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  • Writer's pictureEmily Smith

Adult ADHD and Complex Trauma - is there a link?

Updated: Sep 25, 2023

In the realm of mental health, there is often an intricate and nuanced relationship between diagnoses or conditions and experiences that on the surface, may seem unrelated entirely. Sometimes, what looks like one thing is actually something else. Sometimes it's both. The connection between Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD/ADD) and experiences of childhood trauma is a connection that is growing in research. Exploring their relationship and impact on one another could be a powerful lens to look through and for those struggling with either one or both of these challenges, is perhaps a lens that you haven't looked through yet.


Adult ADHD: Beyond the Stereotype

ADHD is not merely the childhood "hyperactive" disorder that some may picture. Many think of the young child that can't stop talking, or has the hardest time sitting still no matter how many times they're told. In adults, ADHD can manifest differently and include symptoms like impulsivity, inattention, and difficulties with executive functions. It can look like perpetual disorganization and messiness. A mental fog or "zoning out" that just keeps getting in the way. It's difficult to complete projects at home or work. You've been told you're "scatterbrained." Many adults with ADHD remain undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, and the condition can significantly impact various facets of life.


Complex Childhood Trauma: A Heavy Legacy

Complex childhood trauma encompasses a wide range of adverse experiences, including emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, neglect, or extended exposure to distressing circumstances. These experiences, or sometimes lack of experiences, can have far-reaching effects on a person's emotional and psychological well-being, shaping their adult life in profound ways. In Gabor Maté's book, Scattered Minds: The Origin and Healing of Attention Deficit Disorder, he writes, "either nothing happened worth remembering, or too much happened that it is too hurtful for you to recall." While this particular book doesn't deny that genes also play a role in attention deficit disorders, it also takes a look at the interplay between repetitive painful experiences in childhood and ADD/ADHD. Research does tell us that repetitive painful experiences of childhood have the power to initiate the brain's defense mechanisms that, over time, can become hindrances to a person.


How Childhood Trauma and Adult ADHD Overlap


Emotional Dysregulation: Both childhood trauma and adult ADHD can lead to difficulties in managing and regulating emotions. Individuals with ADHD may experience intense emotions and mood swings, while trauma survivors might have heightened emotional reactivity and difficulty controlling their feelings.


Impulsivity: Impulsivity is a common trait in ADHD, but it can also manifest in individuals with complex childhood trauma. Survivors may engage in impulsive behaviors as a way to cope with their emotional distress or as a response to their traumatic experiences.


Executive Functioning Challenges: ADHD often involves difficulties with executive functions, which encompass skills like planning, organizing, and prioritizing tasks. Individuals with complex trauma may also face executive functioning challenges due to the impact of their traumatic experiences, which can include issues like disorganization or difficulty following through on tasks.


Relationship Struggles: Both conditions can affect relationships. Adults with ADHD might struggle with communication, attentiveness, or follow-through, while trauma survivors may grapple with trust issues, attachment difficulties, and difficulties forming healthy connections.


Coping and Healing

If you or someone you love is struggling with any of the points made above, acknowledging the intersection of adult ADHD and childhood trauma can be a pivotal step toward understanding and addressing these challenges. Here are some strategies for coping and healing:

  1. Professional Support: Seek guidance from mental health professionals who are experienced in both ADHD and trauma. They can help you navigate the complexities of your experiences and develop strategies for managing symptoms and fostering healing.

  2. Medication and Therapy: For some individuals with ADHD, medication may be a helpful tool in managing symptoms. Therapy, such as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and Brainspotting can be effective for processing trauma and developing coping skills.

  3. Self-Care: Prioritize self-care practices, including establishing routines, practicing mindfulness, engaging in physical activity, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. These can support your mental and emotional well-being.

  4. Education: Learn more about ADHD and complex childhood trauma to gain insight into your experiences and the available strategies for managing them.

The link between adult ADHD and complex childhood trauma is a complex and often challenging one to navigate. However, by recognizing and addressing this intersection, you empower yourself to embark on a path of self-discovery and healing. Remember, you are not defined by these challenges; you are defined by your resilience, your capacity for growth, and your journey towards well-being. Seek support, practice self-compassion, and embrace the unique tapestry of your experiences. You have the strength to overcome and thrive.


Figuring out what are signs of ADHD or signs of trauma

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