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Childhood trauma

ADHD & Trauma: The Connection You Didn’t Know

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8 min

ADHD & Trauma: The Connection You Didn’t Know

Think you’re just wired differently? Ever wonder why you can’t seem to focus or why you’re constantly bouncing off the walls? While ADHD might explain some of your struggles, there’s a chance a more complex story is hidden.

The thing is that childhood trauma might be hiding beneath the surface for some people with ADHD. Probably, there is a real connection between these two experiences. And this isn’t just about blaming the past. It’s about understanding the present.

In this article, we’ll explore the complicated tie between ADHD and childhood trauma, which can help you rewrite your narrative. Are you ready to learn more?

ADHD, Trauma, and CPTSD: What’s the Link?

First, let us make sure we understand what each term means before we look at how childhood trauma and ADHD are connected.

A few words about ADHD

What is the meaning of ADHD disorder? Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD, is a common cognitive difference that affects millions of children and adults worldwide. It’s characterized by a combination of symptoms like difficulty focusing, impulsivity, and hyperactivity (which works for PTSD too). 

While typically diagnosed in childhood, around 9% of children and 3% of adults in the United States live with ADHD. And before you ask, yes, ADHD and ADD are the same thing. 

Also, it’s worth mentioning that there are three types of ADHD: impulsive, inattentive, and combined, with both symptoms (ADHD-C).

So, in easy terms, what does ADD feel like? Someone with hyperactive ADHD might describe it as feeling like they have “ants in their pants,” while someone with impulsive ADHD might say they often feel a strong urge to “blurt things out, even if it’s not appropriate.

While the exact causes remain under study, researchers believe genetics, brain injuries, prenatal substance exposure, and low birth weight may play a role. 

It’s important to remember that ADHD is not a reflection of intelligence or character.

Childhood Trauma & PTSD/CPTSD

Not everyone who experiences childhood trauma will develop PTSD or complex trauma, but it can increase the risk. Then, before talking about ADHD, we need to know what is the difference between childhood trauma, PTSD(Post-traumatic Stress Disorder), and C-PTSD (Complex Trauma). Let’s have a look.

So, what is the definition of childhood trauma? Well, it refers to any negative experience harming a child emotionally, with lasting effects like fear, sadness, and trust issues. It can include abuse, neglect, accidents, and violence.

PTSD is a mental health condition that can develop after experiencing a traumatic event. It’s also considered a form of neurodivergence like ADHD. Some signs of trauma can be reliving the experience, having bad dreams, trying to avoid anything that reminds you of the event, feeling on edge, and not being able to feel your emotions.

What is complex trauma? It is a newer diagnosis that is closely related to PTSD. Still, it specifically refers to the effects of prolonged or repeated exposure to traumatic events, particularly in early childhood. 

For children specifically, researchers have proposed developmental trauma disorder (DTD), although it is not yet recognized by the diagnostic guides. This diagnosis is proposed for kids who experience chronic trauma during their development, especially within close relationships, such as with caregivers.

In addition to the symptoms of PTSD, people with C-PTSD may also experience difficulties with self-identity, emotional regulation, relationships, and a sense of safety.

But can trauma cause ADHD? Now that we are familiar with definitions, we can go deeper and explore the real bond.

Can the symptoms of ADHD be caused by trauma?

The short answer is yes. Some experts suggest that people who experience early life trauma are more likely to develop symptoms of ADHD or ADHD-C (combined type) later. 

Trauma-induced ADHD can be partly fueled by a phenomenon called “negative memory bias,” where stressful events can alter a person’s perspective, leading them to focus on negative experiences and emotions rather than positive ones.

If you feel like you need a helping hand to overcome negativity in your life, try Breeze – the app can help you track your negative thoughts and bring more balance to your life.

Is there any overlap between ADHD and trauma?

Definitely yes. For example, inattention and ‘daydreaming’ behavior in ADHD can sometimes resemble symptoms of dissociation, a common response to trauma. 

That’s why it’s important to recognize the overlap in some symptoms, which can make accurate diagnosis tricky. Below are all the symptoms you can explore:

Hard to concentrateDifficulty focusing and staying on task.Trouble focusing due to intrusive thoughts or flashbacks.Yes
ImpulsivityActing without thinking, blurting things out.Difficulty controlling emotions or reactions.Yes
DisorganizationProblems with organization and managing tasks.Disorganization due to emotional distress or avoidance.Yes
Sleep problemsDifficulty falling asleep or staying asleep.Nightmares, flashbacks, sleep disturbances.Yes
Emotional dysregulationIrritability, anger, anxiety, depression.Difficulty managing emotions due to trauma experience.Yes
Hyperactivity/FidgetingExcessive movement, restlessness.It can be, especially if someone is anxious or hypervigilantYes
FlashbacksNot a symptom of ADHD.Reliving past trauma in vivid detail.No
NightmaresNot typically a symptom of ADHD.Disturbing dreams related to trauma.No
AvoidanceNot usually a symptom of ADHD.Avoiding people, places, or things associated with trauma.No
DissociationNot typically a symptom of ADHD.Feeling detached from oneself or surroundings.No

Even though ADHD and trauma can look similar in some ways, they affect people differently. Dr. James M. Greenblatt, an expert on ADHD, says, “In considering links between any two psychiatric disorders, it’s important to remember that there’s no such thing as black and white.” 

So, while ADD and childhood trauma might have some symptoms to overlap, each person’s experience with them is unique.

Katherine Pocock, Clinical Neuropsychiatrist, MBPsS, shared her opinion on the overlap of ADHD and trauma Symptoms of ADHD and trauma can look really similar and are often difficult to disentangle when both are present at the same time. If you think you may be affected by ADHD, trauma, or both, seek advice from a medical or mental health professional.

Effects of childhood trauma on ADHD symptoms

Experiencing high levels of stress during childhood can have a lasting impact on the brain. Difficult experiences can affect the way the brain controls emotions, thoughts, and behavior, which can lead to ADHD. And trauma can make ADHD symptoms even more severe, leading to increased challenges in daily life.

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there. Children with ADHD symptoms may face more challenges and setbacks than their peers, which leads to feeling lost, increased stress and frustration. 

This, in turn, can trigger further negative experiences, creating a vicious cycle where trauma fuels ADHD symptoms, and ADHD symptoms increase the risk of further trauma. 

What about ADHD vs. PTSD/CPTSD?

Studies show that there might be a link between PTSD/CPTSD and ADHD, particularly in childhood. When someone experiences intense emotions from trauma, it can be challenging for them to handle, resulting in symptoms that are similar to ADHD. Such as difficulty concentrating, being restless and impulsive, or struggling to manage emotions.

If you’re struggling with ADHD and childhood trauma, seeking professional guidance is essential. Remember, there is always help available. Start early, address any old wounds, and learn skills to conquer negative thoughts and feel better. 

Let Breeze guide you. Take an assessment, discover personalized tips, and improve your well-being today!

ADHD & Trauma

Steps to take to help ADHD childhood trauma

Even if years have passed, childhood trauma can leave lasting marks on your well-being and mental health. If you suspect you might be affected, here’s how to get started:

Find a qualified therapist. Consulting with a doctor can help you get a treatment plan that is personalized to your needs. This plan might combine different methods:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT helps you identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors that might stem from your trauma or ADHD.
  • Trauma-focused therapy: This therapy dives deep into the impact of your past experiences, helping you process emotions, develop coping mechanisms, and heal.
  • Meds: In some cases, medication like antidepressants or ADHD medication might be recommended to manage specific symptoms like mood swings or focus issues.

Tips to take care of yourself

  • Creative mind: Art and music therapy can help you express yourself, understand your human emotions, and reduce stress. It’s a great way to heal and create positive changes in your life.
  • Mind & body practices: Explore mind & body practices like yoga or meditation to improve your physical and mental well-being. Yoga involves breathing exercises and postures that help you relax and focus while exercising can improve your mood and reduce stress. 
  • Support groups: Connecting with others who understand your experiences can offer valuable encouragement and support.
  • Breeze app: Breeze offers a complete package of tools to help you take care of your well-being effectively. You can explore various courses and take detailed tests to learn more about yourself. 

Remember: Healing takes time and patience. Celebrate every step of your journey, and know you’re not alone

Katherine Pocock, MBPsS photo

Reviewed by Katherine Pocock, MBPsS

Katherine Pocock MBPsS holds an MSc in Clinical Neuropsychiatry from King's College London and a BSc in Psychology with Neuroscien...