Attention Deficit & Anxiety: What Do They Have in Common?

This week I’ll be discussing the common themes between Anxiety and Attention Deficit problems. Many times, parents have concerns that their children may have ADD or ADHD due to their inability to concentrate on school work or difficulty completing tasks at home.

There are several symptoms of inattention attributed to ADD/ADHD. They include:

  • Difficulty giving close attention to details
  • Difficulty sustaining attention
  • Difficulty following through with directions
  • Difficulty with organization
  • Avoidance of tasks requiring sustained attention
  • Often losing important objects
  • Forgetfulness
  • Easily distracted

When a person struggles with an anxiety disorder or even short term situational anxiety, often times the anxiety can be so overwhelming that the ability to pay attention is inhibited. Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) include (but are not limited to):

  • Excessive worry
  • Difficulty controlling worry
  • -Anxiety associated with at least 3 of the following: feeling on edge, easily feeling tired, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle tension, and sleep disturbance

Here is a brief overview of what happens in the brain when anxiety is present. When a threat is present, a person responds to the threat with the “flight or fight” response. A person with anxiety may perceive a threat, whether present or anticipated, which then also triggers the “fight or flight” response. This response triggers the brain to release hormones in order to eliminate the threat. The presence of these hormones tells the brain that a threat is present, even when it might not be a physical threat right in front of the person, but rather a fear or apprehension of something to come. The more the brain experiences the release of hormones in the brain, the more the brain becomes wired to experience (and becomes used to) anxiety. This means that people with anxiety, if unmanaged, tend to feel the symptoms much of the time! It is well known that anxiety is linked to memory problems, which can look like the inability to pay attention. And, the presence of stress hormones affects areas of the brain responsible for coding memories, meaning chronic anxiety affects a person’s ability to make memories.

While GAD is a diagnosable disorder, even mild anxiety can cause symptoms and bodily responses. Think about it, if a person is having difficulty with symptoms of anxiety listed above, it would be very difficult to pay attention. Often times, people struggling with anxiety are concentrating so much on the thing causing the anxiety that they are unable to pay attention to all else going on around them. It is said that one in 4 children 13-18 years of age will experience some kind of anxiety disorder (NIMH, 2016). Anxiety disorders are the most common disorders diagnosed in all people with almost 30% of adults likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at some point in their life (NIMH, 2016).

This discussion gives a brief look at why it is important to understand the root of the problem and to manage it accordingly. There is a great deal of information available about the links between attention deficit and anxiety. Both attention deficit problems and anxiety disorders are treatable with proper assessment. If you have any questions, concerns, want to schedule an assessment, or curiosities about anxiety and/or attention deficit problems please feel free to contact myself directly with the information provided on the contact page and I will be glad to help.