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Are Childhood Trauma and ADHD Linked?

ADHD is characterized by hyperactivity, emotional reactivity, racing thoughts, distractibility, decreased concentration, inattention, and impulsivity. The cause is still mostly unknown, but recent research has shown interesting links between traumatic events occurring in childhood and the development of ADHD. The leading theory is that when trauma occurs to a child, they will start to process information in an altered or different way. Traumatized children will start to see the world differently and make different assumptions about themselves and about the world around them. All processing of information after this will be processed through the filter of the traumatic event, causing a cognitive bias that will predispose the person later in life to certain psychological disorders including anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

But how does this relate to ADHD?

Many of the symptoms seen in people who have undergone trauma can mimic ADHD. For example, survivors will often become hypervigilant which will look like hyperactivity, distractibility, emotional reactivity, racing thoughts, inattention, impulsivity, and decreased concentration. Sounds familiar right? That’s because trauma and ADHD share many of the same symptoms. Because of this, it might be difficult to determine if what someone is experiencing is from trauma or ADHD.

Could it be both Trauma and ADHD?

Absolutely yes! The fact is that if you have either ADHD or PTSD, you have an increased risk of having the other. If fact, people with ADHD are 4x as likely to develop PTSD if they undergo a traumatic event, and people with PTSD are 2x as likely of having ADHD. Since ADHD generally develops early in your life, it is thought that it most likely precedes PTSD. And here’s an interesting thought- although the vast majority of adults will go through at least 1 trauma in their lifetime, only 8.7% will develop PTSD. So, what makes some people more susceptible to developing PTSD then?

What Could be Causing This?

It is being postulated that ADHD might be one factor that increases your chance of developing PTSD. ADHD shares with PTSD some genetic markers which may make people more susceptible to developing both.

Another theory is that ADHD represents a neurological vulnerability in a person which when paired with exposure to a traumatic event will cause PTSD to develop. This neurological vulnerability has to do with how fear is experienced and processed.

Can ADHD make PTSD worse?

Again, yes, if you have ADHD already and undergo trauma, the symptoms of ADHD can make your PTSD worse. Namely, ADHD involves issues with attention, distractibility, emotional reactivity, racing thoughts, etc. These symptoms will worsen PTSD symptoms such as hypervigilance, insomnia, aggression, impulsive behavior, disorganization, and poor self-esteem.

Conversely, if you experience trauma, it can make your ADHD symptoms worse as well.

ADHD behaviors of impulsivity, increased aggression, decreased concentration and risk-taking can increase the chance of a person undergoing trauma in the first place.

How Can I Tell if It’s PTSD or ADHD?

The symptoms of both can be very similar! In fact, both conditions have the following symptoms:

  • agitation and irritability

  • heightened impulsivity and risk-taking

  • disorganization

  • poor self-esteem

  • inattention

  • distractions

  • problems concentrating

  • difficulty with work, school, sleep, chores, etc.

ADHD can have the following symptoms that are not usually seen in PTSD:

And PTSD can have these symptoms that are not usually seen in ADHD:

However, some people can have atypical symptoms which will complicate the diagnosis, plus the two conditions will often coexist. This can make it very difficult to tell the difference in any particular case. Because of this, it is best to talk with a professional if you are having issues such as the ones listed above.

Closing Thoughts

So, in closing, PTSD and ADHD often coexist in a person which can complicate your recovery and treatment. If you would like to talk with me further or would like some trauma treatment, please follow the link. I would love to hear from you!


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