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  • Writer's pictureRyan Witkowski

Unraveling the Threads of Dysfunction: Exploring the Intersection of ADHD and Trauma

Updated: Apr 8

In the realm of mental health, understanding the root causes of dysfunction can be as complex as the human mind itself. Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) has long been a subject of discussion, typically framed as a neurodevelopmental disorder marked by inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. However, emerging perspectives, particularly those influenced by the work of thinkers like Dr. Gabor Maté, are shifting this narrative towards a more nuanced understanding that intertwines with the concept of trauma, especially small 't' traumas. This article aims to delve into this intersection, exploring how trauma can mimic or contribute to symptoms typically attributed to ADHD, and what this means for individuals seeking clarity amidst life's dysfunctions.

Understanding ADHD

Traditionally, ADHD is characterized by a pattern of behavior that includes difficulty maintaining attention, challenges in task initiation, impulsive control and hyperactivity. Hyperactivity can however look less like what you think of hyperactivity and more like fidgeting, nail biting, leg bouncing and so on. These symptoms often manifest in childhood and can persist into adulthood, affecting every facet of life—from academic achievement and professional success to social interactions and personal relationships.

The neurobiological underpinnings of ADHD have been extensively studied. Research points to irregularities in certain brain regions, particularly the prefrontal cortex, which is integral to executive functions like focusing attention, controlling impulses, and organizing tasks. Neurotransmitters, particularly involving dopamine—a chemical messenger associated with reward and motivation—and norepinephrine, which is linked to alertness and arousal, also play a significant role.

But what if these symptoms are not just the result of a neurodevelopmental disorder and genetics? The fact is there are rare exceptions in which genetics determine disease or a disorder(Huntington's Disease for Example). How genes manifest themselves is heavily dependent on various environmental factors and what we can ADHD is no exceptionWhat if they are, in some cases, a response to trauma?

The Trauma Perspective

Trauma, particularly psychological trauma, encompasses a wide range of experiences. It can include not only the obvious, life-threatening events (big 'T' traumas) but also the smaller, more personal incidents (small 't' traumas) that deeply impact an individual's emotional well-being. These smaller traumas might not seem significant in isolation but can accumulate over time, leading to substantial psychological distress. When this happens it is knows as complex PTSD.

The word “trauma” is so prevalent today that in some ways it has lost its meaning. So lets explain what trauma is at its core. Trauma is a wound. If you fall and scrape your elbow there is a wound where you can clearly look and say “I have been hurt”. Emotional or mental trauma is no different. Every single living human has been hurt emotionally, mentally or spiritually on some level. However, when you fall and scrape your elbow it doesn't say anything about or that wound does not say anything about who you are as a person whereas emotional wounds often begin to create a personal narrative about ourselves or beliefs about ourselves. Emotional wounds, unlike the elbow can be more subtly poked again and again. With emotional trauma it is not what happens to you, it is what happens inside of you as a result of what happens to you. In other words the story ( aware or not ) that we begin to tell ourselves about ourselves and the world around us.

Dr. Gabor Maté, a renowned expert in addiction, stress, and childhood development, argues that many mental health disorders, including ADHD, are inextricably linked to our emotional experiences and traumas, particularly those in early childhood. According to Maté, these traumas, even the small 't' ones, can leave a lasting imprint on our mental functioning.

The ADHD-Trauma Overlap

The symptoms of trauma, particularly complex PTSD, bear a striking resemblance to those of ADHD. As stated before you may look at complex PTSD as recurring “small t” traumas. Individuals with PTSD often exhibit heightened vigilance, difficulty concentrating, impulsiveness, and trouble with emotional/nervous system regulation or emotional tolerance—symptoms that closely align with ADHD.

Neurobiologically, the response of a trauma-impacted brain shares similarities with the ADHD brain. Chronic stress and trauma can disrupt the same neural pathways and neurotransmitters involved in ADHD, particularly those linked to attention regulation and impulse control in the prefrontal cortex.

What if what we've been diagnosing as ADHD in some individuals is actually a response to unresolved trauma? The hyperactivity seen in ADHD could be a manifestation of the hyperarousal state of PTSD. Similarly, the inattention characteristic of ADHD might mirror the disassociation and numbness that can result from trauma, as both are a way of tuning out.This article is not the forum to expound on the similarities in manifestation of PTSD and ADHD however it is worthy of further discussion. The comorbidity between ADHD and PTSD/Complex PTSD is significant.

The Role of Small 'T' Traumas

Small 't' traumas are seemingly minor but deeply impactful experiences that don't necessarily involve physical harm or life-threatening situations. These could include ongoing emotional neglect, verbal abuse, or living in a chronically stressful environment (such as depressed or stressed caretakers or simply parents who themselves have challenges with regulating themselves emotionally). Unlike big 'T' traumas, which are typically one-time events, small 't' traumas can occur repeatedly over an extended period, leading to a cumulative effect on mental health.

The constant state of stress and hyperarousal caused by these small 't' traumas can lead to symptoms that mirror those of ADHD. For instance, a child growing up in an emotionally unpredictable household may develop heightened vigilance and impulsivity as adaptive responses. Over time, these adaptive responses can become ingrained leading to all of the hallmarks symptoms of ADHD.

Misdiagnosis and Misunderstanding

The overlap in symptoms between ADHD and trauma responses raises concerns about potential misdiagnoses. If a person's inattention or hyperactivity is actually a response to trauma, then treating it solely as ADHD may not only be ineffective but could also overlook the underlying trauma that needs to be addressed or the ways in which past trauma are showing up in the present.

This misdiagnosis can significantly impact treatment and support. Traditional ADHD treatments, such as stimulant medications, might not be beneficial in the long term for someone whose symptoms are rooted in trauma. In such cases, a trauma-informed approach to treatment is crucial.

Implications for Treatment

Understanding the connection between ADHD symptoms and trauma can drastically change our approach to treatment. For individuals whose symptoms are related to trauma, therapies like Somatic Therapies, Internal Family Systems or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) might be more effective.

This approach doesn't negate the validity of ADHD as a neurodevelopmental condition but highlights the need for a thorough evaluation of an individual's life history and experiences when diagnosing and treating ADHD-like symptoms. It emphasizes the importance of a holistic approach in mental health care that considers the intricate interplay between our environment, experiences, and biological makeup and more so the individual and the varying contexts of a life.

Moving Forward

For those grappling with symptoms of inattention, mood swings, poor task initiation, follow-through, nervous system regulation, constant relationship conflicts, impulsivity, hyperactivity and so on, exploring the possibility of trauma can be a crucial step. It involves not only working with a therapist or psychologist  but also self-exploration and reflection on past experiences.

Lifestyle changes, mindfulness practices, and community support/friendships can complement professional therapy. However, the journey is highly personal and varies from one individual to another. It's about finding a path that resonates with one's unique experiences and needs.

The exploration of the ADHD-trauma connection is more than an academic exercise or scrolling through social media; it's a vital step towards understanding and addressing the complexities of mental health. It challenges us to look beyond conventional diagnoses and consider the broader tapestry of our lives and experiences. In doing so, we open up new avenues for healing, understanding, and ultimately, thriving.


At Root Counseling, we work with clients who experience complex trauma and also symptoms of ADHD and executive dysfunction. To schedule a session with one of our therapists, you can visit us here. 

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