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  • Writer's pictureLauren Blackwood

Untangling the Knot: Exploring the Connection Between ADHD and Anxiety

As a therapist specializing in anxiety, I've come across a myriad of stories from individuals grappling with the intertwined challenges of ADHD and anxiety. The journey of understanding these complex conditions often begins with shedding light on their connection.

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and anxiety may seem like unlikely companions, but in reality, they often go hand in hand. Research suggests that up to 50 percent of individuals with ADHD also experience one or more comorbid anxiety disorders. This staggering statistic underscores the intricate relationship between these two conditions and highlights the importance of addressing them holistically.

To unravel the mystery of their connection, we must first peer into the inner workings of the brain. Both ADHD and anxiety impact the prefrontal cortex (PFC), a crucial area responsible for behavioral flexibility. In ADHD, weakened PFC circuits, particularly in the right hemisphere specialized for behavioral inhibition, contribute to difficulties in attention, focus, and impulse control. On the other hand, anxiety disorders can disrupt cognitive flexibility and decision-making by impairing the PFC's encoding of internal and external events, leading to a heightened state of vigilance and apprehension.

The overlap in PFC dysfunction sheds light on why individuals with ADHD often experience heightened levels of anxiety. Imagine trying to navigate a maze with one hand tied behind your back—that's the reality for many individuals grappling with the combined challenges of ADHD and anxiety. The impaired ability to regulate attention and emotions, coupled with heightened reactivity to perceived threats, creates a perfect storm of psychological distress.

Executive function challenges can impact both ADHD and anxiety. Difficulties in planning, organizing, and regulating emotions can create a vicious cycle where ADHD symptoms exacerbate anxiety, and anxiety, in turn, impairs the ability to manage ADHD effectively. It's like trying to juggle flaming torches while walking a tightrope—each distraction increases the risk of stumbling and falling.

But perhaps the most common challenge lies in individuals' tendencies to mask or hide ADHD symptoms, which can inadvertently fuel anxiety. Society's expectations and misconceptions about ADHD often lead individuals to feel ashamed or inadequate, prompting them to expend immense energy trying to conceal their struggles.  Examples of behaviors to mask ADHD symptoms include suppressing emotions and energy levels to appear calmer and focusing hard during conversations to avoid losing attention or interrupting others.  Although individuals are often able to mask symptoms, it comes at a cost to mental health. It's like wearing a mask to a masquerade ball—while it may hide your true identity temporarily, it ultimately weighs you down with a sense of inauthenticity and isolation. The anxious negative thought of 'not good enough' frequently develops in individuals as a result.

So, how can we untangle this knot of ADHD and anxiety and pave the way for healing and growth? The answer lies in acceptance and embracing a holistic approach that addresses both the mind and body. Structure, routine, regular physical exercise, and mindfulness breathing techniques can serve as powerful tools for managing symptoms and promoting overall well-being.

Structure and routine provide a sense of stability and predictability in a world that often feels chaotic and overwhelming. By establishing daily rituals and habits, individuals can create a supportive framework that helps them navigate the challenges of ADHD and anxiety with greater ease and confidence.

Regular physical exercise offers a natural antidote to the restlessness and hyperactivity often associated with ADHD, while also providing a powerful outlet for stress and anxiety. Whether it's a brisk walk in nature, a yoga class, or a heart-pumping workout at the gym, exercise has been shown to release endorphins, improve mood, and enhance cognitive function.

Mindfulness breathing techniques, such as deep breathing and meditation, offer a sanctuary of calm amidst the storm of racing thoughts and worries. By cultivating present-moment awareness and acceptance, individuals can learn to quiet the mind, soothe the nervous system, and cultivate a sense of inner peace and resilience.

In conclusion, the connection between ADHD and anxiety is multifaceted and nuanced, but it is not insurmountable. By understanding the underlying mechanisms at play and embracing a holistic approach to treatment, individuals can find relief from the grip of these complex conditions and embark on a journey towards greater clarity, confidence, and well-being.

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