6 ways ADHD and PTSD can look alike

ADHD and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can sometimes look similar. This overlap can make it harder to get an accurate diagnosis. Here’s what you need to know.

ADHD and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, are different challenges. But some of their symptoms are the same. Both conditions impact a group of mental skills called . This can make it hard to plan and organize, remember information, manage emotions, and more. The symptoms happen for different reasons, though. 

In ADHD, the symptoms are caused by differences in how the brain develops. In PTSD, the symptoms are a result of trauma — a distressing event or series of events. But not everyone who experiences trauma will go on to have PTSD. 

It’s possible to have both ADHD and PTSD. But having ADHD doesn’t make it more likely that someone will develop PTSD after a traumatic event. 

Here are six symptoms that are common in both ADHD and PTSD:

1. Trouble with concentration

ADHD and PTSD both cause issues with focus and concentration, but for different reasons. Challenges with executive function, including having trouble with focus, are a big part of ADHD. People with ADHD often struggle to concentrate, especially on things they’re not interested in. Or they may have a hard time shifting their attention away from something and moving on.

PTSD creates anxiety and intrusive thoughts, both of which can interfere with focus. These symptoms can be triggered by things that remind the person of the trauma: sounds, smells, strong emotions, and more. People with PTSD may not always know what triggers them or why.

2. Trouble sleeping 

Many people with ADHD have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up. It can be hard for them to wind down their thoughts and relax. Lack of sleep can also make ADHD symptoms worse.  

People with PTSD often have nightmares, sleep disturbances, or insomnia. And, as with ADHD, lack of sleep can make PTSD symptoms worse.

3. Negative self-perception

PTSD and ADHD can both have a big impact on self-esteem. The challenges caused by ADHD can be hard to navigate: Trouble in school or at work, feeling like they don’t “fit in.” Struggling every day with things that they know are easy for their peers can make people feel bad about themselves.

PTSD can also cause challenges with self-esteem. Many people with PTSD have exaggerated negative beliefs about themselves. They may worry that they “caused” or “deserved” what they went through. Or that their trauma means they’re “damaged.” These negative thoughts can also be a sign of depression.

4. Emotional dysregulation

People with ADHD may have a harder time managing their feelings. They may feel emotions more intensely and for longer. This can get in the way of everyday life. 

People with PTSD also often struggle to manage emotions. PTSD can cause episodes of anger, anxiety, and sadness, and even thoughts of suicide. These symptoms can cause challenges at work and at home — and that can lead to even more negative emotions.

5. Trouble with memory 

Trouble with working memory means that people with ADHD may have a hard time keeping new information in mind long enough to use it.

The stress from the trauma that causes PTSD can affect working memory, too. People with PTSD also may have intrusive memories. PTSD flashbacks and being triggered can make their sense of time scattered because of the panic these things can cause.

6. Impulsivity or recklessness

People with ADHD may struggle with self-control. This causes impulsivity, which in some people leads to risk-taking and self-destructive behavior.

PTSD can cause someone to act recklessly, which can look similar to the impulsivity of ADHD. Someone with PTSD may behave recklessly because they feel that they don’t have much time left, a symptom that can occur with PTSD. Or they may be triggered by something, and the resulting panic makes it more difficult to control their impulses.

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ADHD and PTSD have different treatments. It’s important to get the right diagnosis and a treatment plan from a mental health professional.

Learn more about PTSD at rainn.org. And listen to an ADHD Aha! podcast episode on PTSD and ADHD.


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