People with ADHD are often stereotyped as being scattered, energetic, and or even self-assured. One of the last traits you might associate with us is anxiousness.
Unfortunately, there’s a pretty strong correlation between ADHD and anxiety. Roughly 50 percent of adults with ADHD also have some kind of anxiety disorder. When I first started seeing a therapist, it was for help with my anxiety and depression — which later led to my ADHD diagnosis.
For me, my ADHD and anxiousness manifests in wildly different ways, as I’m sure it does for anyone living with both conditions. No two cases of ADHD are the same, and no two anxiety disorders are the same.
In fact, there are several different types of both ADHD and anxiety disorders. There is hyperactive/impulsive type ADHD, inattentive type ADHD, and a combination of both types of ADHD. Then, there’s generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and phobia-related disorders, which include a myriad of subtypes.
So, when ADHD and anxiety occur together, you often have a unique situation for every single individual.
Here’s how I’ve learned to accept and balance these two conditions over the years.
Is this normal?
Sometimes, ADHD can make my mind feel like a circus. There’s an endless flow of free thoughts bouncing around in every direction, making it impossible for me to focus on one thing. For the longest time, I thought this was normal. The voice in my head worked hard to justify my thoughts.
Everyone loses their keys sometimes. Everyone struggles with choosing a career. Everyone forgets small details sometimes.
I thought my anxiety was normal, too. Anxiety can make it feel like there’s a protest happening against every positive thought my brain tries to form. This leads to sleepless night after sleepless night.
Everyone has self-doubt. Everyone worries about things. Everyone has trouble sleeping sometimes.
At some point in my young adult life, anxiety and ADHD really started to work together.
While my ADHD made me want to blurt things out, my anxiety told me to shut up.
When I wanted to learn new things, anxiety told me I’d fail at all of them.
When I wanted to take on a new responsibility at work, anxiety gave me a thousand reasons why I’d ruin the entire company if I did.
ADHD says, “What could go wrong?”
Anxiety says, “Everything.”
The bright side
While this constant conflict sounds dramatic, I sometimes find it to be a blessing in disguise.
Anxiety isn’t fun for me (is it for anyone?) — my brain is constantly worrying about worst-case scenarios. But for some of the really important things in life, anxiety puts the sudden (but necessary) brakes on my constantly on-the-go mind. ADHD can sometimes make me impulsive, while anxiety makes me take a step back.
Don’t get me wrong, I wish these swinging emotions could be a bit less extreme, but maybe this conflicting symphony will save my life one day.
While many people receive childhood diagnoses, my ADHD and anxiety diagnoses didn’t happen until my young adult life. Because of this, I’ve been able to reflect on and better understand my life experiences. Here are some ways I’ve learned to cope:
- Acceptance. The minute my doctor told me I had ADHD and generalized anxiety, I was ecstatic. I finally had an answer. I wasn’t crazy. I embraced my ADHD and anxiety with open arms. I now understood what was going on with me, and I could take the next steps to manage it.
- Forgiveness. I made a number of mistakes growing up. I’d constantly blurt things out in class, and I changed my major one too many times. Learning to forgive my younger self has been an emotional but enlightening journey, and I’ve enjoyed every difficult moment of it.
- Understanding myself. The next thing I really had to do was understand myself and my brain. This will be a lifelong journey of constant discovery, but the most important thing I’ve learned is to be completely honest with myself. I can learn things verbally, but I’m a slow reader. I can take risks, but I’ll consider a thousand bad scenarios first.
- Strategize. Once I accepted and forgave myself, it was time to take the steps to manage my symptoms. It’s different for everyone, but some helpful places to start are therapy, exercise, meditation, deep breathing exercises, identifying your triggers and thought patterns, and most importantly, using Siri to help you remember things!
- Do what’s best for yourself. None of the above are guaranteed to work. They’re just a few things that worked for me. When you start telling people about your ADHD and anxiety, you’ll be met with a lot of unsolicited advice. Understand what works best for you, and stick with that.
ADHD and anxiety are complicated in the ways they may work together. If you’re like me and you have both, know that you’re not alone in this wild and conflicting ride we call life.
While these may be lifelong conditions, they’re manageable. It may be a difficult journey, but the sooner you can accept them and tackle them head on, the sooner you’ll be able to start managing your symptoms and possibly even improving your life.
For more information on how to manage ADHD, reach out to your doctor or healthcare team.
ADHD-US-NP-00039 JANUARY 2019