have a specific genetic tendency to it. However, certain events can trigger the development of symptoms, including:
- a traumatic brain injury (TBI)
- a bacterial or viral infection
- chronic stress
The cause of ADHD is also unclear. However, experts believe it could be a combination of factors, including:
- brain development
- early life experiences
- co-occurring conditions
- brain injuries
OCD symptoms fall into the categories of obsessions and compulsions. However, these obsessions and compulsions can vary dramatically from one person to another.
Obsessions can include intrusive thoughts that you consider shameful or immoral. You might also have images of hurting others or doing something you consider bad.
Obsessions can include urges to do things you don’t really want to do. They often cause significant distress.
Compulsions are acts you do to make those obsessions go away, even if you don’t totally understand them as such.
These compulsions can include a variety of rituals. Common ones include:
- repeating words or phrases (mentally or verbally)
- washing hands excessively
- repeatedly checking locks
- praying repeatedly
On the other hand, ADHD symptoms don’t include obsessions or compulsions. Instead, they can involve:
- impulsive behavior
- difficulty focusing or remembering
- difficulty managing time
- moving from one activity to the other without completing either
ADHD symptoms can also differ from one person to the next.
Both people with ADHD and those with OCD can benefit from psychotherapy, but the treatment approach might differ.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) might be helpful for treating both ADHD and OCD. However, exposure therapy — a type of CBT — may be more often recommended for OCD.
In terms of medication, OCD is often treated with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which are prescription medicines that are also used to treat clinical depression and anxiety disorders.
Some people with ADHD benefit from using SSRIs, but ADHD is also commonly treated with stimulants such as methylphenidate (known as Ritalin, Concerta, Metadate, and Methylin) and amphetamines (such as Adderall and Dexedrine).
There are also nonstimulant medications for ADHD, including atomoxetine (Strattera) and guanfacine (Intuniv ER).
Whether you have ADHD or OCD, you might benefit from self-care strategies such as getting sufficient sleep and exercising.
You might also benefit from journaling, talking to supportive loved ones, and performing relaxing hobbies. Your self-care strategy will be unique to your needs.
For one, both ADHD and OCD produce atypical activity in the frontostriatal area of the brain. This refers to an area of the brain that modulates executive and cognitive functions, as well as motor and behavioral capacities.
In other words, the areas of the brain involved in organizing, planning, and executing, as well as sustaining attention and controlling impulses, show “atypical activity” in people with ADHD and OCD. This indicates that the way this brain area communicates with other parts of the brain is uncommon or unusual, and is a shared feature between the two disorders.
When the frontostriatal circuit isn’t working correctly, it can affect your ability to remember things and make plans, for example. It can also affect your decision-making abilities or your self-control.
Both ADHD and OCD present symptoms related to these functions: attention, impulse control, and planning functions.
Although ADHD and OCD are quite different, some symptoms might be similar or could overlap. And, of course, it is possible to have both.
The main similarity in causes between OCD and ADHD is that a genetic component seems to be at play with both disorders.
If you have a blood relative with OCD or ADHD, you’re more likely to develop it.
You might think OCD is completely different than ADHD. However, while the symptoms are very different in some ways, they can look similar.
For example, a child who acts out their compulsions might seem impulsive and hyperactive.
Their compulsion might be to pace back and forth. To a parent or teacher, this might look like they simply “can’t sit still,” which is a common symptom of ADHD in children.
ADHD and OCD can both pose challenges to functioning in day-to-day life.
Managing work, chores, and errands can be tough for people living with either condition.
Living with OCD implies you live with chronic anxiety, but someone with ADHD may also often experience symptoms of anxiety disorders. This is mostly due to the challenges that come with hyperactivity and inattention symptoms.
People with ADHD often experience challenges with:
- managing time
- regulating emotions
People with OCD might also experience these challenges, although for different reasons.
Often, obsessions and compulsions take up a lot of time and energy, making it difficult to manage daily tasks.
Another example is that someone with OCD might take a long time to leave their house because they have a range of compulsions they need to carry out first. This might look like they’re having difficulty with time management.
ADHD might also look like OCD.
People with ADHD might find that they can only concentrate under certain circumstances.
For example, they might close the curtains, switch off their electronics, and only sit in a specific position in order to do homework.
For someone not living with these conditions, these behaviors might look like compulsions when they’re actually a routine that works for someone with ADHD.
This assumption may mean that, sometimes, one condition is misdiagnosed as the other. Misdiagnosis could also happen when you don’t know much about your condition. For example, you may describe your symptoms in a way that suggests OCD when in fact you have ADHD.
Learning more about your thoughts and motivation for your behaviors could help a professional make an accurate diagnosis.
Although OCD and ADHD can’t be “cured,” symptoms of both conditions can be managed effectively. Sometimes, the treatment for OCD will overlap with the treatment for ADHD.
People with OCD and people with ADHD might both benefit from medications like SSRIs. However, SSRIs aren’t helpful for everybody with those conditions — it depends on the individual.
As always, treatments for mental health conditions and developmental disorders will be unique to your own needs and circumstances.
Yes, it’s possible to have both ADHD and OCD. This is called a co-occurrence or comorbidity.
However, there’s virtually no research that suggests one condition can cause the other.
It’s also difficult to say what the rate of co-occurrence is. Some systematic reviews point out that estimated co-occurrence rates are highly inconsistent across different studies.
Research from 2016 did find that adults who have both ADHD and OCD also have an earlier onset of OCD symptoms. In other words, their OCD symptoms appear at a younger age, on average, than those without ADHD.
ADHD and OCD are two different conditions that may sometimes present with similar symptoms. However, the cause of those symptoms may differ significantly.
If you think you have ADHD, OCD, or both, a good first step may be to find a mental health professional who specializes in one or both of those conditions. They’ll be able to work with you on the best next steps for your particular case.
If you’re ready to seek out professional support, these resources may help:
- American Psychiatric Association’s Find a Psychiatrist tool
- American Psychological Association’s Find a Psychologist tool
- Asian Mental Health Collective’s therapist directory
- Association of Black Psychologists’ Find a Psychologist tool
- National Alliance on Mental Illness Helplines and Support Tools
National Institute of Mental Health’s Helpline Directory
- National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network
- Inclusive Therapists