Understanding the differences between ADHD and Anxiety and how that can impact your weight loss journey.
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Anxiety can look very similar on the surface. Both have some overlapping symptoms, such as trouble concentrating and restlessness. However, they are different and can have varying effects on a person’s ability to stay motivated in their weight loss/healthcare journey. Let’s look at each individually and then how they can affect the weight loss journey.
ADHD is a neurobiological and mental health condition that impacts your ability to concentrate and focus and can interfere with functioning and development. While ADHD is most commonly diagnosed in childhood, it is often missed in adults. Symptoms of ADHD in adults include trouble focusing on a task, being forgetful, issues with organization and prioritization, restlessness and fidgeting, conversational roadblocks, impulsive actions, procrastination, emotional dysregulation.
“Studies have found that ADHD is associated with weaker function and structure of prefrontal cortex (PFC) circuits, especially in the right hemisphere. The prefrontal cortex plays a crucial role in regulating attention, behavior, and emotion, with the right hemisphere specialized for behavioral inhibition.” (3)
Anxiety is a mental health condition characterized by excessive apprehensiveness about real or perceived threats. This can often lead to avoidance of certain behavior and severe physical symptoms. Symptoms can include difficulty focusing, problems with sleep, excessive worry, fear, stress, and irritability. Worry, tension, and/or fear are all symptoms of anxiety and are also a very normal part of the human experience. In fact, anxiety is a natural, healthy, and primitive reaction to help us avoid danger and to keep us safe in various scenarios. Nearly all of us have felt concerned about a scenario and listened to that internal feeling (or voice in their head that told them no) and made a decision based on that “gut feeling,” later to find out that they avoided something dangerous/unhealthy. This is what our body is supposed to do to keep up safe and accountable. However, when that anxious state/feeling becomes a baseline/normal, it is unhealthy and can be debilitating. When the anxiety prohibits you from completing everyday tasks or functioning and creates a feeling of dread and fear that prohibits you from moving forward, this then becomes when support from professionals is needed.
Many of the symptoms someone feels with ADHD can cause anxiety, compounding the symptoms and making it difficult to see the difference. Anxiety, however, cannot cause ADHD. A person can also present with similar symptoms due to their learned ability to cope with symptoms, support systems, and their willingness to seek help.
“Here’s a table summarizing the main symptoms of ADHD and anxiety. 
|Feelings of restlessness and trouble relaxing||✔||✔|
|Problems with sleep||✔||✔|
|Short attention span and easily distracted||✔||X|
|Being forgetful and misplacing things||✔||X|
|Inability to prioritize, organize, and plan||✔||X|
|Unable to sit still and constantly fidgeting||✔||X|
|Being unable to wait your turn||✔||X|
|Impending sense of doom or danger||X||✔|
|Constantly feeling nervous, tense, and on edge||X||✔|
|Rapid breathing or fast heart rate||X||✔|
|Sweating and trembling||X||✔|
|Trouble controlling feelings of worry||X||✔”|
How does this impact our weight/health journey?
Research shows (70%) of those with ADHD find it harder to lose weight because they may have a hard time keeping track of the food they eat, forgetting to eat then binging or they may eat mindlessly while doing another activity. Due to the executive function deficits in a person diagnosed with ADHD, it makes it harder for a person to consistently plan out and execute healthy food routines. Impulsivity that sometimes accompanies ADHD makes it hard to resist appealing food options in the moment. A person with ADHD is programmed to look externally for stimulation due to poor interoceptive awareness (ability to read internal body cues such as hunger, fatigue); this miswiring can be confusing, and thirst can be confused with hunger..
“Low levels of neurotransmitters: ADHD is a neurological condition traced back to the brain’s neurotransmitters. The chemicals dopamine and GABA (the primary neurotransmitter in the brain) exist in insufficient amounts in the brains of people with ADHD. Dopamine regulates and promotes arousal; low levels of dopamine result in an under-aroused, “bored” brain. GABA controls inhibition. A person with adequate levels of these neurotransmitters can typically stop himself from eating an entire box of cookies. Someone with low levels does not receive the brain signals alerting him to potential long-term harm — the brain focuses only on how delicious (and stimulating) the cookies are right now.” (8)
Symptoms of ADHD and Anxiety both include poor sleep hygiene, which is directly related to combating obesity. “Sleep deprivation slows down metabolism, particularly that of carbohydrates. Your body holds on to fat and burns fewer calories. In addition, when our bodies are deprived of sleep, a hormone called leptin decreases. This deficiency increases your appetite and makes you feel less satisfied after eating a meal or a snack. Another hormone called ghrelin, which increases your appetite, rises.” (7). While the research is still inconclusive on if Anxiety causes obesity or obesity causes Anxiety, what is clear is there is a correlation, and the conditions are comorbid. We know that when a person feels anxious, they seek comfort in food and other activities to alleviate the bothersome feelings. Due to weight stigma and shame that is prevalent in our society at large, a person in a larger body has a much higher likelihood to feel anxiety surrounding their appearance and or social scenarios. There is a higher prevalence of social phobia and anxiety for persons who live in a larger body.
How to support your healthy weight when impacted by ADHD or Anxiety:
- Find a routine that you can live by such as: meal planning and/or prepping on Sunday for the week.
- Plan for adequate sleep
- Get treatment for your ADHD and or Anxiety: reach out to your BH provider at CL for support and treatment
Seeking Treatment and How CorelIfe Can Help
Finding a professional that can help triage your symptoms and come up with a treatment plan is vital to recovery. The most common treatment for both ADHD and Anxiety is a combination of medication and therapy. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the gold standard of treatment for both of these conditions. The root cause and the focus of the CBT can vary depending on the diagnosis. In addition, medications are VERY different for ADHD than they are for Anxiety. If misprescribed, certain medications can trigger an increase in symptoms of either condition. For example, a stimulant and or amphetamines such as Ritalin or Adderall are usually prescribed for ADHD, and giving a stimulant/Amphetamine to a person with Anxiety (who doesn’t have the disrupted neural pathways that a person with ADHD does) will increase their anxiety symptoms exponentially.
At CoreLife, our Behavioral Health specialists will be able to listen to your concerns and create a plan for you to focus on bettering mental health as it relates to your weight loss journey. They can assist with therapy, motivation, and accountability. Mental health issues don’t have to stand in the way of your weight loss and healthcare goals.
ADD vs Anxiety (2)
ADHD in Women (4)
Adult ADHD (6)
ADHD and Obesity (8)