How to Deal with Comorbid Anxiety and ADHD
Do you have a child whose conduct at school and at home seems out of control? Are you an adult who has trouble focusing or remembering details while also being impaired by debilitating worry and fear? You might consider the possibility that you have comorbid anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The co-occurrence of an anxiety disorder and ADHD is quite common. To treat these conditions, you must first know how to recognize them. Then, you should seek professional assistance. There are some self-help strategies you can implement to ease your symptoms, too.
Diagnosing Comorbid Anxiety and ADHD
Know the typical signs and symptoms of anxiety.Anxiety disorders most frequently co-occur with ADHD. The most common symptoms of anxiety are a difficulty concentrating, feeling irritable or on edge, feeling restless, insomnia, nervousness, pounding heart, muscle tension, and sudden feelings of panic or doom.
- Keep in mind that there are a range of potential symptoms associated with anxiety disorder, and each disorder can manifest in a person differently. Anxiety may also range in severity from mild to severe, so for some people it may not be noticeable and for others it may interfere with daily life.
- Possible anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and social phobia.
Know the typical signs and symptoms of ADHD.If you have ADHD, you may notice problems with organization, attention, focus, and impulsiveness. You may have trouble sitting still or sustaining attention to tasks at work or school.
- These symptoms must have been present before the age of 12 to meet the criteria for ADHD. Also, symptoms must impact your functioning in more than one area of life. For example, you might experience problems at school and at home.
Recognize the nuances of comorbid disorders.It is not uncommon to experience the symptoms of both ADHD and anxiety—about 30 to 40 percent of people with ADHD exhibit signs of anxiety.When ADHD and anxiety occur together, the symptoms experienced may differ from when the disorders occur alone.
- If you have ADHD, you are more susceptible to anxiety because you tend to be sensitive to different emotions and situations. You might develop anxiety because you fear always forgetting things or missing assignments. As a result, you constantly worry and fret.
See a doctor to rule-out medical conditions.If you have not been previously seen by a mental health provider, your first stop should be your primary care physician. Many health conditions from allergies to brain disorder mimic the symptoms of mental illnesses like ADHD or anxiety. It’s best to be seen by a doctor to get a clean bill of health first.
- It can help to keep a log of your symptoms to help your doctor better understand what you are experiencing. Your doctor will probably conduct a thorough interview to assess your symptoms, medical history and family history. They may also run tests to rule-out any medical problems because anxiety can stem from many different physical conditions.
Get a referral to a mental health provider for diagnosis.Comorbid conditions complicate the treatment process. Therefore, you should be seeing an expert to effectively identify these disorders and treat them accordingly. If your doctor doesn’t find any signs of medical illness, ask them for a referral to a local psychiatrist or psychologist.
- These are doctors with advanced training in mental health conditions. These doctors will usually have more comprehensive experience dealing with comorbid disorders, which means they can adequately diagnose and treat them.
Seeking Professional Treatment
Ask your mental health provider about treatment options.A psychiatrist or psychologist will likely interview you and have you complete an array of questionnaires or assessments. These allow them to get a clearer picture of your symptoms. If it is determined that you are experiencing the symptoms of comorbid anxiety and ADHD, you will need to decide on the best course of treatment.
- How your mental health provider chooses to treat your comorbid conditions typically depends on the severity of the disorders and which occurred first. They might try to treat the ADHD first if it contributed to the development of anxiety, or they might treat both conditions simultaneously.
- Your mental health provider may also ask about the events leading up to your anxiety to provide tailored treatment for your condition.
Consider medications.In general, medication is one of the best courses of treatment for both children and adults with ADHD. Stimulants are the first line of pharmacological treatment for ADHD, but some stimulants may exacerbate anxiety symptoms for a short time. Atomoxetine, a selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI), is also used to treat co-occurring ADHD and anxiety.
- Side effects for stimulant medications may include sleep disruption, appetite changes, irritability, and involuntary tics.
- Side effects of non-stimulants like Atomoxetine include sleep disruption, constipation, nausea, headaches, decreased sexual desire, and fatigue.
- Your doctor may suggest several courses of treatment, and you may try multiple types of medications before seeing improvements. Also, even once you find a medication that is helpful, it may take several weeks for symptoms to improve.
Look into natural remedies for ADHD.You can also discuss natural alternatives to medications with your doctor. Several natural supplements have been show to help improve the symptoms of ADHD, including ginko biloba, ginseng, phosphatidylserine, acetyl-L-carnitine, and pycnogenol.
- Be sure to discuss natural supplements with your doctor before trying them, and do not combine natural supplements with your prescription medications.
Consider cognitive-behavioral therapy.In addition to taking medications for ADHD symptoms, your mental health provider may suggest psychotherapy. One of the most effective psychotherapeutic approaches for comorbid anxiety is cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT.
- CBT is an intensive therapeutic approach that helps isolate thought patterns that contribute to anxiety. Over the course of therapy, you may learn to identify unhelpful thought patterns and learn techniques to change them.
Join a support group.Psychoeducation is a beneficial aspect of treatment for any mental illness. Helping you and your loved ones understand the nuances of both disorders helps you better recognize and cope with symptoms.You can receive psychoeducational information through support groups facilitated by mental health professionals and/or peers.
- In these groups, you and your family can receive insight and support about your comorbid conditions and hear real-life testimonies from others who are going through similar ordeals.
Self-Treating Anxiety and ADHD
Recognize anxiety triggers.A big part of treating comorbid anxiety and ADHD is tuning in to yourself to understand how these two conditions affect one another. Pay attention to the triggers of your anxiety—that is, those situations or events that worsen anxiety symptoms.
- It can help to track anxious thoughts with a log or journal. Patterns will likely emerge. You can bring this log to your therapy session and try to challenge these unrealistic thoughts with your therapist.
- You may find that certain situations or events are powerful triggers for your anxiety.
Practice relaxation techniques.Dealing with worry and stress is a major part of alleviating anxiety symptoms and making sure your ADHD treatment works. The best route is to practice calming exercises regularly—don’t wait until you feel anxious. Regular practice will help you better call on these techniques in a pinch.
- Try deep breathing, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, or guided imagery. Decide on a few techniques that are most helpful to you. Look for guided meditations on YouTube to help you get started.
Support your health.Exercising, eating a balanced diet, and getting enough rest are important for managing comorbid anxiety and ADHD symptoms. In general, stay away from junk foods or processed foods that often worsen symptoms. Remove caffeine or alcohol from your diet. Choose real, unprocessed foods like fresh produce, whole grains, and lean sources of protein.
- Talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian about making positive changes to your diet to improve anxiety and ADHD symptoms.
Find a positive support network.Being around negative influences will only make your co-occurring anxiety and ADHD worsen. Choose to spend time with people who support and value who you are as a person, and generally make you feel good.
- Reduce your time with people who judge, criticize, or influence you to make unhealthy choices like using alcohol or drugs.
- You may find that there may be an environmental cause to your anxiety, which you can eliminate to decrease your anxiety. For example, decreasing distractions and notifications from your smartphone may help to decrease your symptoms.
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