Can PTSD Cause ADHD? Exploring Overlap and Treatment Options

There are significant overlapping symptoms and risk factors for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Both can cause impulsivity, lack of focus, emotional outbursts, and social isolation. There is also evidence to support the fact that one of these conditions can make a person more likely to have the other. It is essential that anyone experiencing symptoms of either  PTSD or ADHD get a diagnosis that is accurate so that the best treatment for one or both can be planned and implemented.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are both serious mental health and behavioral conditions. But they are also conditions that can be managed.

There is increasing evidence that the two are connected, although whether one can cause the other is not certain. Symptoms overlap, and getting an accurate diagnosis for both conditions is essential for getting the best treatment.

Similarities between PTSD and ADHD


Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental illness that has a known cause: one or more traumatic experiences. Examples of trauma that may trigger PTSD in some people include physical or sexual abuse, witnessing violence, being in combat, and being in an accident. PTSD causes intrusive memories such as nightmares and flashbacks. Other symptoms include avoiding reminders of the trauma, negative thoughts, memory difficulties, social withdrawal and isolation, startling easily, anger, and trouble sleeping.

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder is usually first recognized in childhood, but it may also be diagnosed in adults. It is a condition characterized by hyperactivity, impulsive behaviors, and poor attention. Adults with ADHD are more likely to be impulsive, disorganized, to struggle to focus on a task or multitask, to get frustrated easily, and to be restless.

There is a lot of overlap between the two conditions, which can make diagnosis confusing. It may also make treatment more challenging. Some similarities include:

  • A lack of focus or zoning out. Someone with ADHD struggles to focus on tasks or instructions, while someone with PTSD may do the same while trying to block out intrusive thoughts or because of memory problems.
  • Impulsive behaviors. ADHD causes impulsivity in most people diagnosed with it, but trauma can also cause a person to engage in risky behaviors.
  • Social challenges. Both ADHD and PTSD can lead to social difficulties, such as troubled relationships and isolation.
  • Hyperactivity and outbursts. Hyperactivity is characteristic of ADHD, which can look like emotional outbursts to onlookers. PTSD can trigger outbursts as well, including anger and aggression.

Causes and Connections


No one can say for certain what causes ADHD. There is evidence that genetics and family history, brain chemistry and function, exposure to harmful substances during pregnancy, premature birth, and low birth weight may be at least partial causes and risk factors for it.

PTSD is caused by trauma, but we don’t know for sure why some people develop it and others recover more quickly from a traumatic experience. Risk factors include family history, having other mental illnesses, the severity of trauma or going through recurring trauma, and not having adequate support, especially from parents.

Studies show there is a definite link between the two conditions. There is not enough evidence to be able to say for certain that one causes the other, but the connection is significant. Some studies show that nearly 15 percent of children who experience trauma meet the diagnostic criteria for ADHD.

In a study of adults with ADHD, PTSD, or both, researchers found that those with ADHD were more likely to have PTSD than control participants who did not have ADHD. The study also investigated family members of the participants. They discovered a family connection. People with either ADHD alone or both ADHD and PTSD were more likely to have relatives with one or both conditions when compared to controls. This indicates that the conditions have similar risk factors, especially related to family history.

Can PTSD Cause ADHD? And Vice Versa?


With the current research it’s impossible to answer this definitively. However, it is certain that there is a connection between the two conditions. They share family history risk factors. It is also possible that one condition could at least contribute to, trigger, or worsen the other.

For instance, a child with ADHD is more impulsive than other children. He may do something risky that leads to a trauma, like an accident. A child with ADHD also exhibits difficult behaviors, which is more likely to lead to abuse by an adult.

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Diagnosing and Treating ADHD and PTSD


If you or someone you care about has experienced trauma and exhibits signs of PTSD, it’s important to get a professional diagnosis. Only with an accurate diagnosis can you get the necessary treatment. PTSD is not a condition you have to live with forever. Treatment, especially long-term, residential care, can provide you with the tools and practice you need to manage symptoms and episodes.

You may also have some signs of ADHD, or some of the symptoms of your PTSD may be confused with this other condition. This makes it even more important to get the best diagnosis possible. Only an experienced and qualified mental health professional should perform the evaluation and make the diagnosis. Having one mental illness puts you at significant risk for another. Experienced mental health workers know this and will be able to give you a dual diagnosis if necessary.

Only with a complete diagnosis can you get the best treatment. Experts agree that treatment should address all mental health conditions and symptoms. It does not work to treat PTSD and then ADHD; you need to treat both and learn how to manage both at the same time.

Treatment for PTSD is largely focused on psychotherapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy with a focus on trauma is most useful. Therapy helps you face and process your traumatic past and learn healthy ways to cope with memories and intrusive thoughts. The most common treatment for ADHD is medication. Behavioral therapies can also help you learn how to manage impulses and develop better concentration and focus.

The Benefits of Residential Care for ADHD and PTSD


Either of these conditions can be debilitating, causing ripple effects in your life running the gamut from relationship problems to substance abuse and even loss of a job and homelessness. PTSD and ADHD are serious conditions that require thoughtful and intensive care in many people. If you have been struggling with both, you could benefit from residential care.

A stay in a treatment facility allows you to focus on your care and wellness without the distractions of home and work. It provides a safe environment, where outbursts or impulses can’t lead to harm or injury. A residential program gives you access to a wide range of health professionals and specialty treatments, from traditional therapy to holistic medicine.

Getting the best care possible is what will help you or a loved one learn to overcome the effects of trauma and manage behaviors and impulses in order to live a better life. For some, that may mean outpatient treatment, but for the often severe symptoms of ADHD and PTSD together, residential care is often a better option. Start with a diagnosis and then learn more about your treatment options.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance use disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Los Angeles and San Diego-based programs and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to lasting wellness.