ADHD vs Anxiety

ADHD vs Anxiety

ADHD vs Anxiety

Despite the fact that Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and anxiety are two separate mental health conditions, overlapping features and similar symptoms can make the initial diagnosis challenging. Understanding the differences and commonalities between ADHD and anxiety is essential, as misdiagnoses can significantly alter the course of an individual’s treatment and self-understanding. This article is a guide to understanding the main differences between ADHD and anxiety as well as the similarities that often create confusion for both clinicians and clients.

Please note that the importance of obtaining a comprehensive evaluation by a healthcare professional cannot be overstated, as it paves the way for targeted interventions and support. An accurate diagnosis is the first step towards a tailored treatment plan, enabling individuals to manage their symptoms more effectively and improve their overall quality of life. Although therapists are able to diagnose and help with these issues, I encourage clients and anyone who is unsure about their symptoms to speak with a board certified psychiatrist who can provide assessments for diagnosis and medication if appropriate. 

Orlando counseling services

Choosing the right therapist is a crucial step, and I understand it can be an overwhelming process. You can explore my website to get a sense of the work I do and how I might be able to help. I also encourage you to contact me for a free 30 minute phone consultation, which will help you assess if we are a good fit and allow me to better understand your therapy goals and needs.

I offer video appointments and can work with clients anywhere in Florida. My practice is centered in metro Orlando and I also specialize in Anxiety treatment Orlando.”

Kathryn N. Walden Counseling Services
1100 Town Plaza Court
Winter Springs, Florida 32708
(407) 450-3849

Anxiety and ADHD

ADHD and anxiety are frequently co-occurring conditions, with research indicating that up to 30% of individuals diagnosed with ADHD also experience symptoms of anxiety. Both conditions can present in various ways, making it difficult to distinguish between the two. However, understanding the fundamental differences can help individuals access appropriate support. Let’s first look at some of the commonalities.

Overlapping Symptoms of ADHD and Anxiety

A quick glance at the symptom lists for ADHD and anxiety disorders may leave one feeling a sense of déjà vu. They share overlapping features that can confound a straightforward differential diagnosis, making it a challenging endeavor for both professionals and patients. 

Both conditions can present with symptoms of restlessness, difficulty concentrating, and sleep disturbances. Additionally, individuals with ADHD and anxiety may also experience impulsivity and emotional dysregulation. The common feature of sleep disturbance is important to note, as individuals may struggle with racing thoughts and restlessness. These similar symptoms highlight the importance of a comprehensive evaluation to accurately diagnose and treat these disorders.

Key Differences Between ADHD and Anxiety

ADHD is primarily characterized by difficulties with executive functioning skills, including attention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. On the other hand, anxiety is typically defined as excessive worry or apprehension about future events or situations.

One significant difference between ADHD and anxiety is the underlying cause of symptoms. ADHD originates from a neurodevelopmental disorder affecting brain function, while anxiety stems from an individual’s perception and response to stress. Furthermore, ADHD symptoms are persistent and pervasive, while anxiety may fluctuate depending on the presence of triggers or stressors. 

Another important difference is the age of onset: symptoms of ADHD typically manifest during childhood or adolescence, whereas anxiety disorders can emerge at any point in life. Additionally, people with ADHD may exhibit hyperactivity and impulsivity, which are not features of anxiety disorders.

Subtle differences exist, too. For example, in ADHD, impulsivity may manifest as interrupting or speaking out of turn, whereas in anxiety, the wish to stay quiet stems from fear of embarrassment or negative evaluation. These distinctions, though nuanced, are critical in isolating the components that govern an individual’s experience.

Moreover, there are specific brain regions associated with each disorder. For ADHD, the prefrontal cortex and basal ganglia are thought to be involved in regulating attention and impulsivity. In contrast, anxiety disorders are linked to hyperactivity in the amygdala, which controls fear responses.

Understanding these distinctive markers can aid in accurate diagnosis and targeted treatment approaches for individuals with either ADHD or anxiety disorders. It also underscores the need for a holistic approach in addressing these conditions, considering both physiological and psychological factors.

Let’s now look at more specifics of each condition. 

anxiety treatment orlando

anxiety treatment orlando

ADHD Symptoms 

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects a person’s ability to focus, remain still, and exert self-control. It is a condition frequently diagnosed in childhood but can persist into adulthood. Despite popular belief, ADHD is not just a disorder of hyperactive children; many individuals struggle with the inattentive form, which makes daily activities that require sustained attention difficult. ADHD symptoms in adults might also look more like inattention rather than hyperactivity. An important topic I will address in a future article.


According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), ADHD is defined by patterns of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interfere with functioning or development. The criteria are divided into two main categories:

  • Inattention: Six (or more) of the symptoms have persisted for at least 6 months to a degree that is inconsistent with developmental level and that negatively impacts directly on social and academic/occupational activities. Examples include often failing to give close attention to details or making careless mistakes in schoolwork, work, or other activities; often having difficulty sustaining attention in tasks or play activities; often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly; often does not follow through on instructions and fails to finish schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace; and often has difficulty organizing tasks and activities.
  • Hyperactivity and Impulsivity: Six (or more) of the symptoms have persisted for at least 6 months to an extent that is disruptive and inappropriate for the individual’s developmental level. This could include often fidgeting with or tapping hands or feet, or squirming in seat; often leaving seat in situations when remaining seated is expected; often running about or climbing in situations where it is not appropriate; often unable to play or engage in leisure activities quietly; is often “on the go” acting as if “driven by a motor”; often talks excessively; often blurts out an answer before a question has been completed; often has difficulty waiting their turn; often interrupts or intrudes on others.

Furthermore, several key points are noted in the DSM-5 for an ADHD diagnosis:

  • Several inattentive or hyperactive-impulsive symptoms were present before age 12 years.
  • Several symptoms are present in two or more settings (e.g., at home, school, or work; with friends or relatives; in other activities).
  • There is clear evidence that the symptoms interfere with, or reduce the quality of, social, school, or work functioning.
  • The symptoms do not occur exclusively during the course of schizophrenia or another psychotic disorder and are not better explained by another mental disorder (e.g., mood disorder, anxiety disorder, dissociative disorder, or a personality disorder).

Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety, on the other hand, is a state of excessive uneasiness, apprehension, or worry about future uncertainties. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Social Anxiety Disorder are two common forms that have distinct triggers but share the underlying pattern of pervasive and uncontrollable worry.

DSM-5 Criteria of Anxiety Disorders

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

The DSM-5 outlines specific criteria for Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which includes excessive anxiety and worry about various events or activities for more days than not over a period of at least six months, difficulty controlling the worry, and the anxiety and worry are associated with three (or more) of the following symptoms: restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge, being easily fatigued, difficulty concentrating or mind going blank, irritability, muscle tension, and sleep disturbance. These symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. It’s important to note that these disturbances are not attributable to the physiological effects of a substance or another medical condition. Statistics show that GAD affects approximately 2.7% of adults in the U.S. each year, with women being twice as likely to be affected as men.

Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia)

For Social Anxiety Disorder, the DSM-5 criteria include a marked fear or anxiety about one or more social situations in which the individual is exposed to possible scrutiny by others. The individual fears that they will act in a way or show anxiety symptoms that will be negatively evaluated (i.e., will be humiliating or embarrassing; will lead to rejection or offend others). Social situations almost always provoke fear or anxiety, and social situations are avoided or endured with intense fear or anxiety. The fear or anxiety is out of proportion to the actual threat posed by the social situation. The duration is typically at least six months. Similar to GAD, the disturbance causes clinically significant distress or impairment in important areas of functioning and is not attributable to the physiological effects of a substance or another medical condition. The prevalence of Social Anxiety Disorder in the U.S. adult population is estimated to be around 7% in any given year, with the condition often emerging in the late teen years.

These statistics and criteria shed light on the widespread nature of anxiety disorders, emphasizing the importance of recognizing symptoms early for effective treatment and management.


What complicates the separation of ADHD and anxiety further is their propensity to coexist. A staggering number of individuals are diagnosed with both disorders. The co-occurrence of ADHD and anxiety can significantly impact an individual’s daily functioning and quality of life. For instance, the combination of symptoms can lead to difficulties in school or work settings, strained relationships, and overall emotional distress. It can also make it challenging to determine the root cause of specific behaviors or challenges, making treatment and support more complex.

While there is no definitive answer as to why this co-occurrence exists, researchers have proposed several theories.

One theory suggests that individuals with ADHD may develop anxiety as a secondary effect of their symptoms. The constant struggle with impulsivity and hyperactivity can lead to difficulties in daily functioning and social interactions, causing stress and worry that can manifest as an anxiety disorder.

Another theory posits that anxiety and ADHD may share a common underlying cause, such as genetic or environmental factors. A study found that individuals with both disorders had similar patterns of brain activity in the prefrontal cortex, supporting this idea.

Regardless of the reason behind their co-occurrence, it is crucial to address both conditions simultaneously for effective treatment outcomes. This may involve a combination of medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes tailored to address the specific needs of each disorder.

The Sought-After Diagnosis

Understanding the nuances of ADHD and anxiety is meaningless without the possibility of formal diagnosis. The road to diagnosis is pivotal, and getting there requires navigation through the domains of assessment and appraisal. Both require a specialized approach that aims to identify and differentiate symptoms specific to each condition.

Effective treatment can only take place with an accurate diagnosis from a healthcare professional.  Misdiagnosis can lead to inappropriate or ineffective treatment plans, which can further exacerbate symptoms and hinder progress. This emphasizes the need for comprehensive assessment and evaluation by a trained professional experienced in recognizing co-occurring disorders.

Treatment Options

Once an accurate diagnosis is made, treatment options can be explored. While medication may be an effective tool for managing symptoms in some cases, it is not the only option. Behavioral therapy and lifestyle changes, such as exercise and stress management techniques, have also been shown to help manage symptoms of both ADHD and Anxiety.

The Role of Therapy

Therapy plays a vital role in managing both ADHD and anxiety. It provides a safe space for individuals to address their struggles, develop coping strategies, and work towards improving functioning and overall well-being. Therapy can also help individuals gain insight into the relationship between their symptoms and offer tools to manage them effectively.


My hope is that this article clarifies any confusion and encourages anyone who thinks they might be dealing with either one of these issues to reach out for help. Getting a proper diagnosis from a psychiatrist is essential if your symptoms are causing difficulties or becoming unmanageable. Maybe you have been thinking your anxiety might actually be ADHD or vice versa. Whatever the case may be, empower yourself by starting the process of working with professionals. With the right treatment plan, individuals can learn to navigate their challenges and lead fulfilling lives. Remember, seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness.