It’s not uncommon for individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to struggle with anxiety, whether it’s several symptoms or a full-blown disorder.
In fact, about 30 to 40 percent of people with ADHD have an anxiety disorder, which includes “obsessive-compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, phobias, social anxiety and panic disorder,” according to Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School. The Anxiety Disorders Association of America even estimates the figure to be almost 50 percent.
Here’s why ADHD and anxiety co-occur (occur together), how this affects treatment and several strategies for coping with anxiety.
Why ADHD & Anxiety Co-occur
ADHD symptoms can be very intrusive and make life a lot more stressful. For instance, you might miss a critical deadline at work and get fired, forget about your math final and fail the exam or act impulsively and put yourself in danger. Even the fear that you might forget something can keep people continuously worried and anxious.
In other words, “People with ADHD, especially when untreated, are more likely to feel overwhelmed and to have more things fall through the cracks which evokes more frequent negative situations—others are angry with them, they feel disappointed in themselves,” said Ari Tuckman, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and author of More Attention, Less Deficit: Successful Strategies for Adults with ADHD.
People with ADHD tend to be sensitive, which can leave them especially “vulnerable to feeling things more deeply and being more affected by situations and emotions,” Olivardia said.
Genetics also may explain why ADHD and anxiety co-occur. According to Olivardia, there’s good evidence to show that ADHD and OCD have genetic underpinnings. (Here’s one study.) Studies from Massachusetts General Hospital suggest that 30 percent of people with OCD have ADHD.
How Anxiety Affects Treatment
“Anxiety adds another element to ADHD treatment, because you are both developing strategies for the ADHD symptoms and working with the resulting anxiety simultaneously,” Olivardia said.