Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

G. Frank Lawlis
Frank Lawlis Ph.D.

ADHD v. Depression and Anxiety

Is ADHD a "real" disorder or anxiety–depression?

Since I was a child with a severe case of what is known as attention-deficit disorder, I have been extremely interested in the new explosion in new cases and the sudden interest in new trends in diagnoses. The number of children categorized under this label are above 17 million cases, appearing to be one of the greatest mental health epidemic of our times. The question was whether there were any bases for this unique disorder and if so, what factors have predicted such a huge outbreak of cases.

In 2005 I started a speciality clinic for children and adults, who were diagnosed as Attention Deficit / Hyperactive Disorder from which I published a best seller book, The ADD Answer. The program is based on the basic foundations of the protocols mentioned in the book and includes in depth evaluations of the individuals. The primary focus was the diagnostic evaluation for this ever-increasing label for children's misbehavior and lack of concentration. The only criteria for ADHD was usually a set of symptoms that related little specificity to the problem. The set of criteria varied from one publication to another, but the basic list contains problems with attention and very similar signs for depression and anxiety.

Since boys are prominent members of this group, many of the early lists included gender as part of the diagnosis, even to level of mentioning that blond-headed boys as a critical symptom marker. The list was based on behavior of children as basically being trouble-makers, making many of the diagnoses by those being irritated most, parents and teachers, rather than direct observations by a professional's direct observations.

The clinic protocol was based in my clinic for an intensive assessment, using brain scans (QEEG), physiological factors (hormones, toxicity, metabolic issues), family dynamics, psychological personality and cognitive levels. For a more complete description, please review the website (www.Lawlis/ The number of children seen was based on a average maximum of one child per day with as many as 13 different specialties. The results of the initial results had major implications for the underlying credibility of the diagnosis of ADHD.

ADHD is real, but anxiety and depression are more real.

As many researchers and clinicians have substantiated, there are two definite patterns to the diagnosis of ADHD, based on neurological testing, brain scans (QEEG and SPECT SCAN) and the ruling out alternative diagnoses. Both included directly or indirectly the low functioning of the frontal lobe, which makes sense since it purports to be the executive area for organizing and processing brain information. What was most revealing is that the diagnoses are incorrect 66 percent of the time, a pretty strong indictment since strong medicines (with no scientific evidence of long-term effects) are often given to these children as young as two years old. As could be expected from the overlap of symptoms, anxiety and depression were much more present than ADHD. Even with the correct diagnosis of ADHD, anxiety and depression were also present as primary diagnoses.

In fact, when the anxiety and depression symptoms could be lifted and separated, the challenges of the ADHD could be managed relatively easy, even to the point of becoming strengths in later development of creativity. In the same way that Dyslexia (inability to read) is a prevalent diagnosis in successful business entrepreneurs and ADHD is a prevailing sign in inventors and creators, the brain seems to compensate for low focusing abilities and building other abilities, such as developing good human relationships, "thinking outside the box," and leadership skills. We have instinctive adaptive methods of what we call brain plasticity, if left without creating anxiety and fear, will develop compensation techniques and offer opportunities to advance cognitively as well as otyher avenues we cannot predict.

The walls to getting better

What I am proposing is that anxiety and depression is the more destructive of disorders, overwhelming the more popular labels in terms of creating limitations to our potentials. Whether it be learning disabilities, attention deficit, or even the broad spectrum of autism, which are all real problems, the greatest obstacles relates to the stress of anxiety and depression accompanying not only the frustrations of having these problems but also the layers of disappointments, expectations, unrealistic needs by persons who try to remedy these limitations with undue demands.

The essence of anxiety surrounding these new-prescribed disorders usually relates to the fear of failure and lack of acceptance that those who are supposedly "helping" us become adjusted to our lack of conforming skills. The labels of these problems burden the mind with confusing messages about our worth. Depression enters our internal dialogue with how we mold our self concepts into black holes of increasing self disgust.

Anxiety and depression are natural responses are actually serve us in most instances to protect and renew ourselves. When we become stressed, reaching a point of arousal, our bodies go into protective mode and we often perform at a higher level. We run faster and respond with greater efficiency because our sympathetic systems start ratcheting up with higher blood pressure and muscle tension. This is the way our forefather (and mothers) dealt with the environmental dangers long ago. But when those threats are labels of defeat, which are largely invisible and abstract, the anxiety remains without any resolution.

Depression works the same way. It is often the beginning force that motivates her to change. We become unhappy with our circumstances and knowing we have to change, the psychological pain of depression usually creates the motivation to makes the serious changes in our lives. This is natural, yet when the change is dictated and would lead only to more pain, we get stuck. Any challenges begin to become insurmountable. Our brains begin to twist on themselves with fewer resources. This is not what a kid needs to begin his or her life.

My point is that the disorders of ADHD along with many of the other labels need to be couched in relationship to anxiety and depression accompanying them, because they are the major players to overcome. Case after case tells me that for many of these new problems we are making major issues with speciality clinics will only meet with huge resistance until the problems of anxiety and depression can be met and resolved. Let's face the realities that although there are real problems, they are often embedded in these basic traps we have known since the beginning of human history.

About the Author
G. Frank Lawlis

G. Frank Lawlis, PhD, is principal content and oversight adviser of the Dr. Phil Show.

More from Frank Lawlis Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Frank Lawlis Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today