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What Could It Be: ADHD or Anxiety?

By February 6, 2023Nesca Notes 2023

By: Cynthia Hess, PsyD
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

Many of my clients find NESCA after experiencing years of difficulty, whether at school, at home, or in the community. They have often been evaluated previously but still do not clearly understand what underlies their challenges. When clients struggle for years, they have often received a variety of diagnoses. The DSM-V provides diagnostic criteria that label a person’s experience due to developmental concerns, learning differences, or psychiatric problems. In essence, diagnoses are a simplified way to describe complex, ever-changing, multi-layered differences and are difficult to pin down with a single term. One of the most challenging diagnoses for a neuropsychologist to make, and a person to live with, is attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

ADHD is diagnosed when an individual displays difficulty directing and sustaining their attention to the extent that it negatively affects functioning across multiple domains. They may be distracted by internal processes resulting in daydreaming or struggle to filter incoming sensory information in the environment. For example, sounds, lights, and feeling too hot or cold. Because the regulatory part of their brain is not fully developed, they are more likely to become distracted. ADHD can be tricky, though, because there are many other explanations for why someone struggles with attention that may seem like ADHD but are not. This article focuses on similarities and differences between ADHD and anxiety in children.

When a child is anxious or stressed, whether about getting a good grade, disappointing a teacher or parent, or how he/she is getting home after school, this takes her mind off instruction, work, and social interactions. The result is inattention, but not due to ADHD. Individuals with anxiety may hyperfocus on worry, limiting attention to other information. Furthermore, it is common for children with ADHD to experience anxiety; however, it is most often a consequence of poor attention regulation rather than a cause of inattention. Both conditions can be associated with procrastination, but the basis for delaying work differs. The child with ADHD may struggle with initiating a task, while the child with anxiety may be preoccupied with anticipation about how well she will perform. At times, anxiety and ADHD present so similarly that it can be difficult to distinguish one from the other.

As you can see from the graphic below, there is a tremendous overlap in symptoms between ADHD and anxiety, making a comprehensive evaluation necessary to make an informed diagnosis.

Humans are complex, and a single diagnosis rarely captures their emotional and behavioral challenges.



Essentials of ADHD Assessment for Children and Adolescents, First Edition, by Elizabeth P. Sparrow and Drew Erhardt, Wiley, 2014


About the Author

Dr. Cynthia Hess graduated from Rivier University with a PsyD in Counseling and School Psychology. Previously, she earned an M.A. from Antioch New England in Applied Psychology. She also worked as an elementary school counselor and school psychologist for 15 years before embarking on her doctorate. During her doctorate, she did her pre-doctoral internship with RIT in Rochester, N.Y. where she worked with youth ages 5-17 who had experienced complex developmental trauma. Dr. Hess’s first post-doctoral fellowship was with The Counseling Center of New England where she provided psychotherapy and family therapy to children ages 5-18, their families and young adults. She also trained part-time with a pediatric neuropsychologist conducting neuropsychological evaluations.


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Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email or call 617-658-9800.