Are All Attention Problems Caused by ADHD?

ADHD is one of several conditions which can cause attention problems. The inattentive presentation of ADHD (which used to be called “ADD”) is a common form of ADHD which is strongly connected to deficits in attention and focus. The combined presentation (which can also involve hyperactivity) also includes these symptoms. 

Depression and Attention

Several depressive disorders (Major Depressive Disorder being the most common form) include attention disturbance as a part of the criteria. A common complaint of those experiencing a depressive episode is that it is more difficult to focus on daily activities. When a problem, or set of problems, consumes you, it can take center stage in your mind. Rumination, or repetitive thinking about a particular topic, can be one source of inattention or forgetfulness.  

Anxiety and Attention

Several anxiety disorders are also associated with concentration deficits. Generalized Anxiety Disorder is the most common form of anxiety and it involves experiencing frequent and significant worrying about a variety of topics. As individuals with this disorder become overly focused on a particular worry, it can be all the more difficult to pay attention to their daily tasks. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (an anxiety disorder related to reexperiencing previous trauma) can severely affect how an individual attends to their environment. It can be common to use up attention resources in order to scan the environment for signs that they may not be safe. We call this hypervigilance.

Learning Disorders and Attention

Although attention problems are not a part of the diagnostic criteria for specific learning disorders, attention impairment can often be an associated feature of a reading, writing, or math disorder. Some executive functioning problems, such as deficits in short-term memory, can be associated with learning disorders. Also, attention concerns can be especially noticeable when an individual is required to perform tasks specifically related to their learning disorder. For example, it can be common to experience attention problems (as well as motivational problems) when performing math in the case of a math-related learning disorder.

Autism and Attention

Attention capabilities can also be different with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Since attention disturbance is often a part of this disorder, a previous version of the diagnostic manual published by the American Psychiatric Association did not allow psychologists and psychiatrists to diagnose both ADHD and Autism in the same individual. This has since been changed, but it underscores the idea that Autism Spectrum Disorder often goes hand-in-hand with symptoms that can look like ADHD. One example is that individuals with Autism can have difficulty switching attention, especially if they are involved in a preoccupation or a particular activity of interest.

Other Conditions Affecting Attention

Attention is often disturbed (and can be severely disturbed) in individuals who have experienced a traumatic brain injury. Aside from this, many physical health conditions can impact attention. 

How Testing Can Help

Psychological testing can often help to uncover the source, or sources, of attention problems. Objective performance-based tests, when considered with a full clinical history and other measures, can be especially valuable in teasing apart factors related to attention.

With all this said, it is important to realize that ADHD can often co-occur with other mental health disorders. We call this comorbidity. Some estimates suggest that 2 out of 3 individuals with ADHD also qualify for another mental health disorder. Depressive disorders and anxiety disorders are a main reason why this figure is so high. For individuals who are undergoing psychological testing, it can be important to keep in mind that there are often times multiple reasons for why attention is a problem.

Explore Related Topics:

What is ADHD?
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How can ADHD be Treated?
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