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Understanding ADHD, Depression, and Anxiety from an Internal Family Systems (IFS) Perspective

Updated: May 26

Understanding ADHD, Depression, and Anxiety from an Internal Family Systems (IFS) Perspective

Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy offers a unique lens through which we can understand ADHD, depression, and anxiety, viewing them as complex interplays of biological and psychological factors. In IFS, the mind is seen as composed of multiple sub-personalities or "parts," each with distinct roles and intentions. These parts strive to protect us from discomfort and psychological pain, often utilizing our biological vulnerabilities and abilities to achieve their goals.

Protective Roles of Parts in IFS

IFS suggests that parts take on protective roles to shield us from uncomfortable feelings and traumatic experiences. They leverage our biological, physical, and environmental resources to achieve their protective aims. Here are some ways this can manifest:

  1. Utilizing Physical Strength:

  • Example: A part may encourage athletic activities, such as running, to leverage the body's physical strength. By becoming an athlete, the person might experience a "runner's high," a natural mood boost that distracts from emotional pain and promotes well-being.

  1. Using Biological Vulnerabilities:

  • Anxiety: If an individual has a biological predisposition to anxiety, a part might amplify this anxiety to prevent the person from engaging in potentially harmful or risky situations. The heightened anxiety keeps the person safe from perceived threats, even if it also causes distress.

  • ADHD and Distraction: For someone with a predisposition to ADHD, parts may use distractibility to steer attention away from painful emotions. By constantly shifting focus, the person avoids lingering on feelings of loneliness, fear, or inadequacy.

  • Depression: A part might invoke feelings of depression to shut down emotional engagement, protecting the person from the pain of unmet needs or deep-seated fears. This withdrawal serves as a protective mechanism to avoid further emotional injury.

Integrating Biological and Psychological Factors

IFS does not view ADHD, depression, or anxiety strictly as biological or psychological phenomena but rather as an interplay of both. Parts use biological tendencies and psychological strategies to protect the person, adapting to the individual's unique context.

  • Biological Factors: Genetics, brain structure, and neurotransmitter functioning contribute to the foundational aspects of ADHD, depression, and anxiety. These biological elements provide the raw materials that parts can use to achieve their protective aims.

  • Psychological Factors: Internal conflicts, traumas, and stress influence how parts behave. Parts may exploit biological predispositions to manage these psychological challenges effectively.

Diagnoses: Validation and Understanding

  1. Validation and Community:

  • Receiving a diagnosis like ADHD, depression, or anxiety can be validating and reassuring. It helps individuals understand that they are not alone and that their experiences are shared by others. This can reduce feelings of isolation and confusion.

  1. Diagnosis as a Cluster of Symptoms:

  • It is important to recognize that a diagnosis is a way to describe a cluster of symptoms and behaviors. It is not an identification of one's essence or physical body. Diagnoses categorize a set of observable behaviors and experiences but do not define the core self.

Universality of Parts in IFS

  1. Healthy and Inevitable Experience:

  • Having parts is a healthy, inevitable, and universal human experience. Everyone has an internal dialogue between their parts, regardless of what they call them. This internal system is a normal part of being human, facilitating various functions such as protection, motivation, and emotional regulation.

  1. Internal Dialogue:

  • Our internal dialogue, the conversations we have within ourselves, reflects the interactions between our parts. For instance, one part might urge us to work harder while another part pushes for rest. Recognizing and understanding these parts can lead to greater self-awareness and personal growth.

Real-Life Example: A Client's Journey

Consider Sarah, a client with ADHD, depression, and a history of trauma. Sarah's IFS therapy revealed that her distractible part was trying to protect her from painful memories of childhood neglect. By constantly shifting her attention, this part helped her avoid feelings of loneliness and inadequacy. Through IFS therapy, Sarah learned to engage with her parts, understanding their protective roles and working towards greater self-regulation. This integration helped her manage her ADHD and depression symptoms more effectively.

Medication as Support in IFS Therapy

Medication can play a crucial role in supporting effective IFS therapy, particularly because of the interplay between our parts and our physical body. Here’s how medication can help:

  1. Stabilizing Biological Vulnerabilities:

  • Medications for ADHD, depression, and anxiety can help stabilize the biological vulnerabilities that parts might exploit. For example, ADHD medications can improve focus and reduce distractibility, making it easier for individuals to engage with their parts during therapy.

  1. Reducing Symptom Intensity:

  • Medication can reduce the intensity of symptoms, such as severe anxiety or deep depression, which can otherwise overwhelm a person and hinder therapeutic progress. By alleviating these symptoms, medication allows parts to feel safer and less defensive, facilitating deeper therapeutic work.

  1. Enhancing Emotional Regulation:

  • Medications can aid in enhancing emotional regulation, which is critical for effective IFS therapy. When emotional responses are more balanced, individuals can better interact with their parts without becoming overwhelmed by emotions like fear, sadness, or anger.

  1. Supporting Overall Well-Being:

  • By improving overall mental health, medication supports the individual’s well-being, making it easier for them to engage in and benefit from IFS therapy. This holistic approach ensures that both biological and psychological aspects are addressed, promoting comprehensive healing.


From an IFS perspective, ADHD, depression, and anxiety are dynamic interplays between biological predispositions and psychological protective mechanisms. Parts of the personality utilize available biological and environmental resources to protect the individual from discomfort and pain. Understanding these conditions through this lens highlights the importance of addressing both biological and psychological components, offering a comprehensive approach to managing them.

Recognizing that a diagnosis provides validation and community, but does not define the essence of a person, supports the idea that while biological treatments (like medication) and therapeutic interventions (like IFS therapy) can help manage symptoms, they do not encapsulate the entirety of a person's identity or worth. Additionally, acknowledging the universality of parts and internal dialogue normalizes the experience of having an internal system, fostering a healthier and more integrated self-awareness.

For more information on ADHD and trauma, you can visit ADHD and You and National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

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