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Can ADHD be triggered by PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are two distinct conditions that can have overlapping symptoms. PTSD develops after exposure to a traumatic event while ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that begins in childhood. However, there is some evidence that PTSD may trigger or exacerbate ADHD symptoms in some cases. This article will examine the connection between PTSD and ADHD and discuss whether PTSD can actually cause ADHD to develop.

What is PTSD?

PTSD is a mental health condition that can occur after exposure to a traumatic event such as combat, assault, a natural disaster, or serious accident. Key symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Re-experiencing the traumatic event through intrusive memories, flashbacks, or nightmares
  • Avoidance of people, places, or things associated with the trauma
  • Negative changes in thinking and mood
  • Increased arousal symptoms like being easily startled or feeling tense or on edge

For a PTSD diagnosis, symptoms must last for at least one month and cause significant impairment in important areas of functioning. Some people recover within a few months while others may experience chronic PTSD lasting for years. Risk factors for PTSD include a very severe or long-lasting traumatic event, severe physical harm during the event, extreme mental stress during the event, and lack of social support after the trauma.

What is ADHD?

ADHD is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders, estimated to affect around 5% of children and 2.5% of adults. The core symptoms of ADHD include:

  • Inattention – difficulty staying focused on tasks, forgetfulness, being easily distracted
  • Hyperactivity – excessive movement, fidgeting, restlessness
  • Impulsivity – hasty actions without thought of consequences, impatience, intrusive behavior

ADHD symptoms typically emerge in early childhood and can lead to difficulties in school, work, and relationships. ADHD has a strong genetic component but potential environmental risk factors include maternal smoking or alcohol use during pregnancy, exposure to environmental toxins, and brain trauma early in life.

The Potential Link Between PTSD and ADHD

At first glance, PTSD and ADHD appear to be completely distinct disorders. However, researchers have become increasingly interested in the potential link between trauma and ADHD. Several studies have found higher rates of ADHD among children and adults with PTSD compared to the general population and vice versa. Here are some key findings on the PTSD-ADHD connection:

  • Multiple studies show individuals with PTSD have higher rates of ADHD symptoms or diagnosis compared to trauma-exposed individuals without PTSD.
  • Military veterans with PTSD have significantly higher rates of ADHD compared to veterans without PTSD.
  • Adults with ADHD report higher rates of trauma and PTSD than adults without ADHD.
  • Children with ADHD are more likely to develop PTSD after trauma compared to children without ADHD.

This suggests trauma exposure and PTSD may be risk factors for ADHD. Researchers have proposed several explanations for the link between PTSD and ADHD:

Brain Changes

Both PTSD and ADHD involve changes in brain regions like the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus as well as altered signaling of neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine. Trauma may cause or exacerbate these brain changes, leading to ADHD-like symptoms.

Overlapping Symptoms

Symptoms like difficulty concentrating, restlessness, irritability, and impulsiveness occur in both ADHD and PTSD. Trauma may worsen these behaviors, mimicking ADHD.

Coping Mechanisms

Those with underlying ADHD may develop unhealthy coping mechanisms like substance abuse to manage PTSD symptoms, further exacerbating ADHD behaviors.


Clinicians may misdiagnose chronic stress reactions and PTSD as ADHD. Proper screening tools are needed to distinguish between the two conditions.

More research is still needed on the PTSD-ADHD link. But the current evidence indicates PTSD could contribute to or worsen ADHD symptoms in some cases.

Can Childhood Trauma Cause Adult ADHD?

Childhood trauma like abuse, neglect, loss of a parent, or household dysfunction is a well-established risk factor for many psychiatric disorders. An increasing number of studies indicate early life trauma can also increase the risk of developing ADHD later in life:

  • In a study of 85 adults newly diagnosed with ADHD, 73% reported experiencing childhood trauma.
  • A study of over 6,000 children found trauma before age 6 was linked to greater ADHD symptom severity at age 9.
  • Childhood sexual, physical, and emotional abuse are linked to 2 to 5 times higher odds of being diagnosed with ADHD in adulthood.

Researchers propose several mechanisms for how early trauma may lead to ADHD:

Early Brain Changes

Severe childhood stress and trauma can alter development of key brain regions like the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, hippocampus, and cerebellum. These changes may contribute to later ADHD symptoms.

Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis Dysregulation

The body’s stress response system can become dysregulated after childhood trauma. This can lead to abnormal cortisol levels that impact brain development and function.

Coping Mechanisms

Maladaptive coping strategies like substance abuse may be used to manage trauma aftereffects, further increasing ADHD behaviors.


Symptoms of childhood ADHD may be overlooked or incorrectly attributed to trauma responses. Proper evaluation is essential for accurate diagnosis and treatment.

More longitudinal studies tracking children over time are needed to clarify if childhood trauma causes ADHD or simply exacerbates underlying ADHD symptoms. But current evidence indicates interventions targeting trauma-related brain changes may help lower ADHD risk.

Can PTSD Medications Cause or Worsen ADHD?

Medications commonly used to treat PTSD like antidepressants and antipsychotics can potentially trigger ADHD-like symptoms as side effects:


Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) used to treat PTSD symptoms can cause agitation, restlessness, irritability, insomnia and impaired concentration. These side effects mimic ADHD symptoms.

Examples: Sertraline (Zoloft), paroxetine (Paxil), fluoxetine (Prozac)


Atypical antipsychotics like risperidone, olanzapine and quetiapine used for PTSD-related sleep disorders, psychosis, or severe anxiety may worsen ADHD. Side effects like sedation, dizziness, tremors, restlessness and impaired thinking can exacerbate ADHD.

However, this does not mean the PTSD medications are causing ADHD. Rather, they may be unmasking underlying ADHD symptoms that the trauma itself had also worsened. ADHD screening should be considered if psychiatric medication side effects mimic ADHD behaviors. The treatment plan can then be adjusted accordingly.

Can Successful PTSD Treatment Improve ADHD Symptoms?

Considering the potential link between PTSD and ADHD, researchers have studied whether treating PTSD can lead to improvement in ADHD symptoms:


Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a leading psychotherapy for PTSD. Some studies show PTSD-focused CBT may also decrease ADHD symptoms, especially inattentiveness and impulsiveness. Resolving trauma responses may minimize overlapping ADHD behaviors.


Antidepressants and antipsychotics used for PTSD have not been shown to directly improve co-occurring ADHD. But they may still provide indirect benefit by reducing PTSD symptoms like poor concentration that can mimic ADHD.

Holistic Approaches

Mindfulness, yoga, exercise, neurofeedback, and EEG neurotherapy used as complementary PTSD therapies may also minimize ADHD symptoms by reducing overlapping trauma responses like hyperarousal and irritability.

While more research is needed, successfully treating PTSD appears to reduce some ADHD behaviors, likely by addressing shared underlying brain changes. However, medication side effects can also worsen ADHD symptoms. A comprehensive treatment plan tailored for both conditions is key.

Should Someone be Evaluated for ADHD After PTSD Diagnosis?

The link between PTSD and ADHD makes a thorough ADHD assessment important after a PTSD diagnosis. Someone with PTSD should be evaluated for ADHD if they exhibit:

  • Childhood history of ADHD symptoms – peeks before age 12.
  • Ongoing significant inattention, hyperactivity, or impulsivity early in life rather than just after trauma exposure.
  • Family history of ADHD suggesting a genetic predisposition.
  • ADHD medication side effects like agitation and restlessness.
  • No improvement in ADHD-like symptoms with PTSD treatment.

A comprehensive ADHD evaluation includes:

  • Clinical interview about current and childhood symptoms.
  • Discussion of family history.
  • Input from family, school, or work to assess symptoms across settings.
  • Validated ADHD behavior rating scales.
  • Cognitive testing to identify executive functioning deficits common in ADHD.
  • Evaluation of possible co-occurring conditions like depression, PTSD, learning disabilities.

Distinguishing ADHD from overlapping PTSD symptoms can be challenging. But identifying co-occurring ADHD is key for developing an effective, tailored treatment plan addressing both conditions.

ADHD and PTSD Comorbidity Treatment Considerations

When ADHD and PTSD co-occur, treating one condition can often improve the other. But a comprehensive, integrated treatment approach addressing both disorders is ideal.


Trauma-focused CBT simultaneously tackles PTSD while teaching ADHD coping skills. Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) helps manage ADHD emotional dysregulation often heightened by PTSD.


Stimulants like methylphenidate (Ritalin) effectively reduce ADHD symptoms but can potentially worsen PTSD anxiety. Long-acting formulations or non-stimulants like atomoxetine (Strattera) may be safer options. Antidepressants and antipsychotics for PTSD should be carefully monitored for ADHD-like side effects.

Mind-Body Approaches

Relaxation techniques like mindfulness, meditation, yoga, deep breathing, and exercise help counteract both ADHD and PTSD hyperarousal. Neurofeedback aims to normalize brain wave patterns disrupted in both disorders.


Teaching individuals with ADHD and PTSD about each disorder helps them distinguish symptoms. This enables better self-monitoring and more prompt reporting of medication side effects or residual symptoms needing adjustment.

Lifestyle Changes

Stress management, limiting stimulant intake, proper sleep habits, and maintaining a structured routine benefit ADHD and PTSD recovery. Social support groups can also help cope with the challenges of the comorbidity.

With careful assessment and an individualized treatment plan, the symptoms of co-occurring ADHD and PTSD can be successfully improved.

Table Summarizing Key Points on ADHD and PTSD Link

Issue Summary of Findings
ADHD rates in those with PTSD Multiple studies show higher rates of ADHD symptoms and diagnosis in those with PTSD compared to general population or trauma-exposed individuals without PTSD.
PTSD rates in those with ADHD Studies indicate higher rates of trauma, PTSD symptoms, and PTSD diagnosis in individuals with ADHD vs those without ADHD.
Childhood trauma and adult ADHD History of childhood trauma from abuse, loss, neglect, or household dysfunction is linked to 2 to 5 times higher risk of being diagnosed with ADHD in adulthood.
PTSD medication side effects Some medications used for PTSD like SSRIs, SNRIs, and atypical antipsychotics can worsen or trigger ADHD behaviors as side effects.
PTSD treatment and ADHD symptoms Successfully treating PTSD with psychotherapy, medications, or other approaches may minimize overlapping ADHD inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.
ADHD screening with PTSD Assessing for history of childhood ADHD symptoms, ADHD-like medication side effects, family history, and symptoms across settings is important to identify co-occurring ADHD in PTSD patients.


The link between PTSD and ADHD is complex but the body of evidence suggests PTSD could potentially trigger the development or exacerbation of ADHD symptoms in some individuals. Childhood trauma also appears to be a risk factor for ADHD later in life. The disorders share common brain changes and symptoms that likely underlie their frequent comorbidity. Successful PTSD treatment may minimize overlapping ADHD behaviors, though medications can sometimes worsen ADHD as a side effect. Careful screening for ADHD is important in the PTSD population for timely diagnosis and effective management of both conditions. With a tailored, multidisciplinary treatment approach, the symptoms of co-occurring PTSD and ADHD can often be improved. More research is still needed to clarify the causal relationship and mechanisms between PTSD and ADHD. But the current evidence points to important clinical considerations for optimal treatment when the two disorders co-occur.