Adult ADHD and PTSD: What’s the Link?

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on July 14, 2022
3 min read

PTSD and ADHD can have serious impacts on your health and well-being. We’re learning these conditions may have more in common than previously known -- if you have one, your chances are much higher for having the other one too.

They have a “bidirectional” relationship, meaning each one can impact the other.

Some studies found that when you have ADHD, you’re four times more likely to also have PTSD. And you’re twice as likely to develop ADHD when you have PTSD.

Their symptoms can look the same, and they can cause similar changes in your brain. As a result, researchers are studying connections between ADHD and PTSD. They’re also looking at whether some of the same treatments can help both conditions.

You might develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after disturbing or harmful events happen to you, or after you witness them or learn about them happening to someone else. Some examples include violent environments, severe neglect, child abuse, accidents, sexual assault, or natural disasters.

If you have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), you may have trouble with focus, hyperactivity, and impulsive behavior. Symptoms usually start in your childhood, but they can continue into your adulthood.

Because military veterans are more likely to have PTSD than civilians are, researchers are studying them in hopes they’ll learn more about the links between PTSD and ADHD. About 30% of veterans who served in a war zone have PTSD. But since most of them don’t develop it, scientists think there are other factors that also figure into who develops PTSD.

They’ve found that those with another mental disorder-- such as ADHD -- are more likely also to have PTSD. But adult ADHD is not often picked up in military entrance exams, so service members who have it may be at even greater risk for ADHD.

Also, it’s estimated that 70% of all adults, whether military or non-military, have had at least one traumatic event in their lives. But only 20% go on to have PTSD. And only half of those will reach out for help.

Experts also know that people with both ADHD and PTSD have a higher chance of depression, behavior disorders, social phobias, and generalized anxiety disorder.

Among the similarities of ADHD and PTSD, we know they both can cause:

  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Impulsive behavior
  • A heightened response to being startled
  • Distractibility
  • Depression
  • Sleep problems
  • Memory issues

Scientists have also found that both cause changes to your prefrontal cortex, an area of your brain responsible for attention, impulse, planning, and other behaviors. PTSD and ADHD can trigger abnormal levels of hormones that set off your “fight-or-flight” response. Some studies suggest there’s a genetic link between the two conditions.

When you have mental disorders with similar symptoms, it can be hard to get a clear diagnosis.

Look for an expert who diagnoses and treats ADHD and PTSD. They might be a doctor, mental health counselor, nurse practitioner, physician assistant, or other professional. They’ll help rule out any other illnesses that may be causing your symptoms.

They’ll also ask about your medical history, including current or past trauma. It’s important to talk about this with them, even if it’s uncomfortable to do so. They’ll ask you about your school, work, drug or alcohol use, family, and social life. This info helps them to pick up on patterns that can be common in ADHD. If they’re examining you for PTSD, they’ll also ask you about any trauma that may be causing your symptoms.

Treatment for PTSD usually involves psychotherapy, which can help you learn how to cope with your symptoms and how to treat your other problems like depression, anxiety, or drug and alcohol misuse. Your doctor may also prescribe antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications to ease your PTSD symptoms.

Researchers want to know if treating your ADHD could also help improve your PTSD. Some studies have found that stimulant drugs used to treat ADHD, such as methylphenidate, may improve PTSD symptoms in some people. In one small study, participants had fewer PTSD symptoms early on, and their improvements lasted throughout the 12-week treatment. But not enough research has been done to prove ADHD meds help with PTSD, and more research is needed.