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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Barsky

Can Trauma Cause ADHD?

The more we research and understand trauma, the more correlation we find between it and a variety of mental illnesses. Particularly, we link childhood trauma to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and vice versa. There are similar symptoms, and trauma can even amplify symptom severity.

The connection between ADHD and trauma is likely rooted in toxic stress. Prolonged activation of the body’s fight-or-flight system could encourage the brain to create these disorders as a coping mechanism. With this understanding, you can take steps to manage symptoms. You can also start your journey to healing your trauma.

Does Trauma Cause ADHD?

It’s important to understand that trauma does not cause all ADHD. Much of the time, we can attribute attention disorders to other factors like a family history of these disorders. However, a growing body of evidence suggests that some ADHD might have roots in trauma.

Statistics show that attention disorders are more common in people who have experienced trauma. There are a few theories around this. First, let’s look at the overlapping symptoms between trauma, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and ADHD:

  • Difficulty focusing

  • Poor working memory (forgetfulness)

  • Sleeping problems

  • Substance or alcohol abuse

  • Social difficulties, like trouble connecting with other people

  • Frequent emotional dysregulation

ADHD as Protection

It’s possible that ADHD develops as a coping mechanism for traumatic situations, especially in situations where the trauma occurs in childhood. An inability to focus might actually be the mind trying to avoid thinking about a traumatic event. We can say the same about social difficulties.

If your caregivers abused you, it makes sense to your survivor’s mind to avoid people because they might abuse you, or cause you stress that reminds you of the abuse. The specific trauma can largely inform this development, too. These events might include:

  • Car accidents

  • Natural disasters

  • Living with an abuser

  • Death of a loved one

  • Racist or prejudiced violence

  • Being the victim of a crime

  • Witnessing abuse or a crime

  • Neglect

Trauma Because of ADHD

When ADHD and trauma occur at the same time, we call this co-occurring ADHD and trauma. Children might bully someone who has an attention disorder in school for their different way of thinking. These people might feel isolated or lack a feeling of belonging. This amplifies further when they struggle academically or get in trouble with their caregivers for certain behaviors beyond their control.

The stress responses these situations cause might happen so frequently that it heightens the symptoms of ADHD. Our bodies might perceive things that are non-threatening as threats because of habit. This can cause both short and long-term symptoms of PTSD, including:

  • Tense shoulders

  • Clenched jaw

  • Defensiveness, verbal or physical

  • Headaches

  • Nausea

  • Tightness in the chest

  • Difficulty or shallow breathing

  • Feeling light-headed

  • Flashbacks

  • Anxiety

  • Low mood

  • Inability to focus

  • Feeling numb

Trauma-Informed Therapy

More and more, we’re finding that trauma’s impact on mental health is monumental. That’s why it’s so important to find a therapist who practices trauma-informed therapy. Their understanding of the relationship between trauma and ADHD can be pivotal to your healing. This is also the first step in a societal movement—hopefully, one that will help us protect today’s youth from trauma exposure.

A common treatment for trauma, ADHD, attention disorders caused by trauma, and co-occurring ADHD and trauma is somatic psychotherapy. This is a holistic treatment that focuses on the body-mind connection. Essentially, this kind of therapy asks the person to check in with how they feel physically. One type of somatic therapy is IFS therapy. To learn more about if IFS therapy is right for you, click here.

To learn more about trauma treatment, click here. To contact me, click here.


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