The Relationship Between Trauma and ADHD

The Overlap Between Trauma and ADHD Symptoms

Studies have shown that experiencing trauma increases an individual’s chances of being diagnosed with ADHD. Figuring out the origins of a person’s trauma and assessing its impact on the brain and body can be complicated since many symptoms of trauma overlap with (and may be caused by) ADHD. The symptoms of trauma can be very similar.  This makes it difficult to distinguish adult ADHD from PTSD. Trauma and ADHD share symptoms such as:

  • Focus / attention problems
  • A strong reaction to small events
  • Restlessness
  • Angry outbursts
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Zoning out when stressed

Scientists know your genes strongly influence your chances of having ADHD. They also know there’s a strong association between having trauma when you’re a child and then having ADHD in your adulthood. Childhood trauma can come from things that happen to you or that you see happen or hear about happening to someone else. These are referred to as Adverse childhood events (ACEs). ACEs can include factors like:

  • Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse and neglect or abandonment
  • Seeing someone hurt a parent – especially your mother
  • Being around drug use or mental illness at home
  • Losing a parent to death or divorce
  • Having a family member in jail or prison

ACEs can also result from other factors such as:

  • Growing up poor
  • Living in a violent area
  • Experiencing systemic racism or discrimination
  • Being in a bad car accident
  • Having a life-threatening illness

How Trauma and ADHD Can Be Related

There are several ways that ADHD and trauma may be linked:

Early emotional trauma – Emotional trauma and ADHD can linked is that emotional trauma, during childhood or even before birth, can sometimes lead to a “mimic” of ADHD that isn’t actually ADHD. In this case, the correct treatment may not be an ADHD treatment, but a treatment for emotional trauma (such as trauma-based cognitive behavioral therapy).

Comorbid ADHD and trauma – Some people have both conditions. People with ADHD tend to have more bad things happen. This be due to several factors: high impulsivity; altered or weaker judgment of social situations; seeking elusive peer approval; attraction to risky situations for the thrill or the excitement. Research shows that having ADHD is associated with a higher rate of traumatic events happening.

Heightened sense of trauma for those with ADHD – Given the same dangerous situation, individuals with ADHD are more likely than other people to experience it as traumatic. This relates to the heightened sensitivity to experience that people with ADHD seem to have, which I alluded to earlier. In addition, some individuals with ADHD don’t have strong coping mechanisms, such as the ability to suppress upsetting thoughts and put them out of mind.

Treatment Options

There are differences between how ADHD and PTSD is treated.

For ADHD, stimulant medication can be prescribed. Cognitive behavior therapy, ADHD coaching, lifestyle changes and skills development, are all great ways to manage ADHD symptoms.

For PTSD, trauma-focused cognitive behavior therapy is very helpful. Medication may be prescribed for secondary symptoms like depression. EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), somatic therapy and relaxation techniques are also helpful.

Whether you have ADHD, PTSD, or both, don’t suffer in silence. There are so much that can be done to help you!

An ADHD diagnosis does not routinely involve an evaluation of trauma history. So if you think there is even a remote chance you have PTSD, definitely mention it to your medical professional.



Learn About Edge Executive Function Coaching


Share on Social Media