In my last blog article, Growing up with Undiagnosed ADHD, I described how distractibility was a key challenge for me in elementary school. But, when I started middle school, I was not only distracted; I was scared. Middle school was an unfamiliar environment where I was learning new things about myself and the world around me. In elementary school, my primary ADHD distractions were physical objects and things around me; In middle school, the main distractions were the people around me. I also began to experience both ADHD and anxiety.
Being a Middle Schooler With ADHD and Anxiety
Luckily for me, I received a diagnosis of ADHD in elementary school. Because of this, I was able to get accommodations before starting middle school. Accommodations made a significant difference in how I performed in school and helped me be successful. Getting accommodations was not all positive, though. When I first started using my accommodations in middle school, not all teachers were equally supportive. This, unfortunately, is quite common.
I remember feeling guilty about taking tests in a different room and getting extended time on tests. It felt like I was cheating or had an unfair advantage, which was not the case. It took me some time to understand it, but the accommodations put me on an equal playing field with my peers.
The goal of accommodations is to help students who struggle with ADHD be successful by giving them extra support and help. However, some of my middle school teachers did not agree with the accommodations and did not help.
I had an unfortunate situation with one teacher who decided that I would take her tests in the hallway while other students were taking tests in the classroom. She chose to do this, instead of having me test in a different room or at a different time. Even worse, this particular class was during the lunch period. This meant people would walk by while I was taking a test separate from the rest of the class! It was especially distracting because people would always look at me. This not only made my ADHD act up, but my anxiety, too.
Middle school can be hard, especially if you have ADHD and anxiety.
Defining and Coping With Anxiety
What Is Anxiety?
Now, this is a big question. Anxiety, technically, is “emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes,” as defined by the American Psychological Association. But, in reality, anxiety looks different for everyone.
I am not here to tell you how to feel or how anxiety is supposed to feel. I can only speak to my experience and hope that you can relate.
For me, my anxiety was this feeling of being overwhelmed by all the stimuli that my ADHD was throwing at me. And my anxiety would blow up these stimuli, which ranged from subtle glances in the hallway to someone looking me up and down as if to judge me. Anxiety, for me, was like a magnifying lens that placed me in the center of everything and made me feel like I was the focus of everyone’s attention, even though I knew I was not.
One example that many who experience social anxiety can relate to is the look you get from people when walking in the hallways. I remember walking into school each day and passing people who would simply glance at me. Looking back on this, I know they were likely thinking, “Who is the person walking by me?,” just like we all do when people walk by. But, to me, that look would send my brain into overdrive.
Ironically, even though I have ADHD and have a hard time focusing, I am more than capable of focusing on things that spike my anxiety. When it comes to my ADHD and anxiety, that person looking at me meant much more. I would get sent into this cycle of “why” and “what if” questions. And, believe it or not, I would hyperfocus on that all day.
That was my life, until I got help.
Getting Help for Anxiety
Going to counseling for my anxiety changed the game for me. Finally, I was starting to understand that these changes and thoughts I was having were just my mind taking thoughts to an extreme, and that my thoughts were not based on reality. I also started to understand my anxiety and what caused it.
I learned that my anxiety works as a “thought circle.” One thought would trigger another, and that thought would trigger another, and so on. All the while, my thoughts would approach the typical “The world is collapsing around me” mindset that many people with anxiety understand all too well.
Understanding my anxiety, and especially how ADHD shaped my anxiety, was the first step in learning how to control it and to live with it.
Taking Control of ADHD and Anxiety
The key to taking control of my anxiety was interrupting this cycle of thinking. It is very similar to trying to break a habit loop. Through counseling, I learned to recognize the pattern early on and understand what was happening. For me, I would think something like, “Why is that person looking at me?,” or “What if I fail this exam?,” and I would begin my loop of anxiety.
Recognizing and Writing Out My Thoughts
To stop this thought loop, I would need to recognize what was happening in my head so that I could show myself that my thought was unrealistic. I’m not going to lie; this was impossibly hard at first. As many with anxiety understand, thinking anything outside of the thought loop is immensely difficult. The trick I used was writing out my thoughts.
Putting these anxious thoughts onto paper and then reading through them (once I had calmed down) gave me a chance to analyze my anxiety and understand more about it. I also learned that there were different situations that would trigger my anxiety in different ways.
As I began middle school, my anxiety was driven by misunderstandings that caused me to blow things out of proportion. In most instances, the “trigger” would be someone looking at me “oddly” or some other social misunderstanding. In this instance, writing it out on paper wasn’t always possible. But, luckily for me, I always had my phone with me. Instead of writing it out, I would type it out. This was a very convenient way to get my emotions out of my head, and I would be able to save what I wrote down, as well. This helped me to capture my feelings and not only analyze them, but also be able to share them with my therapist.
Dealing With Academic Stress
Another source of stress and anxiety was whether or not I could get an assignment done or do well on a test. This anxiety cycle was much different from my social anxiety cycle because it was based on knowledge. Improving my knowledge base was something that I could prepare for.
Understanding that I could prepare myself made a significant difference for me. If I was getting stressed about a test, I could study for it. That made me feel less anxiety around the test because I was prepared.
Finally! With these writing and preparation tools, I was not just coping with my stress; I was taking control of it and thinking ahead.
Getting Ahead of ADHD and Anxiety!
Now that I had learned to recognize my primary stressors and triggers and take control, I could begin to take the next step. For me, this was taking this newfound knowledge and using it to get ahead of the anxiety. I was no longer going to be reactive and let the ADHD and anxiety control me; I was going to control them.
Writing down my thoughts about anxiety and analyzing them, as well as studying to relieve stress and anxiety around an upcoming test or quiz, was something I could actively do to feel better. It was also something I could plan to do so that I wouldn’t get as anxious in the first place. This realization made a dramatic difference and changed my mindset around anxiety from “This is something that I need to deal with” to “This is something I can do something about.” This mindset helped me get through middle school and has helped me ever since.
How Can Coaching Help You?
With this new realization that I could plan ahead and prepare for times where I knew I would be anxious, I was able to structure my life and beat my anxieties.
Of course, there are still times when I struggle and need help. That is where coaching comes in! If either you or your young adult child has (or thinks they have) ADHD and anxiety, please check out our coaching services and contact us to explore coaching options. We would also like to hear your comments (below) regarding ADHD and anxiety and any way in which you have taken back control of your life.