Four Signs of Trauma that might be confused with AD/HD

Written By Connie Zollner, PsyD, LMHC, CCPS-C

When you think about someone experiencing trauma, incidents such as a violent sexual assault or terrible car accident might come to mind.  There are other, more subtle forms of trauma that can also negatively affect our lives and hinder our relationships. Emotional trauma is often overlooked and minimized and sometimes it can even be misinterpreted as something else. 


A break up, being passed over for a promotion at work, or even a somewhat “insignificant” but negative childhood experience can cause emotional trauma. Many of us are familiar with the hallmark signs of a trauma reaction; sweating, flashbacks, racing heart, nightmares, and physical reactivity. However, subtle trauma symptoms can also resemble or be experienced as Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) traits. Unless you’re skilled at identifying the difference between the two, you may think that you are struggling to cope with signs of AD/HD when what may actually be true is that you are struggling to cope with trauma. In order to get the right treatment and address your distress, it is important to know the difference. 


Here are four ways that trauma symptoms and AD/HD can look similar. 


1. Overwhelm 

Overwhelm can look a lot like sensory issues, challenges with rumination, overstimulation, or executive function challenges. It can even seem to be the result of procrastination issues associated with AD/HD, but trauma can also create anxiety and stress that can cause you to feel overwhelmed in numerous ways. You might feel out of control, like there is too much to do, or that people in your life are taking up too much of your time and attention. You may even feel as though your life has become unmanageable. These could all be signs that you have some unresolved emotional trauma. 

2. Overreacting  

Big emotional reactions are a common feature of AD/HD. A person with AD/HD can be hypersensitive to rejection or really struggle with emotional regulation. But having big unexpected or explosive reaction can also be a symptom of trauma. A victim of trauma might redirect their overwhelming emotions towards others, such as family and friends. Because these undealt with emotions are always bubbling under the surface, any incident that brings feelings forward can unleash these pent-up emotions. If you can recall times when you’ve overreacted, and perhaps have even been surprised at your own reactions, this may be a sign of trauma.

3. Shame 

It’s not uncommon for people with AD/HD to feel shame. Someone with AD/HD might feel like they have to hide or mask their challenges or feel like they are failing no matter how hard they keep trying to meet the expectations of others. But, it’s also not uncommon for someone suffering from emotional trauma to have feelings of shame and self-blame. If you have feelings of shame because of a traumatic event, you may devalue yourself or see yourself as weak. You might fear a stigma from what you endured, and this may prevent you from admitting that you may be traumatized, or prevent you from seeking help.

4. Daydreaming 

Another sign of AD/HD inattention is daydreaming or appearing as though you are lost in thought or not paying attention when being spoken to by others. However, another subtle sign of trauma is “zoning” or “spacing out.” You might feel disconnected from others or have difficulty staying present in social situations. Emotional trauma can cause you to slow down internally, numbing your emotions or causing you to feel exhausted. Because of the trauma you experienced, you may be averse to the expression of painful emotions, so you turn those emotions off. As you withdraw, your relationships with others suffer, causing you further psychological pain.


AD/HD is a specific neurotype. It’s something that a person is born with and is a part of their makeup and the way their brain is wired. Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event. While the challenging aspects of both can be managed or helped, it is important to be clear about which is showing up in your life to have the most optimal results in treatment. It may even be possible that you are experiencing both, which is why it is so important to speak with a well-trained therapist who understands the complexities of both trauma and neurodiversity. 


If you are wondering if you have AD/HD or if what you are experiencing is a result of trauma, important questions to ask yourself are; when did these experiences start? Are they better in some environments and worse in others? Is there a history of AD/HD in my family? Do I fit the other criteria of AD/HD? The answers to these questions can help you determine if what you are experiencing is AD/HD or a more subtle symptom of unresolved trauma. If these subtle signs of trauma seem familiar and you want to explore more about AD/HD and trauma, a caring licensed professional trained to recognize and understand trauma and neurodiversity can help. Take the first step and set up a time to talk more today.



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