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ADHD and Anxiety: Connection, Similarities, and Treatment

Julia Ovcharenko, CEO of Numo
January 12, 2024

Any ADHDer out there is too well familiar with feeling anxious. Whether it’s panicking about looming deadlines you cannot start on or paranoia about forgetting something, and you can’t remember what, anxiety might as well be ADHD’s twin. 

But! 

Is it anxiety or ANXIETY? Is it just a byproduct of not performing as well as you want, or is it of clinical diagnosis variety, do these two conditions have a more intricate connection? 

All of that, and more, we will talk about in today’s article.

Today, you’ll learn: 

  • What is ADHD-induced anxiety
  • How it differs from anxiety disorders.
  • Can ADHD make anxiety worse? 
  • How to treat both with medication.
  • Coping strategies and tips to conquer these feelings.

Ready? 

Let’s dig in! 

[ADHD Anxiety Symptoms] First, Let’s Talk About ADHD Symptoms

As per tradition, first, let’s briefly examine ADHD symptoms to help us understand how they can feed into anxiety. 

We understand that you might just be learning about ADHD or you are trying to help your loved one who has ADHD, so this will be a short primer to initiate you into the wonderful mess that is ADHD. 

Now, while ADHD has plenty of symptoms that vary across age and gender, for simplicity's sake, I will split it into three main categories: impulsivity, forgetfulness, and difficulty with focusing and initiating tasks

Let’s look at what each category entails and how it can feed into feelings of anxiety.

Impulsivity

When you have ADHD, you may find it difficult to control impulses or spicy thoughts. I won’t bore you with scientific jargon, but the main concept here is that ADHDers can have atypical connectivity in their prefrontal cortex - a part of the brain responsible for impulse control and emotional regulation. 

That doesn’t mean impulse control doesn’t exist but that parts of the brain communicate with a noticeable delay1. While neurotypical people will have an easier time restraining themselves before they do something they shouldn’t, ADHDer will do something and then realize that they should not have done that.

So, for example, you may blurt out a mean insult when somebody upsets you and regret it moments later. This curiosity can make you hesitant about engaging with others out of fear of being unable to restrain yourself.

Difficulties with Focus

Now, it’s important to understand something here. Despite the common misconception, ADHDers don’t have problems maintaining focus, it’s just it’s difficult to focus on things you don’t particularly enjoy

This tendency has roots in the dopamine reward pathways. ADHDers have lower dopamine levels and need bigger stimulation to feel as satisfied as neurotypical folks. So, while non-ADHD people can force themselves to clean and do chores as they realize they will be good after the fact, for ADHDers, this line is more blurred. 

In short, ADHDers strife on immediate gratification, something that “adult” responsibilities don’t always provide. So initiating tasks is extra hard for ADHDers. That doesn’t mean they’re lacking the realization that it’s something they should be doing, though. 

This dilemma leads to what is known as ADHD paralysis, a state in which you are not doing anything and actively feel bad about it. As expected, the sensation of approaching doom because of all the deadlines and responsibilities can make one feel antsy. 

Forgetfulness

As you may have figured out by now, ADHDers are quite self-aware. We know and understand our shortcomings, but it’s just not something we can do much about a lot of the time. 

So, when you know that you tend to be forgetful and sometimes forget important things…well.

As a “fun” anecdote, I want to share a story from my life. I decided to fry myself a few eggs for breakfast before going out. Well, one thing led to another, I got distracted and…I left the skillet on the stove.

Yep, as I was waddling around the city with zero care, the empty skillet was simmering on the stove for more than a few sweet hours. When I got back home, my apartment was full of smoke. 

Thankfully, nothing caught on fire, but this incident made me panic. So now, whenever I go out, I have this creeping feeling that I forgot to turn off the stove or lock the doors.

I don’t even eat eggs anymore! But the fear persists. 

And what do we call “being terrified about things that didn’t or won’t happen”? Yep, it’s called anxiety. 😀

[ADHD vs. Anxiety] How to Tell ADHD Anxiety From Anxiety Disorder? 

It might sound like I’m arguing semantics here, but there is a difference.

In the same way, people can feel depressed sometimes without having a depression diagnosis, people can be anxious without possessing generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or other types of anxiety disorder.

Ok, then. So how do we tell the one from the other? 

I don’t want to take upon the burden of diagnosing you. Because there is an apparent overlap between symptoms of ADHD and GAD, you’re better off talking with a professional specializing in these conditions. 

But as a general rule, people with anxiety disorders tend to get anxious about everything

Instead of just being anxious about things related to your ADHD - like forgetting or not doing things - you worry about numerous things, and these worries can often feel absurd or lacking in logic and lead to catastrophic thinking
For example, let’s talk about worries about taking a test. 

What starts as a worry about failing a test spirals into “Not will I only fail this test, but they will expel me, I will never graduate, and everybody will laugh at me.” And, as if adding insult to injury, these thoughts will feel very real and as if these events have already passed

Whereas if we are talking about ADHD, you might still panic about not studying enough for a test (because you’re staring at the wall, again), but it won’t necessarily lead to catastrophizing and panic attacks. 

[ADHD Influence On Anxiety] How Does ADHD Influence Anxiety Disorder? 

Okay, but now let’s assume you have gone to the specialist and know you have ADHD and anxiety. 

So, do these conditions co-exist, or do they assemble a tag team to make your life full of wonder and excitement? 

Yes. They do. 😔

According to certain John Science findings, ADHDers with anxiety disorder diagnoses tend to have more intense symptoms than those without 3. In fact, just having ADHD makes one more susceptible to developing a genuine anxiety disorder4. So yeah, “fun stuff.”

Recall the earlier discussions about symptoms about how these two bounce off each other. 

ADHD can already give you more than a few reasons to feel anxious or antsy, but when you have an anxiety disorder, these feelings can linger and spiral out of control. So you can say that ADHD acts as an ever-present trigger for anxiety episodes

Let’s compare ADHD and social anxiety. If you have social anxiety, you can argue that you can avoid social gatherings if you believe you won’t be able to handle yourself this time. But what about ADHD? You can’t just ask it to take a walk or go on a vacation. 

[ADHD and Anxiety Treatment] How Do We Treat Anxiety and ADHD? 

Medication for ADHD and Anxiety

Well, it will all depend on how severe the symptoms are and whether you have been diagnosed with anxiety disorder or just ADHD. 

In a scenario where your anxiety is secondary, you may need to focus on treating your ADHD through a preferred combination of medication, psychotherapy, and life adjustments. 

If you have both, it will be up to the professionals to decide. Even though a medication like Adderall doesn’t have any particular or noticeable effect on anxiety, your doctor might still decide that it’s preferable to focus on one condition first rather than treating them simultaneously.

For anxiety, meanwhile, your doctor may prescribe you antidepressants if they believe that your situation is severe enough to warrant medical intervention. 

There is no such thing as the best medication for anxiety or ADHD. It all comes down to individual reactions and needs. 

Therapy for ADHD and Anxiety

However, medication is not everything, unfortunately. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I would be as happy as anyone else to pop a pill and magically cure everything wrong with me, but it’s not that simple. 

You still need to put in work yourself, as our favorite, Mr.Science, claims that the combination of therapy and medication is most effective at treating ADHD and anxiety5. Medication just gives you a jumpstart to the journey. 

As to which specific type of therapy to consider, it will come down to the choice of your counselor, depending on their expertise and your specific needs and situation. Most likely, you will be recommended cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). 

At its core, CBT is about rerouting negative thinking patterns to guide you away from despair and catastrophizing into a more positive and productive vein. You might have guessed that this approach can do wonders for ADHD and anxiety6, as these conditions often trap us in toxic thought loops.  

So CBT might be the way to go if you’re a lucky pal who got both. 

Lifestyle Changes for Anxiety and ADHD

Wait, not only do you need to take medication (potentially) and go to therapy, but you also have to do stuff? Yeah, sorry, I didn’t say it would be easy. 🤗

But although rewiring yourself from a couch gremlin who wants to substitute on trail mix and Office re-runs for a model citizen can sound like a drag, the future you will thank you. 

And trust me, some of these things are quite simple. 

Maintain Healthy Habits

I’m not saying just ditch all the good snacks that you apparently shouldn’t eat into the ditch tomorrow, but maybe a bit more lettuce here and there? Or replacing your 3rd and 4th cups of coffee for a day with a glass of water.

Although I don’t like turning to the stale saying you are what you eat, having balance in nutrients and fluids can make you feel surprisingly better. 

And once you have cut down on stuff like caffeine and alcohol, you may find out that falling asleep is a bit easier now. Insomnia and poor sleep schedule are major contributors to many things you don’t need help with - forgetfulness, inability to concentrate, emotional sensitivity, and more. 

Create Structure When There’s None

One of the main causes of ADHD burnout is the exasperation you feel about having so many things to do but having zero ideas about where to start.

Why does that happen? Well, it’s all because of the unstructured time

Even though I’ve always been a ball of ADHD, I am good at video games. Like, good. Once I started thinking about it, I realized what games have that life lacks: clear instructions and directions

I always knew what I had to do to progress, and each mission I completed gave me mini dopamine as I gained loot, xp, and other gizmos. 

Life lacks such guidelines, so losing yourself in many choices is easy. You must create these guidelines, or quests, for yourself

So every minute of your day - structure it. You can ease off a bit earlier, but for at least a month, ensure you have a plan for your entire day, including breaks. 

Yes, having plans doesn’t mean that you have to be in a, pardon my slang, “hustler on that grind, get that bread” mindset all the time. 

You just need to know what to do with your time. ⏱️

It will be more complicated in practice, but it’s a good place to start. 

[Numo ADHD Companion App] Numo: A Companion App To Help You Sort the Time and More

And speaking of structuring time. 🤓

That’s one of the cool things you can do with our Numo app. As many of us here at the office are ADHD enjoyers, in between sporadic procrastination, we brainstormed the platonic ideal of an ADHD companion app.

And here’s what we’ve come up with:

  • ADHD planner - the best ADHD planners realize that ADHDers need some extra oomph to start using the app and get productive. This is why ours comes with the magic of 🕹️gameification🕹️ As you scratch tasks off your list, you will receive XP points to hack your brain into getting those dope mints from finishing tasks. 🕶️
  • Noise generator - there is scientific and anecdotal evidence to suggest that noise generators can help us focus and relax, so we have included one here for your convenience. 🤗 We don’t know 100% if those things work for everyone but, hey, if it’s already there, why not give it a spin? 
  • A lot of cool stuff to read - we promise you not all of our content is this long! 😅 In the app, you will find a lot of short and informational tips and tricks on how to build resilience and develop healthy coping strategies, all told through the power of M E M E S. 
  • Squads and tribes - and, perhaps the crowning jewel of this whole operation is our fun community garden. 😌 For many reasons, ADHD is an elusive creature, as there is still a lot that we don’t know about it: the best treatment, causes, how to cope, etc. That’s why it’s one of those things where the community can make a difference. Together, we can share our crazy theories, revel in collective victories and losses, and just, you know. Hang around like the cool cats we are. 🐈

All in all, we’re trying to be at the cutting edge of ADHD because we’re not just the developers, we’re our own users and target audience

So if you’re looking for a refuge from your ADHD and anxiety or just want to share some spicy ADHD memes that we can’t post here because we’re honest Christians, hop on. 😎

[Conclusion] Conclusion

First, let’s summarize what we have learned today: 

  • ADHD symptoms can make you feel anxious. Inability to focus can make you lag on tasks, and the mounting pressure of deadlines and fear of failure, for instance, can contribute to feelings of anxiety. 
  • That doesn’t mean that ADHD and anxiety disorder are the same thing. While everyone feels anxious, anxiety disorders are separate conditions entirely. It’s important to distinguish between the two.
  • Still, anxiety disorder is a frequent comorbidity for ADHD, although precise biological mechanisms behind such connection aren’t fully understood. We know that ADHD and its consequence can trigger anxiety episodes. 
  • Medical treatment for ADHD and anxiety depends on your specific needs and causes. If your anxiety is secondary, your doctor may focus on treating ADHD first, hoping it will keep your anxiety in check. 
  • Lifestyle changes are an important element of managing ADHD and anxiety. From learning how to divert negative thinking patterns into positive ones and learning how to structure your time, medication alone cannot fix those issues. 

Overall, anxiety and ADHD are a funky blend because their symptoms already overlap. So when you have both conditions, a certain resonance can intensify both ADHD and anxiety. 

Although it might seem like a lot to struggle with, don’t lose hope. You can conquer your conditions and live a happy and productive life with the right approach and attitude.
And if you ever stumble or feel like it’s all just too much, the community can be your backbone. So, if you’ve been looking for one for all these years, hop on Numo.🤗 We’ll be happy to have you.

See you around. 👋

References
1 J Psychopathol Behav Assess. Impulsivity and Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder: Subtype Classification Using the UPPS Impulsive Behavior Scale
2 JAMA. Evaluating Dopamine Reward Pathway in ADHD
3 BMC Psychiatry. Adult ADHD and comorbid disorders: clinical implications of a dimensional approach.
4 The American Journal of Psychiatry. The Prevalence and Correlates of Adult ADHD in the United States: Results From the National Comorbidity Survey Replication.
5 NDT. Treatment of adults with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
6 Cochrane Library. Cognitive‐behavioural interventions for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in adults.

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