By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated June 22, 2012)
Those with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are typically impulsive, distractible, restless, and easily bored. Difficulties concentrating and staying organized can lead to chronic lateness, forgetfulness, procrastination, and work problems.
People with ADHD often have difficulty regulating their moods and, in particular, controlling anger. This problem, along with low self-esteem, poor frustration tolerance, and a tendency toward boredom, put many of those with ADHD at risk for substance abuse, relationship problems, depression, and anxiety.
UP to 40% of those who suffer from ADHD also have an anxiety disorder (Roberto Olivardio, PhD, cited in Tartakovsky, 2011). ADHD can cause anxiety-provoking situations, and anxiety also negatively impacts concentration, attention, and social functioning, so the two problems can exacerbate one another.
The Association Between Anxiety and ADHD
A variety of possibilities have been suggested to explain the possible link between ADHD and anxiety. The most obvious one is that those with ADHD tend to be scattered, impulsive, and forgetful, which can cause all sorts of stressful problems.
People with ADHD are more likely to put themselves in harm’s way, miss work or school exams, and damage their relationships with impulsive actions, all of which create stressful interpersonal conflicts and chaos. Those with ADHD often feel overwhelmed when having to deal with the requirements of day-to-life that others take for granted, as well as suffering from self-recrimination when they create problems for themselves. They also tend to be quite sensitive, which makes them vulnerable to anxiety.
A further problem arises with ADHD medications. ADHD is often treated with stimulants, and these medications can trigger or worsen anxiety or even trigger full-blown panic attacks in susceptible people.
Anxiety tends to worsen the problems associated with ADHD, as well as making it difficult to try new treatment strategies. When people feel anxious, they tend to stick with their traditional ways of doing things, even if these approaches are unhealthy.
Treatment of ADHD and Anxiety
ADHD is often treated with medication and/or cognitive-behavioural therapy. For more on ADHD symptoms and treatments, see the main ADHD page. There are also things you can do on your own to manage your ADHD. The following are some complementary therapies that are highly effective for many people with ADHD.
Get More Cardio Exercise
There is evidence that regular exercise is a particularly good treatment for ADHD. Exercise works because physical activity increases serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine – brain chemicals that influence mood and attention (Block & Smith, 2012). This helps not only in reducing ADHD symptoms, but is also a good complementary therapy for depression and anxiety, conditions that often accompany ADHD.
Develop ADHD-Friendly Eating Habits
Diet has been shown to play an important role in ADHD, with sugar and artificial additives in processed foods being particularly likely to trigger problems. Block and Smith (2012) give the following advice for ADHD-friendly eating:
- Don’t go for longer than three hours without a small meal or a snack to keep blood sugar levels consistent (blood sugar fluctuations can impair concentration and increase irritability).
- Include complex carbohydrates and high-quality proteins with each meal or snack.
- Increase omega-3 fatty acids in the diet either by increasing consumption omega-3-rich foods such as fish, flax seeds, and walnuts or taking fish oil supplements.
- Have a doctor check for magnesium, zinc, or iron deficiency (there is evidence that many people with ADHD have low levels of these key minerals).
Use graphic organizers (day planners, calendars, wall charts, etc.), timers, and other visual or auditory reminders to make sure you do what you need to do. It’s also beneficial to keep the home environment clean and tidy, with a set place for everything. Be sure to put things away as soon as you’re done with them. Clutter can exacerbate the tendency to feel scattered.
Maintain Set Routines
A key to managing ADHD is to reduce chaos and maintain consistency as much as possible. Stick to schedules for exercise, mealtimes, sleep, and other daily life activities. Schedules should be simple, easy to follow, and consistently maintained.
Simplify Your Life
Get rid of things you don’t need (if you can’t bring yourself to discard them entirely, have a transition box – put things in it you think you might be able to get rid of and then if you haven’t used them in a year, throw them away or give them to charity if they’re in good condition). Look at your to-do list and eliminate anything that’s not strictly necessary (or at least move it from the “must do” list to an “if time permits” list). Delegate tasks to others where possible, and don’t take on more than you can handle.
Create a Peaceful Home Environment
Both those with ADHD and anxiety sufferers can benefit from peaceful environments. Keep the home quiet if possible (or at least the room where you need to get things done), or play soothing music. Decorate your home in a simple, uncluttered way so that the environment is not distracting. Some research suggests that using cool colours may have a soothing effect, and that blue in particular may aid concentration (Vodvarka, 1999).
Get Better Sleep
Many people with ADHD suffer from sleep problems, which can aggravate the condition. See How to Get Better Sleep for tips on increasing the likelihood of getting quality sleep each night.
Learn How to Relax
There are plenty of good relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, calm breathing, visualization, and progressive muscle relaxation. Try various approaches to see what works best for you. People with ADHD tend to have a lot of extra energy; channeling it into volunteer work or a personal hobby can also be beneficial for increasing relaxation.
Reduce Anxiety and Stress
In addition to cognitive-behavioural therapy and medication, there are plenty of natural complementary anxiety therapies that work for many people. See the main Anxiety and Panic Disorder page for a full list with information about each approach. See also How to Reduce Stress for stress-reduction tips.
This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical or psychiatric advice. Medical concerns should be referred to a qualified doctor.
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (2012). “Adult ADHD (Attention Deficit/Hyperactive Disorder).” ADAA.org.
- Block, J., MA, & Smith, M., MA. (2012, May). “ADD/ADHD Treatment in Children.” HelpGuide.org.
- Tartakovski, M., MS. (Author), Grohol, J.M., Psy.D. (Reviewer). (2001, November 11). “When ADHD and Anxiety Occur Together.” PsychCentral.com.
- Vodvarka, F. (1999). “Aspects of Color.” Midwest-Facilitators.net.
- WebMD, Reviewed by Martin, L.J., MD (2012, April 2). “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: ADHD in Adults.” WebMD.com.