It’s notoriously tricky to untangle symptoms of ADHD from symptoms of another condition like anxiety or depression – especially in people who have both ADHD and the other condition.
From the outside, some symptoms of these conditions can appear similar. Both ADHD and anxiety can lead to restlessness and fidgeting. Both ADHD and depression can interfere with motivation.
In fact, I would guess that many people who have ADHD and a second, “comorbid” condition don’t experience these two conditions as independent things. Rather, the conditions feel like different facets of something underlying, more general.
To me, a lot of this overlap comes down to a key symptom of ADHD: not being able to control our thoughts to the extent that people without ADHD can.
In ADHD, this inability to tell our brains what to do manifests in symptoms like not being able to sustain our concentration on a task or to put the brakes on impulsive behavior.
But other conditions have an aspect of “not being able to control your thoughts” as well. If you have an anxiety disorder, you have a hard time disengaging from certain negative, anxiety-inducing thoughts. Depression and OCD, two other mental health conditions that commonly co-occur with ADHD, have an aspect of not being able to control your thoughts too.
I’m not making the case that ADHD and anxiety are “the same.” Clearly, the symptoms of ADHD are different than the symptoms of anxiety.
However, it does feel, in my experience anyway, that the thing going on in my brain that leads to ADHD symptoms is related to the thing going on in my brain that leads to symptoms of anxiety. Both processes have an element of lacking agency over my thoughts, of my brain taking on a life of its own and telling me I don’t have the ability to keep it on the track I want it on.
The idea that mental health conditions that fall under different labels aren’t entirely distinct is actually one that’s consistent with the research being done. Multiple studies suggest genetic overlap between separate conditions like ADHD and depression.
My guess is that some of the big breakthroughs in the future of mental health research will involve coming to a better understanding of how different disorders relate to each other. Until then, we can speculate. If you have “comorbid” conditions, do you feel like there’s some overlap between them? I’d be interested to hear your experiences, so please leave a comment!
Image: Flickr/Jan Jespersen