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ADHD: “I Really Fouled That Up.” Anxiety: “Hold My Beer.”

My cognitive brain breaks down under the weight of ADHD. When it does, my emotional, anxious mind goes berserk. From there, things tend to spiral out of control pretty quickly as ADHD and anxiety begin to feed off one another. When I feel this coming, I lean heavily on these five strategies — and not a small portion of self-forgiveness.

I compartmentalize my head into two parts: the brain (cognitive) and the mind (mental/emotional). I think of ADHD as a cognitive issue and anxiety as a mental/emotional one.

On occasion, BOTH go haywire for me at the same time, feeding off of each other’s negative impacts like ill-behaved schoolyard bullies. It goes like this: When my ADHD symptoms heighten, so too does my anxiety about not having the consistency or sharpness that life requires. ADHD and anxiety rise in tandem. Except that it doesn’t end there because the nature of anxiety is that it is selfish; it sweeps up all the scraps of energy we’ve got, cognitive and otherwise, and sucks them into its black, scary, bottomless hole. So it ends up looking more like this: ADHD up > Anxiety up > ADHD up higher > Anxiety up higher…

When this happens for me, I’m not going to lie: It. Is. Hell. It starts with me feeling an edge of overwhelm. Then I feel completely and totally stupid. Then I feel outright panicked — both my heart and my thoughts slamming hard and fast in my chest/head pretty much all the time.

Allow me take you on the wild ride of an ADHD and anxiety flare up:

  • ADHD means I can’t be productive. Anxiety means I can’t relax.

[Self-Test: Generalized Anxiety Disorder in Adults]

  • ADHD won’t let me resolve problems. Anxiety makes me think I have problems I don’t actually have.
  • ADHD makes it hard to focus. Anxiety keeps me inside my head, making me even less available for the things I already have trouble concentrating on.
  • ADHD makes planning difficult. Anxiety, a control freak, convinces me I need to plan everything down to the tiniest of detail.
  • ADHD makes it so that any task requiring sustained brainpower feels hard. Anxiety, consequently, makes my heart pound and my pits sweat every time I approach a task requiring my brain.

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  • ADHD makes small things I did before with ease seem big. Anxiety makes small things I did before with ease seem bigger.
  • ADHD makes it difficult to keep up with life’s demands. Anxiety tells me not only that I’m falling behind on life’s demands, but that that means at any given moment everything will fall apart.
  • ADHD makes me nervous I’ll screw up in situations when I can’t rely on my brain. Anxiety picks up steam and becomes a beast of its own, making me nervous without any valid reason and all the time.
  • ADHD makes my filter broken so that ALL the feels, thoughts, memories, to-dos, stimuli, choices, and shades of grey of both my internal and external world are striking me at once. Anxiety tells me if I let one slip through the cracks and go unaddressed, the sky will fall.
  • ADHD makes me forgetful, confused, unable to figure out basic things, and communicate awkwardly. Anxiety makes me worried I’ll get found out any moment that I am forgetful and confused and unable to figure out basic things and unable to communicate smoothly. (You can see the flashing signs here as they segue to social anxiety.)
  • ADHD makes me even more frazzled when I’m rushed or under pressure. Anxiety tricks me into thinking I need to be in a state of rush and pressure.
  • ADHD makes me perform unintelligently. Anxiety makes me feel scared.

Here’s the first thing I want to say to you if you are in this place right now: You are not alone. I am just now crawling my way out of this very place; you’ve got a soul sister in me. Here’s the second thing I want to say to you if you are in this place right now: find a moment later today when you are distraction-free and maybe wearing ear buds with relaxing, classical music piping in, and read these five tips. I promise they won’t tax you; they will help you.

G.O.Y.I.: Get Off Your Island

There are two ways I do this:

1. I bust out my copy of Sari Solden’s Women with ADD and log on to ADDitudeMag.com to read blogs written by ADHD moms or dust off my stacks of articles and clippings written by ADHD specialists or just plain ole people like you and me. (See? You can already feel successful because you’re doing it now!)

This is an important caveat: Avoid reading anything that makes you feel you have to do anything. Now is not the time to implement strategies or to add anything. That requires cognitive juice and you have NONE. You’re in crisis and folks in crises don’t need MORE (at least not at first); they need to feel not alone.

The purpose of this reading is support. Reading about brilliant men and women who struggle with basic things and mental health sidecars in the same way I do makes me feel oodles better. Yes, life is still hard while I’m waiting for this distressed time to subside. But what this reading does is this: It stakes down a bridge leading me from my little isolated island to the vast set of experiences/struggles of others like me. And that’s worth its weight in gold.

2. Rely on your FDP (Full Disclosure People) and no one else. I have three: my husband, my beloved mother-in-law, and my best girlfriend. Mine happen to all be neurotypical; FDP don’t have to be folks who “get it” first-handed. They just need to be nonjudgmental, curious, supportive, patient people who have your best interest in mind.

My ADHD and anxiety spirals are largely invisible. If anything shows on the outside, it’s probably my running around in circles getting nothing done, tightening my grip on everything in an effort to control it, losing my sense of humor because I’m not quick enough, and socially acting awkward since my mind is so blank and I’m having such difficulty following the pace of conversation. That’s just the outside. On the inside, I’m a freakin’ mess: panicked, filled with self-doubt, and my physical body perpetually worked up.

My point: My husband doesn’t even know I’m hurting unless I tell him. So, I do. I tell him — and the others — where I am with my struggles, I explain what I’m doing about it, and I let them know that I need to be treated a tad more tenderly than usually. I tell them they might notice me backing away from commitments, even with them. I ask for them to see this as taking care of myself, not something frightening like withdrawal or isolation. I tell them that I like it when they ask about “it” but that I might say I don’t want to talk about it. And I ask them to treat me otherwise normally, not holding back on telling me their stuff, both good and bad.

In doing this, I am instantly sharing the island I previously inhabited alone. THAT feels a lot better, too.

There’s a reason I specify to keep the number you share with down: Not everyone is a) as nonjudgmental, curious, supportive, and as patient as your FDP nor b) equipped to handle or understand conversations around mental health.

O.B.L.: Operate on a Basic Level

Even when I am at steady baseline, I make sure to bubble wrap myself with loads of self-care. As a SAHM of multiple kids with their own special needs, this means farming out many of the household tasks under my charge, saying no to lots of volunteer stuff others seem to do with ease, making sure my calendar doesn’t get too filled, and doing lots of hobbies that promote relaxation.

But when I find myself below baseline, in one of these ADHD-anxiety swirls, I redouble my efforts. Still, anxiety tells me that the only way to exist in my family, in my work, in my home, in my life is to eat on china (not paper plates), guarantee all major food groups are included in dinner (not just Taco Bell), fold and put away the laundry RIGHT NOW (not leave it in the basket for family members to pluck from), obsess about the project due next week since a month ago (not trust that your planning is on track), and keep every minute busy and filled (not sit on the couch watching Season 1 of “Golden Girls”). My anxiety tells me that if I don’t fulfill all these requirements, people are going to notice and be suspicious or judgmental of me.

The only way to heal, I’ve found, is to practice rest and relaxation: Take a look at the tasks under your charge regularly and in the next few weeks. Then slash all the ones that can be slashed (reality means there’s certain stuff you cannot remove, and that’s ok because you’re offloading the rest). Carry out, slacking on all areas of home management, not writing thank you notes, saying no to invitations, buying gift cards instead of the perfectly thoughtful gift, avoiding chaotic environments like the grocery store and retail shopping, taking a hiatus from volunteer work, asking co-workers to temporarily fill in on tasks that overwhelm you, not returning non-urgent phone calls, letting the kids watch more screens, and lounging or piddling with all that spare time – for the time being – is my plan. It doesn’t sound like a productive plan, but it IS going to get me back on my feet faster, reducing my ADHD and anxiety, and I call that productive.

Mantra & ear buds, ear buds, ear buds….

Ironically, relaxation often involves the brain. For example, I can’t read for very long when I’m in this anxious space; even light pleasure reading confuses my brain! As a solution, I recently came up with the idea of listening to an audio book, but logging on to the library website to reserve one fried my muddled brain (couldn’t figure it out), and I gave up. Even journaling, something that normally is very therapeutic, can become obsessive and unhelpful (since I am confused about what to say and how to say it during these times).

What I try to do is piece together as much cognitive-free self-care as possible (usually exercise, meditation, art, massage, and getting wrapped up in a binge-worthy TV series). For all the other hours and minutes of free time that I’ve cleared out, and even while I’m conducting normal daily tasks, I wear ear buds and practice a mantra. The ear buds help filter out extraneous internal and external stimuli. The mantra brings me back to my body through my breath, which I find easily gets shallow and tight without proper attention during these seasons. My mantras are usually two sentences — one on the belly-inhale and one on the belly-exhale. My favorites are:

“Everything is OK. One thing at a time.”

“Don’t sweat the small stuff. Slow your ass down.”

“Now is not forever. Be here now.”

“Stop worrying over yourself. No one cares.”

“It’s the ADHD and anxiety. It’ll end.”

“Be in my body. Be in my body.”

F.T.C.: Force the Calm (and Get Sloppy)

My mindful meditation practice has taught me that it’s not helpful to force anything. Striving is to be replaced with “being,” control and force replaced with “acceptance.” I break all these rules, sometimes, with F.T.C.

When my anxiety is working my body and mind from sun up to sun down, I employ the F.T.C. method. I Force. The. Calm. Since anxiety is tricking me with panic, I trick it back with forced chill. This requires thespian skills, because it’s acting the way you want to feel instead of the way you’re actually feeling in hopes that the two will meet in the middle.

Here’s what I mean: I walk one-tenth the speed my body and mind say I should, like I’ve got all the time in the world. Even though my muscles are tense as hell, I sit and stand in a leisurely posture – flopping my arms and legs around haphazardly like I don’t have a care in the world. I even force myself to be sloppy with time and belongings, loosening up despite how tightly it feels I need to hold on. I grab the first thing in my drawers to wear, instead of trying to work at matching something. I speak more slowly, too – not trying too hard to communicate well or clearly – just slowly.

What I’ve found is that if I show anxiety that the world will stay on its axis even when I’m slow, sloppy, and yield to my ADHD disorganization, then I reduce anxiety’s power over me. And my ADHD likes the slow, sloppy pace, too… my cognitive performance generally improves when I’m not rushing it along.

S.A.E.C.: Smile at Every Chance

Some time ago, I foolishly signed up to help an executive board by “nominating” folks to fill the 20-some volunteer positions on the committee the following year. In an ADHD/anxiety spiral, I bowed out of this position altogether. This felt flaky and shitty, and I was doing lots of self-loathing. Then I decided to do something different: LAUGH. Because, seriously. Can we all see the irony of me hunting down someone to fill my vacant slot for a job that requires filling people in slots?

Life is mostly ridiculous and absurd and funny, and the more I pay attention to its ridiculousness, absurdity, and funniness, the more I am offered a touchpoint that has nothing to do with my own problems, a break from me.

Watch movies that make you laugh, find YouTube bloopers that make you snicker, allow your loved ones to kid and chide, and most importantly – during this time when you may be inclined to approach yourself with rigidity and legalism – decide that you won’t take yourself too seriously. It’s just so much better to crack a grin at how much moosh is swhirling around in that brain of yours instead of beating yourself up about it (and no one’s noticing as much as you think they are anyhow).

Most of all, take heart and be kind to yourself while you are waiting for your ADHD and anxiety to heal, for your cognitive sharpness and emotional peace to return. It will.

[Up Next: Silence Your Inner ADHD Critic]

Updated on November 14, 2019

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  1. Thank you for much for writing this article, Tricia. Everyday I struggle with anxiety and ADHD. I try to explain my experience to those around me, but people dont get it. Not only is it exasperating, it is embarrassing because usually, I can’t find the words to describe how and why I feel the way I do. This leads to people assuming I’m an idiot or I’m making excuses…
    Thank you. Just, thank you for this. For understanding. For making me feel less like a freak failing at life.

  2. Neongreen, You know I get it. You don’t even have to find the words to explain it, and I get it. Thank you for your kind words. And keep being gracious to yourself. Lots of patience and grace needed in the business of living with ADHD/Anxiety. Best wishes…

  3. Thank you for writing and sharing this! I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how my ADHD and anxiety intersect, and you articulated the experience in such a beautiful and relatable way. Bravo!

  4. I just read this article and this one: https://www.additudemag.com/inattentive-adhd-women-diagnosis-challenges/

    Thank you so much for writing about your experiences. It feels so, so very good to know I’m not the only one.
    I landed in the WENT TO CRAP phase roughly three months ago and it’s much like you describe. Malfunctioning brain, my confidence and selfesteem are MIA and suddenly I am panicking over every little thing in my life. I’m making a start on harnassing that shit, but in the meantime I’ll be rereading this article *a lot*. Most anxiety advice doesn’t do much for me (scented candles are not going to calm me down, Karen), but yours make a lot of sense for me.

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