Comparing ADHD and Bipolar Disorder to Uncover the Best Treatment Paths

There are overlaps in symptoms and treatment options with ADHD and bipolar. Differentiating between the two disorders can be very difficult. And when these disorders occur together, the symptoms and risks are severely heightened. An accurate professional diagnosis comes first on the path to recovery for bipolar and attention deficit hyperactivity disorders.

If we attempt to simplify the comparison between ADHD and bipolar disorder, these conditions are examples of disordered concentration and disordered mood, respectively. But this attempt isn’t altogether effective because the comparison isn’t simple. When we come down to the level of one or both of these disorders at work in someone’s brain, in their emotions, in their life, it can be an incredibly, distressingly complicated scene.

Someone can have either attention deficit hyperactivity disorder alone or a bipolar disorder alone or they can have both at once. When someone has ADHD and bipolar together, we call these co-occurring disorders, and this person needs dual-diagnosis treatment to manage both conditions at the same time.

Whatever the nature of the psychological imbalance, a person must receive a very careful and accurate diagnosis. Treatment for mental health disorders is specialized, and medications and other treatments for one disorder may not have a positive influence on another hidden or misdiagnosed issue. Fortunately, clinicians experienced in comprehensive and dual-diagnosis treatment are prepared to get to the bottom of each person’s distress. They are prepared to work with clients over time to understand how ADHD and/or bipolar disorder affect their lives and to transform disruptive patterns to make way for the life clients really want to lead.

Living with ADHD or Bipolar Disorder


Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and bipolar are diagnoses that represent different kinds of cycles. And when someone is caught up in one or both of these cycles, life can feel overwhelming. And a preferrable balanced life can feel out of reach.

Generally speaking, ADHD is a cycle of procrastination, distraction, and hyperactive productivity. It is not a cycle that one has control of. Instead, it typically feels as if it has control of you. Someone with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder would struggle to create focus with will alone because their minds are not equipped to effectively direct their energy.

Alternatively, bipolar disorders are cycles of moods—potentially moods across extreme reaches of the emotional spectrum. Someone living with bipolar disorder may feel controlled by their emotional cycling. They may even fear the distressing side effects of slipping into a depressive episode or a manic episode, and it can be very challenging to cope when they do.

Living with Both Bipolar and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder


While there are distinct symptoms and cycles with each of the two disorders, there are also overlapping. This can make diagnosis and treatment more difficult—whether a person has only one of these disorders or both. When someone has both attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and bipolar, the symptoms of one disorder can also aggravate the other. And it can be even more challenging to cope with stress and daily life.

When living with bipolar disorder and ADHD together, a person’s moodiness can increase, as can their restlessness, impulsivity, and destructive tendencies. They can slide into deeper feelings of defeat and worthlessness. They may isolate and, in the process, withdraw from vital sources of help and support.

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The Path to Treatment for Bipolar Disorder and ADHD


Just as there are differences and overlaps in the symptoms of ADHD and bipolar, there are differences and overlaps in the courses of treatment. It is possible to find a balanced long-term treatment plan for when these disorders co-occur. But if the co-occurrence is not known—if someone is being treated for one disorder and not the other—if someone has been misdiagnosed and is being treated for the wrong disorder—the consequences can be severely risky. For example, stimulant treatments prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder can provoke dangerous side effects in bipolar disorder.

The treatment path for bipolar and ADHD is a sensitive one, but it is also an absolutely critical one. The risks of untreated bipolar disorder and untreated attention deficit hyperactivity disorder can be devastating and even fatal. In the case of bipolar disorder, when left untreated, serious cognitive damage can occur, and there is a dangerous risk of suicide. For these reasons, bipolar disorder is typically the primary focus for treatment—even when attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is also present. A clinician’s priority is to help an individual stabilize with a personalized medication regimen and to empower them with coping strategies through grounding psychotherapy.

Even when the clinical focus is on bipolar first, a person’s ADHD can benefit as they begin to find relief from bipolar symptoms that typically provoke their ADHD cycles. And, from the start, psychotherapy can address a person’s symptoms and struggles at large, including those that overlap between the two disorders. Once a person’s bipolar mood cycling is stabilized, clinicians will move to integrate therapies for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and any other co-occurring conditions a client might have.

It may be possible to integrate medication for ADHD if it doesn’t negatively affect a person’s bipolar symptoms. But, even if stimulant medication is not an option, it is possible to introduce alternative therapies to balance a person’s attention deficit hyperactivity disorder symptoms—and to inspire holistic wellness and a positive lifestyle in recovery. Still, to get from here to there, a professional diagnosis is still the first step. And you can reach out today for your own sake or that of a loved one.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance use disorders, eating disorders, and process addictions. 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 the journey toward healing.