Recently ADHD has become such a normal part of our everyday lives that it is quite common for the term to be thrown around as part of our everyday conversation, often in the context of describing our need to be constantly multitasking or our absent-mindedness and inability to focus or stay still or present. In fact, when a parent or teacher sees a child that is unable to sit still, that is unable to stay focused and on task, and that appears to be super excited, they may be quick to say that the child has ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder). At first glance, it may appear that the child’s symptoms stem from ADHD. While this may indeed be the case, a mental health professional also will explore other potential causes for the child’s challenges.
What is ADHD?
ADHD is a medical condition requiring a professional diagnosis from a qualified clinician where a person has differences in brain development and brain activity that can affect attention, the ability to sit still, and self-control, among other functioning.
Because of all of the information available about ADHD and how the condition impacts functioning, many people self-diagnose or diagnose others as having or being ADHD. Therefore, it is quite common for people to quickly attribute these behaviors in others, especially children, to ADHD when there may be another explanation such as form of anxiety, something a parent or teacher might not consider.
Meanwhile, “anxiety” and being “anxious” have always been around as an option to describe people’s feelings, mood, or way of being cautious or concerned about different or specific things or about things in general. It is normal to have a certain amount of anxiety or to be anxious when you are speaking in front of a large crowd, taking a test, or are lost or in a new environment; however, this becomes a problem when you become excessively anxious at which point you are likely dealing with some sort of anxiety disorder, a very common mood disorder. “Anxiety” within the medical/mental health field is something very particular:
What is Anxiety?
“Anxiety Disorder” is an umbrella term that includes many different conditions sharing similar characteristics, particularly an origin in Anxiety, all of these are considered mood disorders and mental health conditions requiring a professional diagnosis from a qualified clinician.
Looking specifically at Generalized Anxiety Disorder in this case, for example, may be helpful as it can often be confused with and shares several characteristics with ADHD.
General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) involves persistent and excessive worry that interferes with daily activities at times accompanied by physical symptoms, such as restlessness, feeling on edge or easily fatigued, and difficulty concentrating, similar to the behaviors observed in individuals with ADHD. Often the worries focus on everyday things such as job or academic responsibilities, family or personal health and well-being or on minor matters such as specific tasks, chores, or appointments requiring the person’s attention and follow through.
Treatment: What will Professionals do based on the diagnosis?
ADHD and Anxiety can both affect a child in various settings including at school, at home, and in friendships, creating difficulties and can have a negative impact in one or more of these areas.
There are, however, interventions and treatments that are recommended and proven to be more effective for one condition than the other condition. For example, common treatment recommended for ADHD is therapy and medication (of course, this varies based on the individual’s needs). Meanwhile, the recommended treatment for (Generalized) Anxiety is exposure and increasing distress tolerance and coping skills and, in more extreme cases, medication.
So is it ADHD or Anxiety?… How can you tell?
As you will notice there are significant similarities between ADHD and Generalized Anxiety Disorder, so diagnosing is not so simple and even professional clinicians can have a difficult time distinguishing between the two and various factors including the child’s age and when and where these behaviors are most pronounced can come into play. Luckily, there are tools and measures that can help professionals distinguish between ADHD and Anxiety. Even then, it is possible that the individual has both in the same way that you can have both a cold and the flu at the same time. Therefore, differentiating between ADHD and Generalized Anxiety Disorder, differentiating between other conditions, and diagnosing in general is complex and should be left up to the experts who have been trained in diagnosing.
The important thing to keep in mind is that regardless of the diagnosis, there is hope, and parents and teachers are encouraged to reach out to an appropriate professional, such as myself and the team of clinicians at Cope With School NYC, if they have any concerns and these behaviors are impacting their children at school, at home, and in friendships, so that we can start helping.
Cope With School NYC is a child, adolescent and adult psychotherapy practice in Manhattan. We provide individual therapy, parent counseling, group therapy and social skills groups. Cope With School NYC helps students address challenges with school (or life factors that impact optimal school functioning), including Autism Spectrum Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, learning differences, bullying, anxiety, depression, loss, social challenges, etc).
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