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Exploring Links Between ADHD and Trauma

While it may seem like ADHD and trauma are separate concerns, there is an increasing body of research that indicates there are links between ADHD and trauma. In fact, there is actually a significant amount of overlap between the two experiences. As a result, it can be difficult to distinguish whether it is ADHD or trauma that is at the root of challenging behaviors or neurocognitive challenges. In this blog, we’ll define ADHD and trauma, discuss the overlap and impact, and share possible next steps to consider.

What is ADHD?

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ADHD stands for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. It is a chronic condition often diagnosed in childhood, but it can be diagnosed in adults too. It can affect your ability to control your attention and focus, your time management, your organizational skills, your memory, your energy, and even your self-esteem. Research indicates that genetics play a role in your likelihood of being diagnosed with ADHD, and it is thought that your experiences in childhood can also affect how ADHD presents in your life. 

What is Trauma?

Trauma, or traumatic events, can include actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence that you experience directly or indirectly. For example, experiencing childhood abuse or witnessing domestic violence can be traumatic. After being exposed to such trauma, people can have a range of reactions and emotional responses. Two people who witnessed or experienced the same event can respond entirely differently. It is important to note that you can experience a traumatic event at any point in your life, and that the impact of the experience may linger, leading to conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Similarities and Overlap in Symptoms

While research has not determined the exact link between ADHD and trauma, it is clear that there is some link or association between the two. Both ADHD and trauma can impact neurocognitive functioning, and can present with ongoing attention and behavior challenges. There are several symptoms that are shared and/or look very similar: difficulty with concentration, difficulty with emotional regulation, impulsivity, restlessness, difficulty sleeping, poor attention, poor memory, and challenges with socializing. For example, a teen who is having trouble in their classes because they are zoning out during lectures, sleeping poorly at night, and failing to complete their homework may be struggling with ADHD or trauma (or both).

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It can be helpful to look at your childhood history to determine whether the symptoms are due to ADHD and trauma. Were there any moments or experiences that precipitated the challenging behaviors? Or were the behaviors relatively constant across time and across settings? It can also be helpful to determine the exact nature of the symptoms.

Let’s consider a few examples.

Impulsive or restless behavior like acting out in class may be due to trauma-related hyperarousal, or edginess due to a constant sense that something bad may happen. It may also be due to ADHD-related hyperactivity, or the internal sense of having a ‘running motor’ and the need to do things immediately. Zoning out can be a trauma-related symptom of experiencing a flashback, or an ADHD-related symptom of daydreaming or thinking about another topic. Avoidance of tasks or responsibilities may be due to trauma-related anxiety or fear, or ADHD-related difficulties with executive functioning.

It can also be helpful to consider whether you are experiencing symptoms that are unique to each. For example, nightmares are typically unique to trauma-related experiences, and difficulty with instructions or challenges with time management are typically associated with ADHD.

Impact of ADHD and Trauma

Trauma can affect the brain, and may possibly increase the risk for ADHD. Additionally, it may also impact the severity of ADHD-related symptoms in a person with ADHD. Conversely, a person with ADHD may be more likely to experience trauma and trauma-related symptoms. In fact, those with ADHD are likely to have co-occurring diagnoses with conditions like anxiety, depression, or PTSD.

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Children or adults with ADHD may struggle with attention, concentration, keeping up with responsibilities, and maintaining social relationships. These difficulties may lead to others misunderstanding, ostracizing, or even punishing them. In other words, people with ADHD are often at increased risk for traumatic events like abuse or bullying. If a person with ADHD also struggles with emotional regulation, they may experience a more intense emotional reaction to this traumatic event. Over time, this can lead to PTSD.

Individuals with undiagnosed or unmanaged ADHD may also be at increased risk for chronic traumatic stress, as they may experience ongoing negative messaging and social rejection from people who do not understand ADHD. These experiences can result in low self-worth, low self-esteem, and reckless behaviors (e.g., high-risk sexual behaviors or substance use).

To summarize, trauma and ADHD can compound each other, as trauma can make ADHD symptoms worse and ADHD can increase the risk of traumatic experiences and trauma-related symptoms.

Management of ADHD and Trauma

Whether you are experiencing ADHD or trauma-related symptoms, it is important to create a solid foundation of self-care routines and coping strategies. By learning how to manage your emotions and soothe yourself, you can tackle whatever stressful experiences you may be facing in your everyday life, whether they are triggering your previous experiences or challenging your executive functioning skills. You can also practice mindfulness strategies and self-compassionate talk to help you walk yourself through difficult moments.

Individualized Therapy for ADHD and Trauma

Whether you are dealing with ADHD, trauma, or both, you may find it helpful to seek professional support. A therapist can help you process your traumatic experiences, process your ADHD diagnosis journey, build executive functioning skills, and empower you to find the ways that you can best care for yourself. Yellow Chair Collective offers individual trauma-informed therapy as well as individual and group ADHD coaching to help you create the life that you want to live. Our psychotherapists can help you understand the emotional impact of having ADHD or experiencing trauma, and cope with your symptoms in daily life. We will work with you to develop plans to reach your goals.

Begin Working with A Trauma Therapist in Los Angeles, CA, and New York, NY

At our Los Angeles, CA, and New York City, NY-based therapy practice, we have many trauma-informed, neurodiversity-affirming therapists who can help you navigate these complex links between ADHD and trauma. For your added convenience and simplicity, we offer online therapy for anyone in the state of California or New York. We know that your mental health is important, and we want to help you work through whatever’s holding you back. Follow the steps below to begin.

Other Services at Yellow Chair Collective

There are many options for treatment using online therapy in California and New York, it just depends on what you’re needing. And while we certainly service Asian American folks, we also work with individuals from other cultures, too. So, whether you’re needing support in overcoming anxiety, burnout, trauma, or PTSD, we can help. Likewise, we serve teens and couples in need of support, too. So when you start online therapy with us, you can bring your whole self, including past struggles, cultural impacts, and more.

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