In a recent posting to the online community Support for Adult ADHD, a member said, “Stress makes my ADHD worse, and on top of that, when my ADHD is not under control, it creates even more stress.”
Already, people are feeling stressed out about the holiday season. Halloween is only two weeks away. In addition, some families have received progress reports from school, and the thought of having to help a struggling child can be overwhelming.
Families who are dealing with ADHD symptoms often experience generalized stress. This is true whether the child has ADHD or is an adult.
Is it possible that ADHD symptoms cause you to feel more stressed than usual? Conversely, does feeling stressed make ADHD symptoms worse?
Desiree Weems Murray is a senior research scientist and associate director of research at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, University of North Carolina. She is also a CHADD professional advisory board member. Dr Murray believes we should think of ADHD as stress.
She says, “That relationship is complicated.” There is likely to be a bidirectional or multidirectional relationship between ADHD and stress.
Stress can exacerbate ADHD symptoms. Research supports the experiences of our forum members.
“When someone claims that stress is making their symptoms worse, I believe there are several examples in the literature that support this,” says Dr Murray. “I have heard many stories about how ADHD symptoms can cause stress. I believe that this is true.”
Research on stress and ADHD symptoms
Researchers are looking into the link between ADHD and stress. According to the American Institute of Stress, most adults feel stressed by various life situations—73 per cent of those who report psychological symptoms and 77% of those reporting physical symptoms.
Researchers note in the Journal of Attention Disorders that ADHD is associated with stress. This is especially true for adults who have the Inattentive Presentation. Chronic stress can worsen symptoms and cause chemical and structural changes in the brain, affecting its ability to function. Researchers note in Nature Neuroscience that stress can affect the prefrontal cortex, the same part of the brain where ADHD is present. Stress reduces neuronal activity and affects cognitive abilities.
According to Dr Murray, research has repeatedly shown that stress can cause brain changes. The brain’s executive functioning is affected, which can be seen as a reduction in the ability to manage emotions and organize information.
She says, “We can see effects on the brain over time, particularly when stress levels are at a level we would consider toxic, chronic or traumatic.” It is the size and structure of specific brain sections and brain function of brain chemicals. The cognitive ability to make decisions, set goals and solve problems is reduce. These are all things that we associate with cognitive self-regulation.
Dr Murray says that combined stress and ADHD can cause personal relationships to suffer. This includes marriages and partnerships going through turbulent times. The person is often irritable and says things they should not.
She says, “These things can cause stress and damage relationships.” The person will then experience negative feedback and rejection. So it is a vicious cycle.
Find a middle ground between stressed and able.
What can you do to reduce the impact of stress on ADHD symptoms and manage it better?
Dr Murray believes it is essential to tackle both the cognitive and emotional challenges. Stress can reduced by using techniques such as deep breathing and mindfulness. By automating daily life and limiting the number of decisions you must make, routines and systems will help minimize stress.
You can find solutions to problems by examining the situation critically after you have calmed down. Dr Murray recommends asking yourself whether there are any ways to improve the situation or if it is due to a mismatch between your skills and what is require.
She says that one thing to consider for adults with ADHD is matching their strengths and skills with their work and job situations.
You can also reduce stress by incorporating exercise into your daily routine and developing hobbies. In addition, working with your partner or co-parent can help you relax more by allowing time for yourself.
It may be beneficial to talk with your doctor if stress persists or if it worsens ADHD symptoms. Stress can managed by making changes to your treatment plan or lifestyle. You may also consult additional health professionals.