Confusing Symptoms of Stress and Depression for Adult ADHD

If you suffer from depression and stress, you're not alone: more than 17 million Americans of all ages, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds experience depression.

If you're an adult with ADHD, research shows that you have three times the risk of suffering from major depression, and more than seven times the risk of suffering from dysthymia, or chronic low-level depression.

Researchers believe depression is more common among adults with ADHD because the same neurobiological systems in the brain that control mood also control attention. Another prominent theory holds that the relationship between ADHD and depression may result from the many social and interpersonal difficulties experienced by children and adults with the disorder.

Is It Depression or Adult ADHD?

It takes a professional familiar with both conditions to differentiate between depression and adult ADHD. Both are marked by moodiness, forgetfulness, an inability to pay attention, a lack of motivation, and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Complicating matters is the fact that many medications used to treat adult ADHD may also increase symptoms of depression.

Although it can be hard to generalize, experts say, people suffering from depression tend to feel dark and gloomy for weeks or months at a time, while people suffering from adult ADHD are more likely to experience transient feelings of depression in response to specific situation or setbacks.


While no one is sure why adults with ADHD tend to be moody, grumpy, depressed, and pessimistic, scientists today believe the ADHD “downer personality” may be the result of neurological dysfunctions in the brain combined with a patient's emotional response to repeated failure, frustration, and disappointment in life.

Another marked difference between depression and adult ADHD is that people who are clinically depressed usually don't have the energy to make a move. Adults with ADHD, on the other hand, often feel too overwhelmed or befuddled to know what to do first.

There are also some subtle differences in the way depression and adult ADHD affect sleep. While both conditions cause insomnia, depressed people usually fall asleep easily but awaken several times a night with anxious, racing thoughts. Adults with ADHD, on the other hand, often have trouble falling asleep because their minds are racing or they are obsessing about something.

Primary and Secondary Depression

Primary depression appears to strike out of nowhere and lingers for weeks or months. Unlike secondary depression, it also appears to be an inherited disorder. Secondary depression is usually a response to the sort of chronic failures, disappointments, and frustrations many adults with ADHD routinely experience at work, in their marriage and friendships, and in social situations.

Depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a mood disorder associated with depression and related to seasonal variations in light. SAD affects up to 20 percent of the population living in states with harsh winter conditions, and may disproportionately affect adults with ADHD. SAD is believed to be caused by an overproduction of melatonin, a sleep-related hormone secreted by the brain at increased levels in the dark and believed to cause symptoms of depression.

The most difficult months for adults with ADHD are January and February, and younger people and women appear to be at higher risk. Treatment to suppress the brain's secretion of melatonin ranges from phototherapy, or bright light therapy, to spending more time outdoors during daylight hours.

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