What Is Anxious ADD?
Do you experience distressing intrusive thoughts that seem to race through your brain? Do you often struggle to focus? Do you engage in impulsive or risky behaviors that often leave you feeling nervous? If you experience any or all of these things, the first and most important thing you should know is that you are not alone; nothing is wrong with you. But these experiences can be hallmarks of mental health conditions such as anxiety and ADHD; if these conditions are allowed to go untreated, they can have a detrimental impact on your mental health and your quality of life.
So, in this article, we’ll explore the symptoms of anxiety and ADHD to learn how these conditions can affect you and how you can seek treatment.
What is Anxiety?
Let’s begin by taking a deep dive into the reality of living with anxiety. If you experience symptoms of anxiety, it’s likely that your brain spam you with unsettling intrusive thoughts that feel hard to shake. There are many common misconceptions about anxiety— including the belief that having anxiety is the same as being a bit nervous— but, in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Anxiety is a very real mental health condition that can have a detrimental impact on your mental health.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America asserts that “generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is characterized by persistent and excessive worry about a number of different things. People with GAD may anticipate disaster and may be overly concerned about money, health, family, work, or other issues. Individuals with GAD find it difficult to control their worry. They may worry more than seems warranted about actual events or may expect the worst even when there is no apparent reason for concern.
GAD is diagnosed when a person finds it difficult to control worry on more days than not for at least six months and has three or more symptoms. This differentiates GAD from worry that may be specific to a set stressor or for a more limited period of time.
GAD affects 6.8 million adults, or 3.1% of the U.S. population, in any given year. Women are twice as likely to be affected. The disorder comes on gradually and can begin across the life cycle, though the risk is highest between childhood and middle age. Although the exact cause of GAD is unknown, there is evidence that biological factors, family background, and life experiences, particularly stressful ones, play a role.”
Anxiety can affect both your mental and physical health in a wide variety of ways, with common symptoms including:
- Avoiding public places
- Serious fear of being judged
- Extreme self-consciousness
- Agitation and anger
- Fear of meeting new people
- Avoiding eye contact
- Afraid of speaking in public
- Nausea, diarrhea, or vomiting
- Isolating yourself even from family and friends
- Sweating or shaking
- Rapid or irregular heart rate
- Believing that others are laughing at you
- Misusing alcohol or drugs to cope with stress, especially in social situations
- Panic attacks (hyperventilating, chest pain, sweating, fear of something bad happening to you)
All of these symptoms can affect your life in a profoundly negative way, especially when anxiety attaches itself to your social life. In fact, many people also have social anxiety as a subset of Generalized Anxiety Disorder; as a result, people who experience social anxiety may feel especially nervous and uncomfortable in social situations.
What is ADHD?
In the previous section, we explored the impact and symptoms of anxiety, so now it’s time to learn more about ADHD. The CDC defines ADHD as “one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders of childhood. It is usually first diagnosed in childhood and often lasts into adulthood. Children with ADHD may have trouble paying attention, controlling impulsive behaviors (may act without thinking about what the result will be), or be overly active.
Common symptoms of ADHD include:
- Daydreaming a lot
- Forgetting or losing things a lot
- Squirming, fidgeting, or generally appearing unable to sit still
- Talking too much
- Making careless mistakes or take unnecessary risks
- Difficulties with emotional regulation
- Trouble with time management
- Poor impulse control
- Struggles with executive functioning
Because ADHD is so commonly diagnosed in childhood, many people operate on the assumption that ADHD primarily affects children. However, in reality, ADHD is actually a lifelong neurobehavioral disorder that can affect someone throughout their entire life. Contrary to popular misconceptions, children do not simply “grow out of” ADHD; instead, children who have ADHD grow up to be adults with ADHD. And, as you can see from the list of symptoms above, ADHD can have a profound impact on a person’s daily life and mental health.
Comorbid Conditions and ADHD
Many ADHD symptoms are debilitating and disruptive; without proper support and treatment, people who live with ADHD may experience substantial difficulties in holding down a job, developing relationships, and living a happy, healthy life. In addition to these symptoms, people who live with ADHD can also experience other, comorbid conditions. Although that word may sound a bit dark, the good news is that it actually isn’t; comorbid is simply a term for two or more conditions that are present for the same person.
People who have ADHD can experience a wide variety of additional mental health conditions, including anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and autism. It is helpful to understand the relationship between comorbid conditions that occur with ADHD because each of these conditions are likely to have some symptoms that are similar and some that are unique to each specific condition; all of these symptoms can impact a person’s life and mental health in different ways.
For example, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is characterised by intrusive thoughts and ritualistic behaviors that occur in a toxic cycle; people who live with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder often become so distressed by their thoughts that they may try to perform an action or engage in mental rituals in a desperate effort to neutralise the thought or prevent the outcome they fear. Likewise, someone who has ADHD may develop compulsive behavior that appears very similar to compulsions seen in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, but they may engage in these behaviors for very different reasons.
For example, someone who lives with “just right OCD” or “perfectionism OCD” might spend an inordinate amount of time cleaning, organising, and arranging their things. For someone who has OCD, these behaviours may be fear-driven rituals that are designed to help that person cope with or neutralise their fear of things being out of place. In this case, these compulsive behaviours are highly likely to have a negative impact on that person’s mental health and it would be best for them to work through their fears with a therapist so that they can learn why they engage in compulsive behaviors and how they can stop.
By contrast, however, people who have ADHD are often highly aware of the disruptive nature of their symptoms— such as hyperactivity, disorganisation, and time-blindness— so it’s not uncommon for someone to attempt to find a creative way to cope with their ADHD symptoms. These coping mechanisms may involve unique strategies to minimise the clutter and disorganisation in their lives; in practice, these behaviours may look a lot like compulsive OCD rituals.
But the core difference which sets these compulsions apart is the motivations that drive them. For someone with OCD, their compulsions are quite literally part of the problem; OCD compulsions have a negative impact on a person’s mental health and most therapeutic strategies aim to help people dismantle their obsessions and compulsions so they can live a life free from fear-based rituals. By contrast, someone who lives with ADHD may engage in compulsive behavior as a coping mechanism rather than a ritual. They may still feel as though they have to do those things but these compulsions are not inherently driven by fear. Identifying the motivation behind the compulsion is crucial for any successful treatment plan.
As you can see from these examples, ADHD can share many similarities with other mental health conditions such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. And because OCD is characterised by high levels of anxiety, it’s not uncommon for someone who lives with ADHD and/or OCD to also experience symptoms of generalised anxiety. In fact, although anxiety is not classified as an intrinsic symptom of ADHD, many people who live with ADHD report that their symptoms often cause them a great deal of anxiety, distress, and difficulty with self-image.
Psychologist J. Russell Ramsay observes that “some symptoms — like fidgeting and trouble concentrating — are hallmarks of both ADHD and anxiety. As a result, clinicians must rule out anxiety and other mental disorders when diagnosing ADHD, and vice versa.
Individuals diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety disorders tend to have more severe anxiety symptoms than do those without ADHD. But even adults with ADHD who do not meet the diagnostic criteria for anxiety may experience occasional and situational anxiety in their daily lives – precisely because of ADHD, which may cause time blindness, poor working memory, and exaggerated emotions, among other anxiety-producing symptoms.
In one study on adults with ADHD, researchers noted that problems stemming from ADHD — such as tardiness, procrastination, and the prospect of social stigma — all led participants to experience anxiety at many points in their lives, “and once they were anxious, their ADHD symptoms worsened.”
So, as we can see from these examples, ADHD and anxiety can be intimately connected in a vicious cycle; these often comorbid conditions can collide in a person’s brain and, as a result, the symptoms of both conditions worsen. This can be especially difficult if you are living with undiagnosed and untreated symptoms of ADHD, OCD, anxiety, or all of the above. In the next section, we’ll explore the treatment options that are available for these mental health conditions and how you can seek help.
How Therapy Can Help
Therapists are uniquely qualified to treat mental health conditions like anxiety, OCD and ADHD, so if you discuss your symptoms with your therapist, they will be able to help you identify the condition that is causing your symptoms and develop a treatment plan that will empower you to work through these symptoms and reclaim your life.
As previously mentioned, anxiety, OCD and ADHD have some very similar symptoms, so it’s important to receive a very clear and accurate diagnosis from a licensed mental health professional; when you attempt to diagnose yourself, you run the risk of making an inaccurate conclusion that may negatively impact your treatment strategy and the future of your recovery. But a therapist can walk you through some diagnostic tools to help you learn more about the conditions that are impacting your brain and provide you with treatment options to help you fight back.
It’s also important to remember that OCD and ADHD require very different approaches to treatment. ADHD is most commonly managed through a combination of medication and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (commonly abbreviated as CBT), a therapeutic technique that is designed to help people with ADHD manage their symptoms. Likewise, anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder are commonly treated with a combination of therapeutic techniques such “exposure response prevention therapy (abbreviated as ERP) in addition to CBT and medication.
What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?
If you’re not familiar with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the simplest definition is that CBT is a type of talk therapy. This form of therapy is designed to reduce anxiety by reframing our thoughts and providing a positive alternative to the stories we tell ourselves.
For example, if you are someone who experiences high levels of anxiety on a daily basis, you may often think, “I’m so nervous” or “Everyone is staring at me” or “Everything is going to go wrong!” These are common fears that people with anxiety experience and these fears inform our behavior and, consequently, our perceptions of situations. But CBT aims to alter this internal monologue by reframing your thoughts in a more positive and rational context so you can go through life without being paralysed by these fears.
For example, CBT often encourages people to avoid a practice known as “black and white thinking.” This type of thought process is common for people who live with anxiety because the anxious brain tends to think in extremes as a result of the fear signals that are flooding the brain. In practice, this might cause someone to think, “Everything is going to go wrong!” But CBT encourages people to reframe that thought by making a conscious effort to tell yourself something like, “I’m experiencing feelings of anxiety right now. My brain is causing me to worry that the worst possible outcome will occur.”
This might sound quite simplistic but, in reality, reframing your thought processes can be extremely beneficial! When we re-write our internal script, we can remember that thoughts and feelings are not facts; our brains may send us these signals but that doesn’t mean that these signals are accurate representations of reality. Re-training your brain in this manner can be incredibly beneficial for someone who is struggling with stress and feeling constantly overwhelmed by fear signals in the brain.
Your therapist can work with you as you unpack your feelings and, together, understand your specific experience with stress and it’s impact on your life. From there, you can work together to develop a treatment plan and assemble an arsenal of positive tools and coping mechanisms that will help you address your symptoms. Whether this includes CBT, medication, or a combination of both, your therapeutic treatment plan can empower you to fight back, reclaim your peace of mind, and begin your healing journey.
What is ERP?
CBT is commonly used to treat anxiety and PTSD and it can also be very helpful in the treatment of ADHD. But Exposure Response Prevention therapy is primarily used to treat Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, so let’s take a look at ERP and how this method works. ERP is the gold standard of OCD therapy because it has been proven to be the most effective method for treating Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. A variety of studies conducted in multiple different countries have all concluded that ERP is the most effective OCD treatment around the world. This effectiveness was determined because people who completed a course of ERP showed a marked improvement in their symptoms and in their ability to control their responses to intrusive thoughts.
It’s important to pursue a course of therapy like ERP because OCD cannot be cured and medication can’t stop the intrusive thoughts from sticking in your brain. Anxiety medication is also commonly used in conjunction with a course of ERP because it can help to lessen the severity of the thoughts and your responses to them. But because medication does not address the underlying cause of OCD, it’s like putting a band-aid on a broken arm; it can’t be a long-term fix for your problem. That’s why we need ERP: because ERP works to treat the underlying cause of OCD (fear) and help you reclaim control by mitigating your response to the frightening stimuli.
So, how does it do that? Well, ERP does exactly what it says in the name: it’s a way of exposing yourself to your fears while preventing the compulsive responses that you normally engage in. For example, “harm OCD” is a common theme in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. People who battle this particular theme struggle with intrusive thoughts about harming someone else. They might worry that they have hurt someone in the past and repressed the memory (even when there is no evidence to support this thought) or that their thoughts mean they are secretly a violent, terrible person.
Even if that individual has never hurt another person in their lives, even if hurting someone is the last thing they ever want to do, harm OCD can keep them in a constant state of worry, guilt, and anxiety. Crime shows can be a common trigger for harm OCD; a person watching such shows might struggle with thoughts like, “What if I hurt or killed somebody?” or “I’m just like that terrible criminal on TV.” To escape the pain of these intrusive thoughts, people with harm OCD might avoid watching crime shows altogether. Or, if they do watch them, they might subject themselves to a series of mental compulsions like combing through past memories in search of proof that they have never committed a violent crime.
In this case, a session of ERP would involve sitting with your anxiety and avoiding your compulsions. So, while the intrusive thoughts attack you, your course of ERP would teach you to refrain from engaging with them or performing your compulsions. Instead, you would simply continue watching the show and reply to your thoughts with a common OCD coping script like saying, “Maybe I did commit a violent crime. I can’t know for certain, so I’ll have to move on with my life and stop thinking about it.” For someone who doesn’t experience OCD, this might sound very easy. But if you have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, the pressure to engage with your intrusive thoughts can be all-consuming and debilitating. So, simple ERP tasks can be both daunting and absolutely necessary for reclaiming control of your life.
If you begin seeking treatment for OCD, it’s important to be aware that therapy may be difficult and uncomfortable. You may be asked to engage in thought exercises that are upsetting or unpleasant, but a good therapist will never ask you to do something that will put you at risk or be more than you can handle. You can also take breaks during sessions as you need them and talk through your feelings with your therapist.
Therapy for OCD can be difficult at times but living with untreated OCD is even harder. So, even if you sometimes find therapy uncomfortable, please remember that therapy offers light at the end of the tunnel; if you are honest with your therapist and consistent with ERP, you can experience a significant decrease in your compulsive behaviours and begin to enjoy life again.
Seeking Support With BetterHelp
In the previous sections, we’ve explored some different therapeutic techniques and the unique ways in which these methods can treat conditions such as ADHD, anxiety, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. So, if you can relate to any of the symptoms described in this article and you feel that you’re struggling, you may find it helpful to connect with a therapist who is qualified to help you address your symptoms.
So, if you feel ready to reach out and seek hope and healing through therapy, you may want to consider BetterHelp. With the advances in modern technology, many people have gravitated toward online therapy because this format is more convenient in our hectic, fast-paced world. Rather than needing to amend your schedule to attend an in-person therapy appointment, online therapy is literally right at your fingertips; you can chat with your therapist from the comfort of your own phone any time you want! So, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help. Hope is only a click away!
Here are some commonly asked questions about the subject:
How do I know if its anxiety or ADD?
Does ADD make you anxious?
Do ADD meds help with anxiety?
What are the 7 types of ADD?
What does anxious ADD look like?
How can I calm my ADD?
What does ADHD anxiety feel like?
Can untreated ADD cause anxiety?
Do I have ADHD or just anxiety?
Should I take Adderall if I have anxiety?