Written by Dr. Tara Boustany, Pharm.D on
October 3, 2021
Written by Dr. Tara Boustany, Pharm.D on:

Medically Reviewed by our Medical Affairs Team

PTSD and ADHD are two conditions that can sometimes occur together, but not always.

PTSD is a mental health condition caused by an outside force like abuse or war. It is characterized by symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, and severe mood swings.

ADHD is also a mental health condition that causes difficulty concentrating and focusing, especially on tasks at hand.

People living with PTSD may have trouble paying attention to details due to the constant racing thoughts they experience, day in and day out.

This blog post will compare PTSD vs ADHD symptoms, so you can determine whether you or your loved one might have PTSD or ADHD, or both.

What is ADHD?

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a mental health condition where the brain does not receive enough dopamine.

Since people with PTSD often have trouble concentrating due to racing thoughts, they sometimes also experience ADHD symptoms like hyperactivity and impulsiveness.

Three Types of ADHD

People with ADHD are often diagnosed with either of these three subtypes:

Inattentive Type

Inattentive ADHD is marked by a lack of attention to detail, trouble focusing on tasks at hand or in school, and disorganization. 

Hyperactive-Impulsive Type

People with this type of ADHD are characterized by hyperactivity, restlessness, and impulsive behavior.

Combined Type

This subtype is a combination of both inattentive and hyperactive signs. Symptoms may vary depending on the individual’s situation or environment.

However, people living with PTSD may not fit into one of these three subtypes because PTSD is a cognitive condition that causes people to act differently than they would normally.

But it’s important to note that PTSD can cause impulsive behaviors like punching holes in the wall or running away from home.

Also, PTSD can cause inattentive behaviors like forgetting important dates or events, neglecting hygiene, ignoring homework assignments even though the person living with PTSD understands them clearly.

What is PTSD?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) occurs when a person experiences or sees something traumatic.

PTSD also causes symptoms like nightmares, flashbacks to the event, depression-like mood swings, and hyperarousal which means being constantly on guard for danger.

Also, people with PTSD may have trouble concentrating due to racing thoughts caused by stress and trauma. Their condition also aggravates ADHD symptoms, so they seem more noticeable.

Four Types of PTSD

People with posttraumatic stress disorder often have one or more of these PTSD types:

Intrusive Memories

People with PTSD often relive the event through nightmares, flashbacks, and other intrusive thoughts.

Avoidance

People who have PTSD may feel so ashamed of what happened that they try to block out all memories associated with it.

They might also avoid places or people related to the traumatic experience to not trigger PTSD symptoms.

Heightened Arousal or Hypervigilance

People who deal with PTSD may have trouble sleeping, feel irritable and jumpy all the time, and constantly seek to stay on guard for danger.

They might also experience panic attacks brought on by PTSD triggers which are people, places, and other things that remind them of their traumatic event.

Negative Cognitions and Moods

People with PTSD often have negative thoughts about themselves, others, or the post-traumatic stress disorder itself.

They might even feel guilt for what happened in some cases when PTSD triggers remind them of their traumatic situation.

These symptoms are just a few examples of PTSD that can cause ADHD-like behavior patterns, which often make people living with PTSD look like they also have ADHD.

Can PTSD make ADHD worse?

Yes, PTSD can cause ADHD symptoms to feel more pronounced.

Also, individuals with PTSD may have trouble concentrating due to racing thoughts brought on by stress and trauma, which is often misdiagnosed as the inattentive or hyperactive-impulsive type of ADHD when it’s actually PTSD exacerbating the condition. 

Can PTSD be misdiagnosed as ADHD?

Yes, PTSD can be misdiagnosed as ADHD because PTSD symptoms often include those of ADHD.

The types and severity of PTSD-related impulsive behaviors and lack of attention depend on the individual’s unique life experiences with childhood trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder. 

Both ADHD and PTSD are very prevalent mental health conditions, so it’s essential to understand the following:

  • symptoms of PTSD.
  • how PTSD can affect ADHD behavior patterns.
  • the types of PTSD.
  • who has PTSD or have had PTSD in their lifetime.

What happens when you have Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder?

When both ADHD and PTSD co-occur, PTSD symptoms may worsen or prolong its time to treat ADHD.

Also, PTSD medications can make bipolar disorder worse if a person has both PTSD and bipolar.

This is why it’s crucial for people who have been diagnosed with either condition to know their treatment options before they decide which ADHD and PTSD treatment they want to pursue.

Is there a connection between trauma and ADHD?

Yes, it is well-documented that PTSD and ADHD coexist frequently.

Also, traumatic experiences in childhood can lead to symptoms of hyperactivity or impulsivity later on as an adult if PTSD develops during those years. 

People with PTSD often have addictions and depression, too.

This is why it’s vital to treat PTSD early on in a person’s life when symptoms first appear or before they worsen.

Post-traumatic stress disorder can also cause ADHD hyperactivity and impulsivity, which aggravates the condition of PTSD itself because stress triggers anxiety attacks that make PTSD symptoms even worse.

What ADHD and PTSD have in common is that they are both mental disorders.

However, PTSD depends on some traumatic life experience to bring about the condition, while ADHD does not.

People who think they have PTSD should talk with their doctor or therapist about getting an official PTSD diagnosis to rule out PTSD vs ADHD.

People who think they may have PTSD should also be screened for bipolar disorder and other mental conditions which can coexist with PTSD, such as:

  • major depressive disorder
  • generalized anxiety disorder
  • addictions
  • eating disorders

PTSD symptoms often cause ADHD-like behavior patterns that make PTSD seem like it’s also ADHD.

ADHD and PTSD Symptoms in Adults

Adults who deal with both ADHD and PTSD experience the following symptoms: 

  • difficulty falling asleep because of racing thoughts, frequent nighttime awakenings, or PTSD-related nightmares.
  • not being able to focus on tasks at work and home.
  • feeling restless (hyperactivity) or sluggish (sluggish cognitive tempo) and lethargic (inattentive).
  • frequently forgetting things.
  • experiencing traumatic flashbacks, especially when in crowded places like the grocery store or at work.
  • feeling irritable for no apparent reason.
  • having difficulty concentrating on tasks that require focus, such as reading a book or watching TV without interruption. 
  • feeling tense, jittery, or on edge.
  • having PTSD-related nightmares when falling asleep or waking up.
  • wanting to avoid places, people, conversations, memories, movies/TV shows which remind you of your past traumatic experiences because they cause PTSD symptoms to flare up.

Complex PTSD and ADHD

Complex PTSD is a post-traumatic stress disorder that has gone on for a long time, often several years or decades.

This usually happens when the patient does not get sufficient treatment to bring about recovery.

People who experience this type of PTSD are more likely to have major depression disorder and bipolar disorder because they do not receive PTSD treatment or stop receiving treatment altogether.

People who have complex PTSD are at risk for developing ADHD because of constant chronic stress that causes their adrenal glands to produce higher levels of adrenaline and cortisol than usual, leading them to feel on edge all the time. 

This chronic stress also triggers PTSD symptoms that aggravate ADHD symptoms.

People who think they have PTSD or complex PTSD should immediately talk with a professional to discuss all treatment options available.

How can ADHD and PTSD be diagnosed?

The best way is to consult a mental health professional who can perform assessments for both disorders to get accurate diagnoses.

There are online tools that can help you self-diagnose PTSD or ADHD, but they are not official or validated by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), so their accuracy is questionable.

It is highly recommended that you get advice from a professional who uses the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). 

It’s always best to see a professional who can provide medical advice on how PTSD, ADHD, and treatments affect the other.

ADHD and PTSD: Differences & Similarities

Now, let’s talk about the difference and similarities between posttraumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Differences

  • PTSD is triggered by a traumatic experience whereas ADHD does not require any trigger.
  • PTSD depends upon the existence of something to cause it, while ADHD can exist on its own without anything triggering it.
  • PTSD develops gradually over time due to chronic stress and other factors while ADHD occurs at birth or in early childhood when brain development is still underway.
  • PTSD includes psychotic symptoms such as PTSD-related hallucinations whereas ADHD does not.
  • ADHD includes depressive and bipolar symptoms that PTSD does not, such as suicidal thoughts or behavior.
  • PTSD is a disorder of the mind while ADHD is a disorder of the brain (people with PTSD may also have an affected brain).

Similarities

  • People who experience PTSD and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder show signs of PTSD-related irritability, anger, anxiety, sadness, or depression.
  • People who experience PTSD, as well as ADHD, also report experiencing PTSD symptoms when in crowded places like the grocery store or at work that aggravate their ADHD symptoms.
  • Symptoms include: feeling tense, jittery, or on edge,
  • having PTSD-related nightmares when falling asleep or waking up,
  • and experiencing PTSD flashbacks that aggravate ADHD symptoms.

ADHD is a common comorbidity of PTSD because both disorders are characterized by chronic stress experienced in daily life. 

People with PTSD as well ADHD experience more severe PTSD symptoms than those who only have PTSD or ADHD.

This is because PTSD-related chronic stress causes people to develop both disorders at the same time, which makes them feel even worse than individuals suffering from either PTSD alone or ADHD alone.

What causes PTSD vs ADHD?

People who have PTSD, as well as ADHD, may wonder why they experience PTSD symptoms if there is no obvious traumatic event.

The reason for this lies in the fact that PTSD can be caused by chronic stress experienced over a long period of time, not just one incident or a single childhood trauma history as many people believe.

However, here are some of the most popular causes of PTSD:

  • sexual abuse
  • deep-seated trauma
  • trauma from family members
  • stressful familial transmission at a young age 

On the other hand, ADHD can be caused by genetics or brain development that occurs between birth and the age of five.

As a result, PTSD as well ADHD can be caused by PTSD-related chronic stress experienced over time or brain development that occurs before birth.

But it is important to note that PTSD is different from ADHD but also similar in several ways.

PTSD as well ADHD share common symptoms such as irritability, anger, generalized anxiety disorder, inattention, sadness or depression, and impulsivity.

How can PTSD as well as ADHD be treated?

For PTSD, there are many treatments available, including:

  • cognitive processing therapy (CPT).
  • prolonged exposure therapy (PE).
  • sertraline (Zoloft or Lustral).
  • fluoxetine (Prozac or Sarafem) plus psychotherapy.

Here are the options for managing or treating ADHD:

  • stimulant medications like Adderall or Vyvanse.
  • non-stimulants like Strattera (atomoxetine) and Intuniv (guanfacine).

Take note that the PTSD as well ADHD combination can be challenging to treat because PTSD symptoms tend to worsen ADHD symptoms and vice versa.

This is why it’s critical to consult a professional who can provide medical recommendations that suit your unique condition and lifestyle.

Treatment for ADHD and PTSD Combined

The PTSD-ADHD combination is a complex condition that requires an individualized treatment plan.

In many cases, PTSD-related anger management therapy can help treat PTSD symptoms while psychotherapy for PTSD (e.g., cognitive processing therapy and prolonged exposure therapy) combined with medication like sertraline (Zoloft or Lustral), fluoxetine (Prozac or Sarafem), and/or stimulants like Adderall can help PTSD symptoms and ADHD symptoms.

However, PTSD-related anger management therapy is unlikely to treat ADHD symptoms alone.

In addition, medication for PTSD typically doesn’t work well if the individual does not also receive psychotherapy for PTSD as part of PTSD treatment.

Therefore, PTSD-ADHD is a complex condition that requires a comprehensive mental health service from a trained professional who can provide both medical and psychotherapy treatment.

Concluding Thoughts

It is important to note that PTSD symptoms are not always caused by PTSD.

In fact, PTSD symptoms can be caused by chronic stress experienced over time or brain development that occurs before birth in the form of ADHD.

No matter what the cause of PTSD symptoms is, it is still necessary to consult a mental health professional who can provide medical advice that specializes in either PTSD or ADHD, or both.

If you are suffering from PTSD, ADHD, or PTSD and ADHD simultaneously, it’s important to seek help immediately because these can severely affect your daily life and can be debilitating if left untreated.

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