7 Tips for Living With ADHD and Coexisting Conditions

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There is a saying that "ADHD rarely travels alone," which means that if you have ADHD, you might be living with one or more conditions, too. 

The official term for having more than one condition is comorbidity. However, that can sound a little sinister, so the term coexist is often used instead to describe a person with more than one condition at the same time.

There are many conditions that can coexist with ADHD.

Here is a list of 10 common ones:

  • anxiety disorders
  • a mood disorder for example, a depressive or bipolar disorder
  • substance-related or addictive disorders
  • learning disorder such as dyslexia
  • sleep disorder
  • oppositional defiant disorder
  • autism spectrum disorder
  • antisocial personality disorder
  • borderline personality disorder
  • sensory processing disorder

Although it might seem depressing to know you could have more than one health condition, knowing exactly what you have puts you in a position of power because you can then seek the right treatment and get relief from symptoms that could have been troubling you for years.

How Do You Know If You Have More Than One Condition?

Sometimes your doctor might be able to detect more than one condition right away. However, each person is different and how one person experiences ADHD with a coexisting condition is unique and different to another person with the same two conditions.

This can make diagnosing conditions challenging for your doctor.

Often a second condition is uncovered while you are being treated for one health issue but are not experiencing the relief you or your doctor were expecting. Many of the common conditions that coexist with ADHD can affect attention too, so it makes diagnosis challenging.

Imagine if a woman in her early 30s had undiagnosed inattentive ADHD and decided to seek help. She might describe her symptoms to the doctor as poor concentration, difficulty sleeping, low motivation to do tasks and that she was feeling inadequate and worthless. Those symptoms sound very much like depression. A prescription of antidepressants and therapy might help a little with the symptoms if the woman had depression and ADHD.

However, in her follow-up appointment she may report that she was still facing many challenges, and the doctor may order more tests. This is how an ADHD diagnosis might be discovered. 

Uncovering coexisting conditions might sound like a lengthy process; however, it is much better to gradually get one accurate diagnosis, followed by another accurate diagnosis, than to be diagnosed incorrectly. An incorrect diagnosis can lead to years of frustration because you aren’t getting the relief from symptoms that are causing problems in your life no matter how carefully you are following the treatment plan.

Here are seven suggestions for recognizing and living with coexisting conditions:

1) Get a Detailed ADHD Diagnosis

Have you had an official ADHD diagnosis? If not, that is a great first step. Some adults with ADHD have self-diagnosed themselves based on research they have done on the web. Others describe their symptoms to their family doctor and are diagnosed this way. While these diagnoses could be accurate,  getting more formal testing for ADHD will allow the clinician to not only be better able to tell you if you have ADHD but also allow them to identify if your ADHD symptoms are caused or made worse by another condition.

One of the criteria for diagnosing ADHD is that "the symptoms aren’t due to another condition."  

It takes an experienced clinician many hours to diagnose ADHD. They piece together information about you from your medical history,  your family's medical history, old school records, questionnaires filled out by your parents (if they are still alive), and by asking you questions about your current life. 

You might also be asked to have neuropsychological testing, which focuses on evaluating various cognitive functions. The diagnosis is often done over several appointments to ensure that you are fresh and alert.

While this process takes time and is expensive, it provides valuable information to you about the nature of your ADHD and whether you have other coexisting conditions that need further investigation. It might also reveal learning disabilities that might otherwise have gone undetected.  

2) Be Self-Aware

Different co-existing conditions are more likely to appear at different ages in your life. 

For example, one study found the most common coexisting conditions in children with ADHD aged between 7 and 9 were oppositional defiant disorder, anxiety disorder, and conduct disorder. The risk for a mood disorder was just 4 percent for a child, but another study found that rate increased to 38.3 percent in adulthood. 

This might sound worrying; however, if you are aware of this information you can use it to your advantage. If you notice any symptoms that are new for you, you can report these changes to your doctor. Balance is important, too! While early detection of new symptoms is great, we don’t want to become obsessed with our health either.

3) Don’t Get Attached to a Number

Some people block out the idea that they could have another condition because they already have "x" and that feels enough. For example, a person might have been diagnosed with ADHD and a learning disability as a child. In their 20s, they developed an anxiety disorder. Then, one day as they are surfing on the web they find an article about Asperger’s, and it is like the article was describing them personally. Suddenly, the missing piece of the puzzle to their life has been found and everything makes sense. However, they don't pursue this information further or mention it to their doctor because having another condition would, in their mind, be too many. But don’t get attached to the  number of conditions you have. Instead, focus on getting the help you need for each symptom.

4) Worried About Being Called a Hypochondriac?

Some people with ADHD and other coexisting conditions  worry that people might think they are a hypochondriac, or are "collecting" conditions. You aren’t. Doctors understand that certain medical conditions often come in clusters. If you are concerned what other people think, remember you are under no obligation to tell anyone about your medical information. Trust only people who are supportive and understanding.

5) Tell Your Doctors 

Tell each of your doctors about all your conditions even if you think it doesn’t apply to their specialty. It is helpful to them in many ways including for making a new diagnosis and when prescribing new medication. For example, if you have an addiction, anxiety or bipolar disorder, your doctor may decide  that a non-stimulant would be a better option for your ADHD than a stimulant medication. When your doctors are fully informed, they can give you the best treatment for your unique situation. This, in turn, helps you feel better faster. 

6) Get a Second Opinion

If you feel your doctor is missing something, it is OK to reach out and get a second opinion. It can feel disloyal, but each doctor is knowledgeable about different symptoms. A new doctor might notice something that had gone previously undetected.

7) Empower Yourself

If you have one or more health conditions, it can feel like they are taking over your life. However, there are some actions you can to do to empower yourself to help treat and manage your symptoms in addition to medical recommendations. For example, these including taking an omega-3 supplement, exercising regularly, having a structured sleep pattern, and eating a clean diet with fresh fruit and vegetables. These actions will help ADHD symptoms and other coexisting conditions, such as anxiety and depression, and are great for long-term health.

Sources:

Kessler RC, Adler L, Barkely R, et al. The prevalence and correlates of adult ADHD in the United States:Results from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. American Journal of Psychiatry. 2006;163 (4), 716-723.

Kessler RC, Adler LA, Ustun TB, et al. Patterns and predictors of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder persistence into adulthood.Results from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Biological Psychiatry, 2005; 57(11), 1442-1451.

Jensen PS, Hinshaw SP, Kraemer HC, et al. ADHD comorbidity findings from the MTA study: Comparing comorbid subgroups. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry2001;40(2), 147-158.

Stephen P, Hinshaw KE. What Everyone Needs to Know, Oxford University Press, 2016.

Tuckman A, Integrative Treatment for Adult ADHD, New Harbinger publications, Inc. 2007.

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