Trying something new for those who are looking for a quick tl;dr
- Anxiety and ADHD are different things BUT they often come as a package deal. Almost 50% of adults with ADHD also experience some sort of general anxiety disorder.
- Anxiety and ADHD can create some nasty cycles that reduce your productivity and deteriorate your mental and physical health.
- One of the best things you can do, is learn to identify and target your anxiety when it starts to creep in.
- I like to do this by maintaining a general meter on whether or not I’m feeling good or bad about what I need/want to do. Even catching yourself with terminology like “I need to get this done” vs “I want to get this done” is a good way to detect anxiety.
- When bad anxiety is starting to impact how you feel, it’s likely also starting to impact the quality of your work. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone produce great work while in a state of hyper-anxiety.
- Find a strategy for reducing anxiety that works for you. Your goal is to get to a state where you feel in control and have an approach for making the progress you need to feel less anxious. I like to:
- Play music
- Do less mentally demanding chores
- Chop the problem into pieces
- Ask for help or validation
- Do something fun that requires 0 decision making or critical thinking from me e.g. build a fort with my kids or sit in the hot tub with my wife.
- My personal framework
Understanding the Relationship Between ADHD and Anxiety
If you’re like me, you’ve probably experienced what most people would consider an excessive amount of anxiety. You may have also spent some time trying to understand whether or not your anxiety and ADHD are related or if they are two totally different things.
In reality, the two are closely related. In fact, the data shows that 50% of adults with ADHD also have an anxiety disorder. What’s less straightforward, is knowing when one is impacting the other.
Common scenarios for me:
- My ADHD is making it hard to get important things done to completion. Not having those things done is spiking my anxiety to the point of not being able to think about anything else or even sleep till they are done.
- My anxiety is high because I lost track of time and wasn’t as productive as I feel I should have been. It rolls into the next day, usually causing me to wake up early or try to “make up” for the slower pace from the day before. Usually resulting in mental and emotional exhaustion.
- I’m actually in a hyper focused and hyper motivated mood, but I’m not in a position to be productive e.g. I’m on dad duty. My anxiety builds as time goes by, making it hard for me to just enjoy my time with my kids.
Similar but different
Both of these things can manifest in a number of ways, some of which are shared. This makes it difficult for anyone to differentiate between the two by only looking at mild symptoms like difficulty focusing or loss of sleep. Let’s look at some of the things they have in common.
- Both ADHD and anxiety are common conditions—even more so when they occur together. Anxiety is more common than adult ADHD but, again, they’re often hanging out together.
- People who have both ADHD and anxiety often have problems with executive function skills—the abilities related to planning, organization, time management and problem solving. As I mentioned in my personal example, it’s common for issues with these types of tasks to cause anxiety to build.
How does anxiety affect someone with ADHD?
If you have ADHD and are experiencing anxiety, everything is going to be amplified… in a bad way. You might feel like your mind is racing and that it’s impossible to focus on anything. You might also feel irritable and on edge without knowing why.
I personally still struggle really hard when my anxiety creeps up on me and I can’t pinpoint why. I encourage my teammates to call me out if I’m acting extra “dickish” or if it seems like I’m spinning around the wrong thing.
Anxiety can cause people with ADHD to lose focus by making them feel restless, jittery or unable to concentrate for long periods of time. In addition, anxiety can cause people with ADHD to have trouble sleeping. A lack of sleep then adds friction to your ability to think, execute, and communicate, causing your anxiety to spike even higher. Another one of those nasty cycles.
As if your working memory wasn’t already struggling, anxiety can also make someone who suffers from ADHD more prone than others would be under similar circumstances to having short-term memory problems. This usually means forgetting about deadlines, falling out of any helpful routines our cadences, and forgetting to follow through on core responsibilities.
What are the most common types of anxiety to have with ADHD?
The most common types of anxiety that go hand-in-hand with ADHD include generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder.
Let’s take a closer look at each one:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder and ADHD
Generalized Anxiety Disorder is characterized by constant and excessive worry. If you have GAD, you may find it hard to relax and can’t stop thinking about things that worry you. You also have physical symptoms such as muscle tension, headaches, or stomach problems.
People with ADHD tend to be prone to anxiety disorders like generalized anxiety disorder because they are more sensitive than others to their surroundings and often feel overwhelmed by ordinary stresses in life.
Social Anxiety Disorder and ADHD
Social anxiety disorder is a common condition that usually begins in childhood or adolescence. It is characterized by overwhelming fear of social situations, and people with social anxiety disorder often avoid these situations in order to reduce their anxiety.
People with ADHD are also more likely to have social anxiety disorder than those without ADHD. Oddly enough, people with ADHD can appear to be more social and outgoing due to our impulsivity and excitability. Our social anxiety ends up taking its toll on us in anticipation of social situations or after the fact — where we may need some time to decompress.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and ADHD
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health disorder that causes people to have unwanted thoughts, feelings and behaviors. These thoughts can be intrusive and repetitive. They may cause distress or anxiety in the person with OCD, but they aren’t part of normal daily life for most people. People with OCD may also experience uncontrollable urges that they feel they must follow through on in order to avoid negative consequences or even harm to themselves or others.
Taming Your Anxiety
The most important skill I’ve developed as it relates to my own mental health and the health of the relationships I have in and out of work, is the ability to identify when my anxiety is in control.
I don’t let myself off the hook by simply saying, “I’m in a bad mood.” or “I’m stressed.” I have learned to identify specific behaviors and pin those down to work backwards to the source. I’ve also developed a personal framework that has made it a much less painful process.
Before we get to that framework, we all need to understand and remember that anxiety has both mental and physical effects. I’ve found it incredibly difficult to solve anxiety and a hyper-anxious state, so the first thing I do is get myself out of that state.
Personally, the best way to do this is with a good workout. There’s nothing better than letting loose on my muay thai bag until I’ve burned off a lot of that bad energy. Doing something that requires the coordination of all of my body also means that my mind can’t think of any of those things that were making me anxious.
If you’re not big on working out, I suggest you find something that takes your mind/body totally away from work. playing music has a similar effect for me. My wife loves to work on projects that are generally tied to organizing, decorating, or creating around our house/land. Everyone is different so I’d use these criteria to guide you and then experiment to see if you can achieve a mental state that is totally tuned out and disconnected from the source of your anxiety.
- Something you enjoy doing.
- Something that requires a deep level of mental/physical coordination.
- Something you can do that is physically removed from your work.
My framework for grinding down anxiety
- What am I worried about at a high level?
- Is it a deadline or specific project?
- Is it a general feeling about my overall output?
- Is it more about how others are perceiving me or my work?
- is it about anticipation of an outcome from work I’ve already done?
- What about that thing actually warrants your thought and energy?
- What are you responsible for?
- Which pieces can you move forward?
- Which pieces could benefit from your insight? Are you seeing something other people are not?
- Which of those things *should* you do?
- Does someone else own this piece of the puzzle? If you jump in are you taking an opportunity away?
- Are you the best person to be worried about this thing? Are you the expert and do you fully understand it or are you anxious because you don’t understand it?
- Is doing something actually going to add value or will it introduce chaos?
Pending on how I answer these questions, I can usually come up with a pretty clear list of what I can and should do. That generally gets me over the hump of feeling out of control, which means I’m once again winning.
The list I come up with is usually a lot of small things. This means that I can do them relatively quickly and walk away feeling confident that I’ve done everything I can at this point and good that I made conscious decisions about how to approach it.
The types of tasks I give myself vary but my list usually looks like this:
- Finish writing the thing.
- Follow up to get input on the other thing.
- Reach out to [person] to see how things are going, ask if you can be helpful or support.
- Post progress update.
- Write up potential risks and share with [people] to discuss.
- Ask [person] for links or resources to help understand how [complex magical thing] works.