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The Toxic Stew of ADHD, Anxiety and Depression

ADHD is a disorder that likes to come with reinforcements. It’s not particular about which reinforcements it chooses. These could be obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder or autism.

Commonly, though, these reinforcements include anxiety and depression. When untreated ADHD combines with untreated anxiety and depression, the result is a potent soup of mental health symptoms where it can be hard to pick out the individual ingredients.

StewThis is because many of the symptoms of ADHD, anxiety and depression tend to compound each other.

Example: lack of motivation. People with ADHD tend to be more reliant on short-term rewards in order to concentrate and exercise self-control, which means that they tend to struggle with motivation.

But anxiety and depression can further throw a wrench into motivation. Low motivation and lack of energy are classic depressive symptoms. Meanwhile, anxiety can interfere with motivation by nurturing pessimism, perfectionism, fear of failure and low self-esteem.

So in the toxic stew of ADHD, anxiety and depression, lack of motivation can become subtly flavored with hints of hopelessness and pessimism as well as classic ADHD. When you have other mental health conditions besides ADHD, ADHD and these other conditions don’t exist separately, sticking to their own territory. They team up, interact, and sometimes become hard to distinguish from one another.

There are a few practical implications to this.

The first is that when it comes to diagnosis and treatment, it’s important to keep in mind that it can take some time to identify all the individual ingredients contributing to the toxic stew. Unfortunately, some doctors get one whiff of the stew, say “this smells like depression,” and leave it there. Too commonly, the flavor of ADHD gets overlooked entirely, even when this turns out to be the most important flavor in the end.

The other implication is that when you’re immersed in the toxic stew, it can take some time to be able to recognize which flavors come from ADHD and which come from other conditions. If you find yourself thinking that life with ADHD is hopeless and that you don’t ever see how you can thrive with this condition, there’s a good chance you have some other ingredients like depression and anxiety in the mix.

One final point is that when it comes to treatment, it’s not always the case that you end up having to treat every mental health condition to the same extent. This is different for different people. For example, if you have ADHD, anxiety and depression, you might find that effective ADHD treatment combined with therapy makes a significant difference in the anxiety and depression too. Then again, you might find that you don’t reap the benefits of treatment for ADHD or depression individually until you’ve effectively both.

In any case, keep in mind that toxic stews take time to understand. Give it time, patience, and an openness to trying new treatments. And if time, patience and an openness to trying new treatments don’t do the trick, consider whether a different doctor might have a palate more suited to understanding the mixture of ingredients in your toxic mental health stew.

Image: Flickr/You As A Machine

The Toxic Stew of ADHD, Anxiety and Depression

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on education, learning disabilities and technology. He received his B.A. in 2014 and was diagnosed with ADHD at the beginning of his college studies. Neil also works for a music education non-profit and hopes to help create an education system that can better serve students with ADHD.

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2018). The Toxic Stew of ADHD, Anxiety and Depression. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 24, 2019, from


Last updated: 4 Jun 2018
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 4 Jun 2018
Published on All rights reserved.