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Do You Have ADHD, or Is It PTSD?

Updated: May 23

✎ Written by: Dubravka Rebic ✓ Fact-checked by: Carola Tuerk, Ph.D.

Experiencing trauma can be a life-altering experience. Trauma can shape how we grow and develop, how we perceive ourselves, and how we make sense of the world.

In fact, a traumatic event or a series of events can, in some cases, progress to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an anxiety disorder characterized by feelings of guilt, isolation, irritability, difficulty sleeping, or difficulty concentrating.

These symptoms can interfere with our daily lives and leave us feeling absent-minded, forgetful, easily distracted, and confused.

But most of these symptoms also fall under the category of a different disorder: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a neuro-behavioral disorder characterized by an ongoing pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity/impulsivity.

Complicating matters further, PTSD and ADHD sometimes also occur together. So how do you recognize which disorder is at the core of your symptoms and what happens when a person with ADHD experiences a traumatic event?

In addition to answering those questions, we’ll also answer the following: 1) Can you have ADHD and PTSD at the same time? 2) What is the link between ADHD and trauma? 3) What are the symptoms of PTSD and ADHD overlap? 4) How can you tell the difference between ADHD and PTSD? 5) Can PTSD make ADHD symptoms worse? 6) What’s the treatment for ADHD and PTSD combined?

Can You Have ADHD and PTSD at the Same Time?

According to research, there's a link between ADHD and PTSD, suggesting that individuals with ADHD are at elevated risk for PTSD and vice versa.

In fact, people with ADHD are four times more likely to have PTSD than those without ADHD. Furthermore, individuals with PTSD are twice as likely to have ADHD.

But why is that?

What’s the Link Between ADHD and Trauma?

If someone has ADHD, they might be at risk for exposure to traumatic experiences, in particular during adolescence. This is because ADHD is associated with high levels of risk-taking behaviors and impulsivity that could lead to traumatic events. On the other hand, early-life trauma could trigger ADHD symptoms. The link is probably caused by toxic stress, which is the outcome of persistent activation of the body's stress response system that’s typical for trauma.

Still, timing plays a key role here. Since ADHD is a neurodevelopmental condition – meaning that it starts early during development – trauma that doesn’t occur in childhood is unlikely to trigger ADHD later in life. Of note, there are many factors associated with ADHD, both genetic and environmental, that need to be considered in order to understand its cause.

What Are the Symptoms of PTSD and ADHD Overlap?