Can social anxiety look like ADHD?

Social anxiety and ADHD are two very different conditions, but they can sometimes be confused with each other or even co-occur. This is because there are some overlaps in symptoms between the two. However, there are also key differences that set them apart. Understanding these differences is important for getting an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan.

In the opening paragraphs, some quick answers to common questions about social anxiety vs ADHD:

– Social anxiety is characterized by an intense fear of social situations and interactions. ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity.

– People with social anxiety are overly concerned about being judged or embarrassing themselves around others. People with ADHD struggle to pay attention and control impulsive behaviors.

– Social anxiety stems from distorted negative thoughts and beliefs about oneself. ADHD is caused by differences in brain chemistry and development.

– Social anxiety is treated primarily with psychotherapy like CBT. ADHD is often treated with stimulant medications and behavioral therapy.

Symptom Overlap

While social anxiety disorder and ADHD have distinct features, there are some areas where symptoms can appear similar on the surface:

Inattention – People with social anxiety may sometimes seem distracted or have difficulty concentrating, especially in social situations where they feel uncomfortable. However, in ADHD inattention is more persistent and not limited to social settings.

Restlessness – Both socially anxious and ADHD individuals may fidget, struggle to sit still, or pace in certain situations. For those with ADHD, this is due to impulse control problems and excessive energy. For social anxiety, it is nervous energy due to social discomfort.

Avoidance – Avoidance of social situations is a hallmark of social anxiety disorder. People with ADHD may also avoid tasks that require sustained mental effort, but not necessarily because of social fears.

Poor eye contact – Individuals with social anxiety often avoid eye contact out of fear and shame. People with ADHD can also struggle with eye contact due to trouble focusing.

Speech issues – Rapid, disorganized speech patterns are common with ADHD. People with social anxiety may speak quickly or mumble out of nervousness.

So while these facets of behavior may look similar on the surface in some cases, the underlying causes are different. Looking at the overall clinical picture is important for distinguishing social anxiety and ADHD.

Key Differences

Despite some superficial symptom overlap, there are key differences that separate social anxiety disorder and ADHD:

Social motivation – Socially anxious individuals often desperately want to connect with others but are held back by fear. People with ADHD typically do not have a problem with social motivation or interest.

Focus – ADHD involves an impairment of sustained attention and concentration. People with social anxiety can focus just fine in nonsocial situations.

Hyperactivity – Excess physical restlessness and hyperactivity are hallmarks of ADHD but not characteristic of social anxiety.

Impulsivity – Impulsive behaviors and speech are common with ADHD. Those with social anxiety are not typically impulsive.

Forgetfulness – People with ADHD often have problems with working memory and forgetting tasks or obligations. Forgetfulness is not associated with social anxiety.

Anxiety triggers – Social anxiety is triggered by social situations. ADHD symptoms persist across settings.

Looking at these distinctions can help identify whether symptoms are indicative of ADHD or social anxiety.

Social Anxiety Disorder

Social anxiety disorder, also called social phobia, is defined by an intense fear of social situations and interactions. Key features include:

Extreme distress in social settings – People with social anxiety feel extremely uncomfortable and anxious in social interactions and situations. This distress is out of proportion to the actual threat or risk involved.

Avoidance – Socially anxious individuals will try to avoid feared social situations. In cases where avoidance is not possible, the situation is endured with extreme distress.

Fear of judgment – At the core of social anxiety is an intense fear of being negatively judged, embarrassed, humiliated, or rejected by others.

Physical symptoms – Social anxiety often causes blushing, profuse sweating, trembling, nausea, and difficulty talking when in feared social situations.

Negative thought patterns – Social anxiety is driven by distorted, negative thoughts and beliefs about oneself and how others perceive you.

Social anxiety disorder typically develops in childhood or adolescence and follows a chronic course if not treated properly. Sufferers recognize that their fear of social situations is excessive but have trouble controlling it. It can significantly impact school, work, and relationships.


Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by ongoing problems with inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. Key ADHD symptoms include:

Inattention – This refers to significant difficulty sustaining focus and concentration on tasks and activities. People with ADHD are easily distracted.

Hyperactivity – Excess restlessness, fidgeting, and inability to sit still are symptomatic of hyperactive forms of ADHD. However, symptoms can also manifest inwardly as excessive talking or internal sensations of restlessness.

Impulsivity – Impulsive behaviors like interrupting others, poor planning, social intrusiveness, and risky behaviors are common with ADHD. Immediate gratification is sought without considering consequences.

Disorganization – People with ADHD often have problems staying organized, forgetful, chronically late, and prone to losing items.

Emotional dysregulation – ADHD can involve low frustration tolerance, quick temper, and mood swings. This is not due to hypersensitivity to social judgment like with social anxiety.

ADHD symptoms arise in early childhood and persist across multiple settings, causing impairment in school, work, and relationships. However, hyperactivity tends to decline in adolescence while inattentive symptoms persist.

Causes and Risk Factors

Understanding the different causes and risk factors for social anxiety and ADHD provides further insight into how the two disorders differ:

Social anxiety risk factors include:

– Traumatic or humiliating social experiences
– Childhood emotional neglect/abuse
– Having very shy, socially isolated parents
– Biological factors like high behavioral inhibition

ADHD risk factors include:

– Genetics – ADHD runs strongly in families and is highly hereditary
– Premature birth or brain injury as a child
– Cigarette smoking, alcohol use during pregnancy
– Developmental disorders like autism
– Brain anatomy differences

Social anxiety causes:

– Learned behavioral patterns and avoidance
– Distorted negative thoughts/beliefs about oneself
– Hypersensitive threat response system

ADHD causes:

– Imbalances in brain chemicals like dopamine and norepinephrine
– Structural differences in brain anatomy and connectivity
– Genetic factors altering brain development

This highlights how social anxiety stems largely from nurture – learned thought patterns and behaviors. ADHD is wired deeply into brain anatomy, chemistry, and genetics.


While social anxiety disorder and ADHD have distinct features, research shows they can co-occur in some cases.

– An estimated 5-10% of children with ADHD also have social anxiety disorder.

– Around 20% of people seeking treatment for social anxiety also exhibit ADHD symptoms.

– People with ADHD may develop social anxiety secondary to ADHD-related social impairments experienced in childhood like rejection from peers or poor self-esteem.

– Brain chemical imbalances in dopamine and norepinephrine could potentially predispose people to both ADHD and anxiety disorders.

– Avoidant behaviors seen in ADHD could evolve into social anxiety in some cases.

So while co-occurrence is documented, it is not the norm. Clinicians should assess for both disorders when symptoms are mixed.

Treatment also becomes more complex when ADHD and social anxiety are both present. It requires carefully balancing medications and behavioral interventions to address both conditions.

Getting an Accurate Diagnosis

Since social anxiety and ADHD have distinct treatments but can look similar in some ways, getting an accurate diagnosis is critical. Key tips for assessment include:

– Get evaluation from a trained mental health professional like a psychologist or psychiatrist. Provide complete information on symptom timeline.

– Use validated clinical rating scales for both social anxiety and ADHD to quantify symptoms. Compare scores.

– Do cognitive testing to assess concentration, distractibility, working memory and other executive functions impaired in ADHD.

– Give a thorough social and psychiatric history. Onset of social anxiety usually occurs later than ADHD symptoms.

– Assess across settings – social anxiety is context specific while ADHD persists. Speak with teachers and family.

– Rule out other diagnoses like depression, learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorder that could account for symptoms.

– Get medical workup to check for conditions like thyroid problems, sleep disorders or medications that mimic ADHD.

– If criteria for both social anxiety and ADHD are met, consider a dual diagnosis.

A comprehensive diagnostic workup is important for teasing apart social anxiety from ADHD, getting the right treatment approach in place early.


While social anxiety disorder and ADHD may both involve psychotherapy, the specific treatment approaches differ significantly:

Social Anxiety Treatment

– Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to reshape negative thought patterns

– Exposure therapy to desensitize to feared social situations

– Social skills training to improve social functioning

– Anti-anxiety medications or SSRI antidepressants

ADHD Treatment

– Stimulant medications like Adderall, Ritalin to improve concentration

– Behavioral therapy to teach organization, time management skills

– Education strategies and classroom accommodations

– Training parents in behavioral techniques

– Working memory training

– Social skills training and therapy as needed

Treatment is tailored to target the specific symptoms and impairments of each disorder. Multimodal approaches using both medication and psychosocial interventions tend to be most effective, especially when both ADHD and social anxiety are present.

Coping Strategies

Coping strategies for social anxiety vs ADHD also differ:

Social Anxiety Coping Strategies

– Challenge negative thoughts and replace with more positive self-talk

– Pace yourself gradually into feared situations

– Practice mindfulness and deep breathing exercises

– Join a social anxiety support group

– Open up to trusted friends and family

ADHD Coping Strategies

– Make lists and use planners to stay organized

– Take regular breaks when doing mental tasks

– Designate one spot for daily essentials like keys, wallet, phone

– Exercise and eat protein snacks to help focus

– Fidget toys for hyperactive symptoms

– Set phone alerts and reminders

– Reduce clutter at home and work

Learning to manage anxiety and stay focused require different skillsets tailored to symptoms of each disorder.


While social anxiety and ADHD may appear similar on the surface in some ways, core features of the two disorders are distinct. Accurate diagnosis requires looking at the overall clinical presentation and uniquely different causes underlying either condition. Appreciating overlap while recognizing the differences is key to guiding appropriate treatment and management. With the right individualized support, both social anxiety disorder and ADHD can be overcome successfully.

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