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Do You Have Adult ADHD, Anxiety, or Depression?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a mental health condition that has been in the news a lot recently. This may be because electronics make it easier for us to get distracted or because pandemic stress makes it hard to focus. As a result, some people wonder if they might have ADHD.

People with ADHD have problems with attention, overly active behavior, or both. But did you know that ADHD symptoms can overlap with those of other common mental health conditions, like depression and anxiety? 

Just to make it more complicated, it’s possible to have ADHD and another mental health condition at the same time. In fact, almost 1 in 5 adults with ADHD also have major depression. And almost 1 in 2 adults with ADHD have an anxiety disorder

This means if you’re having trouble with focus and concentration, it’s possible that you could have ADHD, anxiety, depression, or all three — especially if you’re having other symptoms. 

Read on for more information about how these conditions are similar and how they’re different. We will also cover how mental health professionals make a diagnosis and how they treat these conditions. 

Why can ADHD be confused with anxiety or depression?

It’s possible to confuse ADHDgeneralized anxiety disorder (GAD), and major depression because they can have some of the same symptoms. 

Symptoms that all three conditions have in common are: 

  • Physical agitation or restlessness
  • Difficulty concentrating or focusing
  • Irritability

For instance, both major depression and GAD can cause worry, tension, or restlessness. These symptoms may then lead to distraction, concentration issues, and trouble focusing on details. 

Decreased ability to concentrate is a possible symptom of a depressive episode as well. Depressed mood and lack of energy can make it hard to follow through with responsibilities. This might lead you to think you have ADHD. 

If you have GAD, worry and distraction can keep you from hearing someone when they speak to you. GAD can also lead to excessive talking if you feel nervous during awkward silences. As you can see, getting the correct diagnosis can be difficult.

Given their similarities, it can be hard to tell the difference between these three conditions. One key thing to know about ADHD is that it starts in childhood. Several symptoms present themselves before the age of 12, even if you don’t get an ADHD diagnosis until later in life.

At the same time, you might think, “I’ve had these problems since I was a kid, so it must be ADHD.” But depression or anxiety in childhood may also look like ADHD. For example, anxiety symptoms like worry and rumination often cause restlessness in children. 

Can ADHD in Adults Cause Anxiety or Depression?

Maybe. Up to almost 90% of adults with ADHD also have at least one other mental health condition — especially mood and anxiety disorders. We know these conditions can occur at the same time. But we don’t know whether ADHD actually causes anxiety or depression.

What we do know is that ADHD could cause symptoms that look like anxiety or depression. For instance, ADHD can lead to feelings of failure or guilt. Or it can cause nervousness and worry as a deadline approaches. 

How Can You Make Sure Adult ADHD, Anxiety, and Depression Are Properly Diagnosed?

Assessment for ADHD — and to determine if you have ADHD, anxiety, or depression — generally occurs in two main stages. The first is an initial assessment. The second stage, if needed, is psychological testing.

1. Initial mental health assessment

A mental health professional conducts an initial assessment in your first few sessions. They may have you complete questionnaires before your appointment. These questionnaires ask you about your different symptoms and experiences.

If you have major depression or an anxiety disorder, your provider will likely recommend treating those first. This is because reducing depression or anxiety could also reduce inattention and hyperactivity.

If your depression or anxiety lowers and you still have problems with ADHD symptoms, the next step is psychological testing

2. Psychological testing

A psychologist conducts testing for ADHD. Licensed psychologists have a doctorate degree and specialized training in testing and evaluation. 

Testing includes gathering information from you and other people in your life, such as parents, teachers, and friends. You will also complete tests that measure you on things such as attention span and task completion. 

Once they have gathered all this information, the psychologist writes a report. This report will include their diagnosis and treatment recommendations.

To locate a psychologist who does testing, ask your current therapist or healthcare provider for a referral. 

How Do You Treat Adult ADHD vs. Anxiety or Depression?

For ADHD, medication is often the first-choice treatment. At the same time, psychotherapy for ADHD can help you learn new tools like organizational and coping skills. Medication can also help you get the most out of therapy because you will be able to focus better in sessions.  

For major depression and GAD, your provider may suggest psychotherapy, medication, or both. Your provider will make a recommendation based on your individual situation.

The Bottom Line

It can be easy to confuse anxiety or major depression with ADHD because they share some symptoms. However, they are different conditions. That’s why it’s important to get a full assessment by a mental health professional. An experienced mental health provider can help you get the most accurate diagnosis and the best treatment plan for you.

References

American Psychological Association. (2013). Understanding psychological testing and assessment.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Symptoms and diagnosis of ADHD.

Charach, A., et al. (2013). Enhancing ADHD medication adherence: Challenges and opportunitiesCurrent Psychiatry Reports.

Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. (n.d.). ADHD and co-occurring conditions.

Cuijpers, P., et al. (2014). Adding psychotherapy to antidepressant medication in depression and anxiety disorders: A meta-analysisFocus: The Journal of Lifelong Learning in Psychiatry.

Fleischmann, A., et al. (2013). Online narratives by adults with AD(H)D who were diagnosed in adulthoodLearning Disability Quarterly.

Hesslinger, B., et al. (2014). Psychotherapy of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in adultsEuropean Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience.

Jarrett, C. (2020). Cognitive load theory: Explaining our fight for focus. BBC.

McIntosh, D., et al. (2009). Adult ADHD and comorbid depression: A consensus-derived diagnostic algorithm for ADHDNeuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment.

Psychology Today. (n.d.). Find a psychological testing and evaluation therapist.

Quintana, H., et al. (2007). Comparison of a standard psychiatric evaluation to rating scales and EEG in the differential diagnosis of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorderPsychiatry Research.

Sobanski, E. (2006). Psychiatric comorbidity in adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2016). Table 3.15: DSM-IV to DSM-5 generalized anxiety disorder comparisonImpact of the DSM-IV to DSM-5 Changes on the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2016). Table 9: DSM-IV to DSM-5 major depressive episode/disorder comparisonDSM-5 Changes: Implications for Child Serious Emotional Disturbance.