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Attention, Anxiety and ADHD

Many of us ADHDers are lucky enough to have not just ADHD, but anxiety as well. #blessed

There are different explanations for why ADHD and anxiety often go together. For one thing, the effects of living with undiagnosed ADHD aren’t exactly soothing, which might heighten people’s risk for anxiety disorders.

Another explanation that I’ve always found interesting has to do with attention. As the A in ADHD suggests, people with ADHD have issues with attention.

AnxietyThese include deficits in our ability to control our attention. “Forcing” ourselves to sustain attention, especially in tasks we don’t find interesting, is the most obvious example. But at times we also have trouble turning our attention away from the things we do find interesting, hence the phenomenon of hyperfocus. In general, it’s not that we lack attention altogether but that we struggle to deliberate shift our attention onto the things we’re “supposed” to pay attention to.

Attention is also an issue in anxiety too. People with anxiety find it difficult to move their attention away from thoughts that provoke worry, and their attention can get carried off in a stream of “what ifs.” In theory, the way to not have anxiety is to just not worry about it, kind of like the way to not have ADHD is to just pay attention – and we know how well that works.

Considering that both people with ADHD and people with anxiety struggle to control their attention and direct it toward the “right” things, it’s possible that impairments in this area could be a factor that predisposes people to both conditions.

As it turns out, there’s some scientific evidence for the idea that attention is an area of overlap between anxiety and ADHD. A recent study found that ADHD symptoms, anxiety symptoms, and attentional control all tended to be related to each other.

In the study, researchers defined attentional control as “the capacity to focus attention as well as shift attention when desired.” They measured it by asking questions such as how easy the participants (508 pairs of twins between the ages of 7 and 15) found it to concentrate on homework. And they further found that genetics accounted for some of the common ground between ADHD, anxiety and attention, suggesting that attentional control might be one factor in the genetic overlap between anxiety and ADHD.

When I see results like these, I find it interesting because it seems to partially explain something I’ve experienced personally – the fact that ADHD and anxiety are pretty good at double-teaming you.

But it also makes me wonder about whether there will be future treatments designed to help with anxiety and ADHD simultaneously. When I tried meds for the first time, I was surprised that, contrary to what I’d been warned about stimulants and anxiety, meds helped both my ADHD and my anxiety symptoms. I’ve since learned that I’m far from alone in that experience.

In general, things that help my ADHD also seem to help my anxiety, and vice-versa. Mental health is holistic like that. If something’s good for one aspect of our mental health, it can potentially improve all aspects of our mental health. We already know that, but research findings like the one here make me hope that some day we’ll have treatments that explicitly address disorders that often occur together, like ADHD and anxiety.

Image: Flickr/Kai Schreiber

Attention, Anxiety and ADHD

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. (2019). Attention, Anxiety and ADHD. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 14, 2019, from


Last updated: 21 May 2019
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