Stress & Anxiety

ADHD Catastrophizing in Times of Crisis: What To Do When Fear Spirals

In times of crisis, your ADHD brain catastrophizes — jumping to the worst-case scenario, which is paralyzing at best. Here, learn strategies for reorienting and recalibrating your ADHD brain on a daily basis to release the anxiety and move forward with your health intact.

ADHD catastrophizing in the time of coronavirus

Each day you wake up to a different world during this crisis. Up is down and down is up. Some of us with ADHD feel confused, frustrated, scattered, or anxious — most, I would venture to guess, feel all of the above, and much more. How can you possibly find your new (albeit temporary) normal with so much change and uncertainty right now?

To manage ourselves and our ADHD, we need to practice the lost arts of reorienting and recalibrating. Reorienting yourself is like looking at a map and figuring out your location on it. Recalibrating yourself means adjusting your course to make sure you remain on the right track. Both of these will help in this moment.

Here are some strategies for managing your reorientation and recalibration amid the crisis caused by the novel respiratory illness.

How to Combat Crisis Catastrophizing: Do a Daily Reality Check

Reality testing means assessing a situation for what it is rather than what we hope or fear it to be.

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Reorient yourself: Many of us with ADHD have wildly active imaginations that veer quickly to catastrophizing. We have irrational thoughts that lead us to believe that a situation is far worse than it actually is. We make a catastrophe out of a current situation and imagine the worst-case scenario in the future. To combat this tendency, do a daily (or hourly) reality check and reaffirm your present reality. Breathe slowly to stop the “what if” monster that creeps into your thoughts.

Recalibrate yourself: Get all of it — the thoughts, worries, and rumination — out of your head and down on paper. Then examine what you wrote.

Write down the things that you need to accomplish today and then ask, “Is that realistic?” Write down what you may want to think about in the future and then ask, “What are the real concerns here?” Write down the things that you don’t have to do today, but are nagging at you, then ask, “When can I schedule these things?”

Anna, who has ADHD, saw that her anxious thoughts were increasing since the disease started to make the news. She started checking in with herself hourly. “It’s my way of taking my temperature,” she decided. When her phone chimes on the hour, Anna asks herself three questions:

  1. How am I feeling right now?
  2. How is that feeling affecting my reality?
  3. Do I want to change how I am feeling right now?

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How to Combat Crisis Catastrophizing: Keep a Daily Schedule

Ugh. I said it. Many of us with ADHD reject routines because we would rather go with the flow, and keep our plans open-ended. But scheduling and keeping a routine can improve our sense of well-being and productivity. For starters, get ready in the morning like you normally would.

Reorient yourself: Set a rhythm for your day. One newly self-isolated person decided to set productivity times for himself. “I work between 10 am – 1 pm, when my medication is at its peak, and then take a break and work again from 1:30 – 3 pm.” If you guard your productivity times carefully, you will have time for relaxation, rest, and hobbies. Make sure you include exercise and eating in your schedule.

Recalibrate yourself: Each day, set a time in the morning to have a meeting with yourself. Figure out what needs to get done, then do it during your designated productivity time. Add exercise and your fun activities afterward.

How to Combat Crisis Catastrophizing: Avoid Unhealthy Hyperfocus

Just about anyone can get lost in something that interests them, but for those of us with ADHD, this tendency can be problematic. Our hyperfocus can cause us to block out the rest of the world and lose track of time — and it can keep us from completing essential tasks. It requires a large amount of energy and effort to manage your attention – especially during tough times.

Reorient yourself: Because we have trouble breaking a fixated state and switching our attention to something else, we need to anticipate our mental sand traps. Video games, television, or social media can suck up hours. So can an obsession with news reports. Figure out where your fascination lies and create a boundary of time around it.

Recalibrate yourself: After identifying the likely culprits that lead you down a rabbit hole to hyperfocus, determine that you will not begin that activity unless you set a timer. Or bargain with yourself — for example, you can look at the news after you finish cleaning your email.

How to Combat Crisis Catastrophizing: Stay (Remotely) Social

Although social media helps people maintain distant relationships, it doesn’t meet our deeper emotional and social needs. Find ways to connect with others in a real-time interaction that satisfies you.

Reorient yourself: Analyze your responses to different social media platforms. How much time are you spending on your social media? Is your time on social media making you happier, more optimistic, and productive? Crystal explained, “Facebook makes me feel gross and envious. Instagram is okay for me.”

Recalibrate yourself: Find ways each day to have one meaningful contact with another person. Use technology to help you accomplish that during social isolation. Marquis told me that he had lunch with his adult daughter this week. Both were working from home and video-called each other as they took a break for lunch. “It was good to connect with her,” he said. Some co-workers are scheduling online social time to have conversations with no agenda.

Transitions can be difficult for those of us with ADHD. Shifting your lifestyle to slow the spread of the disease doesn’t need to wreck your personal and professional lives. Each day, look at the new landscape to reorient yourself and then plan how you will respond to recalibrate yourself. Use the reorient and recalibrate process in other areas of your life to manage your mind.

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