Many women with ADHD are first treated for depression — sometimes for years. When depression treatment offers only minimal help, they may seek out other explanations, such as ADHD. If ADHD is the primary diagnosis and is treated properly, then the symptoms of depression can diminish or even disappear.
Shared symptoms with different causes
While ADHD and depression are two very distinct conditions, there are some overlapping symptoms which can sometimes result in misdiagnosis.
Boredom, lack of interest and lack of motivation**:** While both ADHD and depression have symptoms that can appear as boredom and lack of motivation, there is a difference in the reason behind these symptoms. In depression, a feeling of boredom and lack of motivation is caused by the depression itself; in ADHD, these might be a result of other symptoms, such as feeling overwhelmed by a task, the need for high stimuli or a lack of organizational skills.
Insomnia: People with both depression and ADHD frequently complain about the inability to get a good night’s sleep. Those with depression often fall asleep only to wake periodically through the night. With ADHD, however, racing thoughts and an inability to quiet thoughts can keep a person from falling asleep in the first place.
Sad or depressed mood**:** With depression, an overall feeling of sadness, depression, or dark moods can last for weeks or months. There is not usually an external trigger or cause for these moods. With ADHD, feelings of sadness or depression are often caused by external events, such as feeling overwhelmed, being disappointed in oneself for not managing ADHD symptoms or feelings of failure in a particular task or aspect of life. These periods of depression are often short-lived and dissipate once the triggering event is resolved.
In addition, both ADHD and depression list inability to focus as a main symptom. These are caused by different processes of the conditions. Not being able to pay attention by itself isn’t going to point to one condition or the other. This symptom must be taken into consideration with other symptoms.
Is ADHD a primary or secondary diagnosis?
Effective treatment requires an accurate diagnosis. That doesn’t just mean identifying whether you have depression, ADHD or both, but also which condition is causing the most impairment. If ADHD is your primary diagnosis, treating it could help improve your depressive symptoms, especially if they are caused by continuous disappointment with yourself because you have a history of not completing projects, forgetfulness, a string of go-nowhere jobs or numerous failed relationships (all of which are common in adults with ADHD).
A diagnosis and treatment of ADHD can help you better understand your history, put in in perspective and provide a better future.
On the other hand, if your primary diagnosis is depression, then treating your depression will help you better understand which symptoms are caused by depression and which are brought about by ADHD. This can improve your mood, which helps motivate you to find effective strategies for managing ADHD symptoms. In these cases, treating the ADHD without addressing the depression could actually make your depression worse.
If you have been diagnosed with ADHD or depression and don’t feel that you are making much progress, schedule an evaluation to make sure you have an accurate diagnosis. Look for a medical provider who diagnoses and treats both depression and ADHD, understands how these conditions overlap, and can separate out symptoms of each condition in order to offer you the best possible treatment.
See More Helpful Articles:
ADHD: A Women’s Issue: American Psychological Association
Women and Girls: CHADD, The National Resource on ADHD
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of Idiot's Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot's Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love and Essential Guide to Asperger's Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.