10 Conditions That Look Like ADHD, but Are Actually Something Else

Can’t seem to stay focused at work? You could have ADHD. Or, perhaps it’s something else. While ADHD is often associated with an inability to pay attention, it’s possible this behavior could signal a variety of conditions.

If you need a quick refresher on what adult ADHD looks like, check out our list of symptoms here. And if it’s not this disorder, consider the alternatives. Here are 10 conditions that bear an uncanny resemblance.

1. Bipolar disorder 

Portrait of upset young woman

Bipolar disorder can look like ADHD. | iStock.com/JackF

It’s no surprise bipolar disorder and ADHD are sometimes confused with one another, as there are many similarities between the two. According to Healthline, ADHD and bipolar disorder share a handful of symptoms, including mood instability, restlessness, and impatience.

An important distinction between the two, though, is the age at which symptoms begin. ADHD starts during childhood, whereas bipolar disorder typically develops after the age of 18. Additionally, mood swings can come and go within 20 to 30 minutes for a person with ADHD. People with bipolar disorder, however, can experience shifts in mood lasting for hours, even days.

2. Epilepsy

Woman staring and looking worried

Epilepsy and ADHD can surprisingly look similar. | Thinkstock

It may seem like epilepsy would be easy to spot, as some people with the condition experience extreme seizures. Others, however, experience epilepsy in a different, less severe manner. For instance, absence seizures, short periods of blanking out due to abnormal brain activity, can sometimes go undetected. According to the Epilepsy Foundation, a person who experiences absence seizures often stares into space for less than a minute, which can appear as nothing more than daydreaming.

Because absence seizures don’t necessarily raise a huge red flag, a person can live with them for years without knowing. At times, they won’t realize someone is talking to them. This unawareness of what’s going on around them can be confused with a lack of focus or inability to pay attention, similar to what those with ADHD experience.

3. Anxiety

Worried woman at work

These two disorders can be easily confused. | Thinkstock

Surprisingly, an anxiety disorder can easily present itself as ADHD. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, common symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder include restlessness, difficulty concentrating, and irritability. Excessive worrying can also disrupt social activities and interfere with work or family matters, much like ADHD.

4. Thyroid conditions

Human Thyroid Gland Illustration

A thyroid disorder can have surprising symptoms. | iStock.com/Nerthuz

Your thyroid has a big job to do, as it’s responsible for keeping your body working properly. And if you’re familiar with the common signs of an over- or underactive thyroid, it’s clear to see how easy it’d be to mistake a thyroid condition for ADHD. For instance, EndocrineWeb lists the following as symptoms of hyperthyroidism: anxiety, moodiness, and hyperactivity. Symptoms of hypothyroidism, on the other hand, include difficulty concentrating, fatigue, and depression. All of these are symptoms are also seen in those with ADHD.

5. Sensory processing disorder

happy young people laugh and chat at dinner table

This disorder is slightly less well-known. | iStock.com/Milkos

According to the STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder, when a person has the condition, his or her sensory signals are not detected or don’t organize into appropriate responses. Neuroscientist and occupational therapist pioneer A. Jean Ayres gave the best description of sensory processing disorder, saying it can be described as a neurological “traffic jam.”

While more common in children, it’s possible adults can have the condition, as well. The STAR Institute says adults with SPD “may have difficulty performing routines and activities involved in work, close relationships, and recreation.” Additionally, they may report struggles with depression, underachievement, and social isolation. Sounds strikingly like ADHD, doesn’t it?

6. Sleep conditions

man trying to fall asleep at night

Your sleep disturbances can give you ADHD-like symptoms.| iStock.com

A lack of proper sleep can really throw a wrench in your overall productivity for the day. Just think about the morning following a night of restless sleep: It’s likely you’re overly tired and unable to pay attention to the task at hand. According to Verywell, sleep disturbances, which can include sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome, can result in hyperactivity, irritability, and impaired learning.

In the case of restless leg syndrome, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke reports people with the condition often have trouble with their job, personal relations, and other daily activities. Once again, it’s easy to see how this could be mistaken for ADHD.

7. Central auditory processing disorder

Woman holds her hand near ear

You can get this condition when you have ADHD. | iStock.com

While this condition may coincide with ADHD, ADDitude says some evidence suggests central auditory processing disorder can also occur separately from ADHD. A person with CADP misinterprets what and how another person says something. And no, this doesn’t give you an excuse to ignore your partner when he or she interrupts you during a big game.

Interestingly enough, one school of thought suggests whether or not someone receives either diagnosis could depend on the type of specialist they saw. An audiologist may be more likely to diagnose CAPD, while a psychologist may be more familiar with ADHD. Symptoms the two share, include trouble remembering information presented orally, difficulty following directions, and poor listening skills.

8. Asperger syndrome

Annoyed man standing in cubicle

Asperger syndrome can look like ADHD. | iStock.com

People with Asperger syndrome are often considered high functioning, and tend to have more difficulty socially than professionally. According to Autism Speaks, a person who has Asperger’s may struggle with social interactions or exhibit a restricted range of interest.

Although the two conditions may initially seem fairy different, it turns out they’re not always so far apart. True, people with Asperger’s may demonstrate awkward behavior in social situations, whereas those with ADHD may be overly active, but Autism Speaks says the symptoms are often confused. “Indeed, many persons affected by Asperger syndrome are initially diagnosed with ADHD until it becomes clear that their difficulties stem more from an inability to socialize than an inability to focus their attention,” the organization explains.

9. Obsessive compulsive disorder

organized office

OCD and ADHD can easily look the same. | iStock.com

Even though OCD and ADHD are different from one another, they can appear quite similar in some cases. The International OCD Foundation notes that, although they’re associated with different patterns of brain activity, the symptoms can overlap. In particular, cognitive effects for both include response inhibition, switching tasks, and working memory.

There are, however, important distinctions between the two. For starters, ADHD affects how a person outwardly relates to his or her environment. OCD, on the other hand, affects a person internally, as their response to anxiety is to turn inward. Hallmark signs of ADHD include inattention, lack of impulse control, and risky behaviors. Hallmark signs of OCD, in contrast, include obsessive thoughts, a more inhibited temperament, and avoidance of risky situations.

10. Depression

sad woman grasping her head

Even depression can look like ADHD. | iStock.com

By now, you’re familiar with common signs of ADHD. So, you won’t be too surprised to hear the condition is sometimes mistaken for depression. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, symptoms of depression include feeling helpless, restless, and finding it difficult to concentrate. Sounds awfully familiar.

As with any medical condition, it’s important to discuss all symptoms with your doctor, along with family history. A misdiagnosis could be more common than you think.

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