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Dealing with ADHD’s Runaway Worry

How young adults with ADHD can stop needless anxiety from taking them — and their best intentions — on a long, winding ride.

ADHD at College: Coping with Anxiety
ADHD at College: Coping with Anxiety

Everyone feels anxious from time to time. But if you’re like me — a teenager bound hand and foot by the annoying limitations of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) — you know that anxiety can be a bigger problem for us than for people who don’t have ADHD.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve headed off to work or school only to be hit by those dreadful “did I” thoughts: “Did I leave the stove on?” “Did I forget to lock my car?” Or, my personal favorite: “Did I leave my dog tied to the front porch?”

These obsessive fears trigger a sense of doom, not to mention a whirlwind of internal debate. Part of me says, “I didn’t forget anything, so stop bugging me.” Another part says, “You’ve forgotten something of vital importance to your survival.”

[Anxiety Disorder: When Worry Is An Everyday Occasion]

Back and forth it goes, with points and counterpoints ricocheting inside my head. The mental chaos only adds to my sense of doom — and increases the likelihood that I’ll forget something else that I was supposed to remember.

Not long ago, I agreed to feed my older sister’s cats while she was away on business. So I drove to her apartment, fed them, then got in my car and started out on the 4.4-mile trip back home. Easy enough, right? Well, at the 1.5-mile point, I began to wonder: “Did I remember to give Bailey and Cody water as well as food?” I spent the next 0.8 mile thinking, “Yeah… um… I’m sure I gave them water. At least, I think I did. Didn’t I?”

During the next 0.8 mile, I began to think, “What if I didn’t give them water, and one of them gets sick? Or dies? I don’t want to have to tell my sister how sorry I am about the pair of dried-up cat carcasses she finds on the floor of her apartment.”

I spent another 0.8 mile worrying that, in addition to forgetting the water, I had neglected to close the door to my sister’s bedroom. “Sneaky old Bailey is going to ruin my sister’s expensive sweaters,” I thought.

[Self-Test: Do You Have a Working Memory Deficit?]

If you’ve done the math, you know that at this point I was a half-mile from home. And you can probably guess what happened next: I turned around and drove back to my sister’s apartment. The bedroom door was closed, and the cats had plenty of everything cats need to be happy. Once again, I had become a victim of my own needless anxiety.

What can be done about those “did I” thoughts? Meet them head-on, with realistic rather than catastrophic thinking. Otherwise, anxiety invites its friends over for a party in your head.

In the case of my sister’s cats, the fear that I would screw up the simple task of feeding them caused me to worry that I had forgotten to give them water. That worry led me to the fear that I had left the bedroom door open, putting those sweaters in harm’s way.

Had I been able to think more realistically, I would have known that my sister is smart enough to out-think a pair of mischievous cats — even with the bedroom door left open. I wouldn’t have worried about the door… and I wouldn’t have felt the need to backtrack to my sister’s apartment.

[These 6 Healthy Habits Can Improve Memory & Focus]

If you’re an air-traffic controller, even a minor slip-up can have disastrous consequences. But I’m not an air-traffic controller, and I have a hunch that you’re not one either. So let’s do our best to remember that we (and our cats) will survive all but our worst mistakes.

There is no guarantee against bad outcomes in life. Anxious people (including yours truly) must learn to accept this. As the saying goes, “If you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans.”