The two conditions of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and C-PTSD (Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) are often mistaken for one another, leading to the misunderstanding and the possible misdiagnosis of them both.
This isn’t to say that what you’ve been previously diagnosed with is wrong — it’s simply to say that there are intricacies between ADHD and C-PTSD that not only overlap, but also suggest a direct relationship between the two (where one condition puts you at risk for the other; and vice versa).
So let’s talk about! 👇🏼
Life With ADHD
ADHD is a neurological condition characterized by difficulties in attention, impulse control, and hyperactivity. Think of it as a mind full of creativity and curiosity, yet one that struggles with maintaining focus and adhering to daily routines.
The strengths of ADHD, such as intense concentration when you’re in “hyperfocus mode”, can lead to remarkable accomplishments, but they also bring unique obstacles in navigating structured environments.
Some commonly known symptoms of ADHD include inattentiveness, like:
- Difficulty sustaining attention in tasks
- Frequent careless mistakes due to lack of attention
- Difficulty organizing tasks and activities
- Avoidance or reluctance to engage in tasks that require sustained mental effort
- Frequent forgetfulness in daily activities
- Frequently losing items necessary for tasks and activities
- Easily distracted by unrelated stimuli
- Forgetfulness in daily activities
While other commonly known symptoms of ADHD include hyperactivity and impulsivity, like:
- Fidgeting or tapping hands or feet
- Inability to stay seated in situations where it's expected
- Running or climbing in inappropriate situations
- Inability to play or engage in activities quietly
- Talking excessively
- Interrupting or intruding on others' conversations or games
- Difficulty waiting for one's turn
And unfortunately, the ADHD symptoms of inattentiveness, hyperactivity, and impulsivity are the only ones any medication or prescribed treatment by a medical professional tend to focus on.
However, those living with ADHD know that this neurological condition is so much more than just experiencing the symptoms listed above. And those symptoms listed above are not the only characterizations that significantly impact the daily functioning and quality of life for people with ADHD.
More common symptoms of ADHD (yet ones that aren’t easily treated with medication or openly discussed by medical professionals) include:
Executive Functioning Deficits
- Difficulty with planning and organizing tasks
- Poor time management skills
- Trouble initiating tasks or activities
- Struggles with setting and achieving goals
- Intense emotions and mood swings
- Impaired emotional self-control
- Quick temper and irritability
- Difficulty coping with frustration
- Putting off tasks until the last minute
- Difficulty starting projects or assignments
- Forgetfulness not related to inattention, such as forgetting appointments, names, or details
Impaired Working Memory
- Difficulty holding information in mind for short periods
- Forgetfulness of recent information or instructions
- Hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity to sensory stimuli (e.g., sound, touch, light)
Difficulty with Transitions
- Resistance to changes in routines or transitions between activities
- Difficulty shifting focus from one task to another
- Difficulty with social cues and interpersonal relationships
- Impulsivity in social interactions
- Interrupting others during conversations
Low Frustration Tolerance
- Difficulty tolerating frustration or delays in gratification
- A tendency to give up easily on challenging tasks
Yet while these symptoms have such a larger reach across the human body, for some reason, these are the ones put on the back burner when being medicated and learning how to manage your ADHD. And while the inattentiveness and the hyperactivity and the impulsivity get treated with a pill, over time, the other symptoms can lead to recurring and chronic traumatic thoughts, behaviors, and experiences — which can ultimately lead to the development of C-PTSD.
Life With C-PTSD
C-PTSD is a psychological condition that can develop in response to prolonged or repeated exposure to traumatic events. Unlike experiencing a single traumatic event (which would be PTSD), complex trauma leaves both emotional and physical scars — impacting trust, relationships, and overall well-being. And similar to ADHD, C-PTSD can shape one's perception of self and the world.
This psychological condition can occur due to anything that’s seen as traumatic to one’s self — whether that’s emotional or physical abuse, domestic violence, dysfunctional family relationships, or attempting to fit into a structured world that your un-structured brain was physically never meant to fit into (aka. those living with ADHD).
And you’ll see that the symptoms of C-PTSD are oddly similar to some of the one’s of ADHD:
- Intense and volatile emotions
- Difficulty regulating emotions, including anger and sadness
- Emotional responses that may be disproportionate to the situation
- Difficulty forming and maintaining healthy relationships
- Fear of abandonment
- Trust issues
- Difficulty with intimacy
- Persistent feelings of worthlessness or shame
- Low self-esteem
- Chronic self-blame
Difficulty with Attachment
- Problems with forming secure attachments
- Fearful or preoccupied attachment styles
- Difficulty in trusting others
Impaired Regulation of Arousal
- Difficulty in regulating physiological arousal (e.g., heightened startle response)
- Persistent hypervigilance or a tendency to be easily startled
Memory and Concentration Issues:
- Difficulty concentrating and sustaining attention
- Dissociation, which may involve feeling disconnected from oneself or the environment
- Insomnia or nightmares related to the traumatic experiences
Chronic Feelings of Helplessness
- A pervasive sense of helplessness and a belief that one has no control over one's life
- Engaging in self-destructive behaviors, such as self-harm or substance abuse, as a way to cope with emotional pain
Difficulty Setting Boundaries
- Struggles with establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries in relationships
- A tendency to tolerate mistreatment or abuse
And when these symptoms are experienced over a long period of time (without being managed), C-PTSD will not only exacerbate the symptoms of ADHD, but can also be disguised as ADHD symptoms — leading to a possible mis-diagnosis of the neurological condition.
The Intersection of ADHD and C-PTSD
What makes the interplay between ADHD and C-PTSD intriguing is the shared ground where their challenges overlap. Impulsivity in ADHD can mirror the recklessness seen in trauma survivors, and the hyper-focus associated with ADHD might serve as a coping mechanism in the face of trauma.
More examples of the overlap between ADHD and C-PTSD include:
Difficulty with Attention and Concentration
Both ADHD and C-PTSD can involve challenges with attention and concentration. Individuals with either condition may struggle to sustain focus on tasks, leading to forgetfulness and errors in work or daily activities.
Both conditions may exhibit impulsive behaviors, though the underlying reasons can differ. In ADHD, impulsivity is a primary symptom, while in C-PTSD, it might be a coping mechanism from a heightened state of alertness.
In ADHD, difficulty concentrating is a core symptom, while in C-PTSD, it can be a result of hypervigilance or intrusive memories.
Emotional dysregulation is a common feature of both conditions. Individuals with ADHD may experience intense emotions, while those with C-PTSD may have heightened emotional reactivity, mood swings, and difficulty managing emotions in response to triggers or stressors.
Executive Functioning Challenges
Both conditions can impact executive functions, such as planning, organization, and time management. Difficulties in initiating and completing tasks, as well as problems with setting and achieving goals, may be observed in individuals with ADHD and C-PTSD.
Hyperactivity or Hypervigilance
Both conditions can involve heightened arousal. ADHD may manifest as physical hyperactivity, while C-PTSD can result in hypervigilance, a state of increased alertness and sensitivity to potential threats.
Problems with Memory
Both conditions can affect memory, although the mechanisms differ. In ADHD, forgetfulness may be related to inattentiveness, while in C-PTSD, it can be influenced by dissociation or traumatic memory repression.
Difficulty with Relationships
Challenges in forming and maintaining relationships are common in both conditions. Individuals with ADHD may struggle with social interactions due to impulsivity, while those with C-PTSD may have difficulties trusting others and forming secure attachments.
In both ADHD and C-PTSD, individuals may demonstrate inconsistent performance in various areas of life. This inconsistency may be related to fluctuations in attention, mood, and energy levels.
Procrastination can be a common manifestation in both ADHD and C-PTSD. In ADHD, it may result from difficulties with executive functions, while in C-PTSD, it can be a way of avoiding triggers or distressing memories.
Sleep disturbances are common in both conditions. In ADHD, it may be due to a racing mind, while in C-PTSD, it can result from hypervigilance, nightmares, or anxiety.
Fatigue is common in both conditions, but the underlying reasons can vary. In ADHD, it may be due to mental overstimulation, while in C-PTSD, it can result from the chronic stress of dealing with trauma-related symptoms.
Restlessness is a symptom that can be present in both ADHD and C-PTSD, though the underlying causes may differ. In ADHD, it's associated with hyperactivity, while in C-PTSD, it may stem from an elevated state of arousal.
Both conditions can contribute to mood swings, though the triggers may vary. In ADHD, mood swings may be linked to frustration with executive functioning difficulties, while in C-PTSD, they may result from emotional dysregulation associated with traumatic memories.
Avoidance of Tasks
Both conditions may lead to avoidance behaviors, but for different reasons. In ADHD, avoidance can be a strategy to cope with the fear of failure due to executive functioning challenges. In C-PTSD, it may be a way to avoid triggering situations associated with past trauma.
Difficulty with Follow-Through
Challenges in completing tasks or following through on commitments can be observed in both ADHD and C-PTSD. In ADHD, this may be due to impulsivity or distractibility, while in C-PTSD, it could result from emotional overwhelm or dissociation.
Sense of Underachievement:
Individuals with both conditions may experience a persistent sense of underachievement, though the reasons differ. In ADHD, it may be due to difficulties in meeting societal expectations, while in C-PTSD, it could result from the impact of past traumatic experiences on self-perception.
Inattentiveness to Surroundings:
Both conditions can lead to periods of inattentiveness to the external environment. In ADHD, this is a characteristic symptom, while in C-PTSD, it may occur during dissociative episodes or when the individual is preoccupied with traumatic memories.
Difficulty in Decision-Making
Decision-making challenges can be present in both ADHD and C-PTSD. In ADHD, it may be due to impulsivity or difficulties weighing options, while in C-PTSD, it can result from fear of making the wrong decision based on past negative experiences.
Struggles with Time Management
Both conditions can contribute to difficulties in managing time effectively. In ADHD, this is related to executive functioning deficits, while in C-PTSD, it may be influenced by a preoccupation with traumatic memories or hypervigilance.
Physical Symptoms without Medical Cause
Both conditions can sometimes manifest physical symptoms (e.g., headaches, stomachaches) without an apparent medical cause. In ADHD, this may be linked to stress, while in C-PTSD, it could be a somatic expression of unresolved trauma.
Difficulty in Forming and Maintaining Relationships
Impaired social functioning is a commonality between ADHD and C-PTSD. In ADHD, it may result from social impulsivity or inattentiveness, while in C-PTSD, it may be influenced by difficulties trusting others due to past betrayal or abuse.
Both conditions may involve difficulties with memory, including forgetfulness. In ADHD, forgetfulness is often related to inattentiveness, while in C-PTSD, it can be influenced by dissociation or cognitive preoccupation with traumatic memories.
Difficulty in Task Initiation
Initiating tasks can be challenging for individuals with both ADHD and C-PTSD. In ADHD, it may be due to executive functioning deficits, while in C-PTSD, it can result from a combination of emotional dysregulation and avoidance.
Heightened Sensitivity to Stimuli
Individuals with both conditions may exhibit heightened sensitivity to stimuli in their environment. In ADHD, this is related to sensory processing issues, while in C-PTSD, it may be a result of hypervigilance and heightened arousal.
Impaired Executive Functioning
Both ADHD and C-PTSD can impact executive functions such as planning, organizing, and problem-solving. In ADHD, these challenges are core symptoms, while in C-PTSD, they can result from cognitive disruptions associated with trauma
Persistent worry and anxiety can be present in both conditions, albeit for different reasons. In ADHD, it may be linked to concerns about performance and attention, while in C-PTSD, it can be related to hypervigilance and fear of potential threats.
Difficulty Focusing on Details
Challenges in focusing on details are common in both ADHD and C-PTSD. In ADHD, this is a characteristic symptom, while in C-PTSD, it may be influenced by intrusive thoughts or a preoccupation with traumatic experiences.
Feelings of Shame and Guilt
Both conditions can contribute to intense feelings of shame and guilt. In ADHD, this may result from societal expectations and perceived underachievement, while in C-PTSD, it can stem from self-blame related to past traumatic events.
So How Do I Know Which One I Have?
Due to the extravagant overlap, distinguishing between ADHD and C-PTSD is challenging. So in order for a concrete diagnosis, it’s important to consult with a mental health professional you fully trust, and one that has a complete history of your past.
While both conditions deserve a completely different diagnosis, and both conditions might require completely different medications and/or talk therapies...
There is one practice that’s been collectively beneficial for those who struggle with both ADHD and C-PTSD, just ADHD, and just C-PTSD.
And that practice is somatic exercise, a form of somatic movement that increases bodily awareness to understand how and where stress, emotions, trauma, and dysregulation manifests physically, emotionally, and mentally in one’s body.
Start Managing Your Symptoms With Somatic Exercises
Heal Your Nervous System is a 60-day somatic exercise course that offers a transformative experience designed to bring awareness and connection between your physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing for those living with both ADHD and/or C-PTSD.
Somatic exercise has proven to be immensely beneficial for individuals navigating the complexities of both conditions, as well as those dealing with ADHD or C-PTSD individually. This course goes beyond conventional treatments, offering a unique opportunity to understand and alleviate the impact of stress, emotions, and trauma on your nervous system.
By committing to this program, you empower yourself with tools to enhance bodily awareness and develop resilience in the face of life's challenges. Invest in your well-being, embark on this somatic exercise journey, and discover the profound benefits that await you in healing your nervous system.