TRAUMA AND ADHD: HOW THEY OVERLAP

An overview of ADHD

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a common neurodevelopmental disorder that is typically diagnosed during childhood and generally endures into adulthood. This disorder can have significant impacts on an individual’s relationships, academic performance, career life, and day-to-day functioning. Symptoms of ADHD may include the inability to remain focused, frequent mood swings, disorganisation, poor time management skills, and impulsive behaviours. However, ADHD can manifest itself in unique ways.

There are three main types of ADHD:

  • Predominantly inattentive presentation, which is characterised by concentration difficulties, forgetfulness and being easily distracted.
  • Predominantly hyperactive/impulsive presentation, which is characterised by hyperactivity (fidgeting, restlessness, unrestrained talking) and impulsivity (acting hastily without considering consequences, interrupting others)
  • Combined presentation, which is characterised by symptoms of both the above types

Not much is known about the causes of ADHD, although extensive research is underway. Genetics is believed to play the largest role; however, other potential risk factors include brain injury, exposure to environmental toxins, and problems with the central nervous system during development.

Is there a link between ADHD and trauma?

Trauma occurs due to being exposed to events that are severe and invasive in nature – for example: domestic violence, physical or sexual abuse, emotional neglect, and exposure to crimes or natural disasters. Like ADHD, trauma is highly prevalent, with about 70% of adults having witnessed at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. Whilst the effects of trauma are not always long-lasting, they can become chronic and lead to a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Individuals with PTSD typically experience alarming flashbacks, nightmares, persistent negative thoughts, and avoidance of stimuli related to the traumatic event.

Living with trauma can feel very similar to living with ADHD. There are many symptoms shared by both disorders, including difficulty with concentration, memory problems, impulsive/reckless behaviour, difficulty sleeping, overactivity, and substance abuse. Furthermore, responses to trauma are sometimes mistaken for signs of ADHD. For example, disassociation could be confused for inattention, whilst hyperactivity could be a result of a distressed mind avoiding thoughts of a traumatic event. Clinicians must have ample experience and skill to assess and treat both disorders effectively.

Interestingly, researchers have recently discovered that there could be a correlation between trauma and ADHD. Studies show that traumatic experiences – such as emotional abuse and neglect – are more prevalent in children with ADHD compared to children without this disorder. Indeed, it appears that experiencing trauma or stressful life events at a young age may increase a child’s vulnerability to developing ADHD or displaying inattentive/hyperactive behaviours. Conversely, many children with ADHD experience trauma as a result of being bullied, struggling to fit-in, or being reprimanded by authority figures. People with ADHD receive 20, 000 more negative messages in a lifetime than someone without ADHD.

You may be thinking: if ADHD and trauma are so intertwined, how do we tell the difference? Well, sometimes they cannot be teased apart – thus, we need to treat them both. 

EMDR therapy for ADHD

The discovery that trauma could be linked to some of the core symptoms of ADHD has opened the possibility of finding more helpful treatments for both disorders.

Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is widely believed to be one of the most effective treatments for patients who have experienced complex trauma. This technique can be successfully adapted to suit the needs of clients with ADHD – for instance, by engaging the client externally through video games or drawing. In fact, studies on the efficacy of EMDR therapy for managing and improving symptoms of ADHD have had very positive results. EMDR therapy has been shown to reduce the impact of trauma, leading to improvements in attention and concentration in clients’ day-to-day lives. Enhancements in emotional regulation, anger management, and problem solving have also been linked to EMDR therapy.

Therefore, it is becoming more evident that trauma-informed approaches to therapy can be powerful for treating individuals with ADHD.

Let’s clear the past (trauma), so we can see the present (issues) and work on the future (goals)

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