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When I Realized ADHD Caused My Performance Anxiety

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After working with three therapists and ending my sessions in December 2017, I thought I finally had my panic disorder all figured out. Turns out I was wrong – because I only discovered I had ADHD at the end of September, I didn’t really work through that with my therapists because my main focus was my panic disorder. Guess I should’ve brought that up, because it would have made a difference.

Other relevant stories:
Is ADHD a Learning Disability?
Is ADHD Neurodivergent?
Arguing With Someone Who Has ADHD
What is ADHD?

I only discovered this connection about a couple of weeks ago, and I’m so glad I did because it has helped me feel tremendously more at peace. So, how exactly does ADHD cause anxiety? Well, the problem with having ADHD is you will never, ever be perfect. No matter how hard you try. Our minds are wired in a way that’s completely different from the majority of society, and we tend to be highly innovative, insightful, and creative – but our weaknesses shadow those positive traits. According to Unpacking ADHD, people often say we’re lazy, forgetful, need to try harder, or don’t care enough. Dr. Ferrari states that people also will often call us oversensitive, emotional, and say we often jump to conclusions too quickly.

Is being sensitive really that bad? Upon further research that stemmed from my intuition, I realized the inattentive part of ADHD may actually result from being very right-brained, which means our left-brain functions are weaker than the average person. We tend to excel at tasks that require creativity, such as painting and playing music, but  according to Simply Well Being, tend to struggle with certain detail-oriented tasks such as reflecting, analyzing, organizing, being consistent, and focusing on one thing instead of multiple things. But that still probably doesn’t answer your question: why do people with ADHD excel more in “right-brained” functions?

It’s most likely due to a dopamine imbalance. Healthline reports that low levels of dopamine in the left region of the brain could be one of the causes of ADHD. If you’ve read my book or previous blog posts, you know that dopamine is responsible for working memory, information retention, pleasure, focus, motivation, energy, social interaction, and creativity. As you can see, dopamine is responsible for a lot. That’s why it’s incredibly important to get medication if you think you have a dopamine imbalance – and remember to take it (silly me forgets a lot due to my ADHD). That’s one of the problems of having ADHD, actually: forgetting to take your meds. Other neurotransmitters – serotonin and norepinephrine – also overlap with dopamine and are responsible for similar functions, such as mood. These neurotransmitters have slightly specific functions, but they all overlap at some point.

How does this interact with anxiety? If you’re not sleeping well, not retaining information well, not feeling well and avoiding people because of it, and not remembering things well, that can result in a ton of performance anxiety (atelophobia). The more you forget things, have difficulty processing things, have a lack of energy, and feel like being alone all the time, the more you will become emotionally overwhelmed, exhausted, and feel like a failure. Since people with ADHD are also incredibly sensitive empaths (Highly Sensitive People), we tend to catastrophize disagreements and others’ impressions of us. Someone simply not liking our personality turns into others not liking us, which creates anxiety about that conflict. Someone even saying “I’m disappointed in you” is earth-shattering, and that’s why it’s important to let supervisors know, “Hey, I’m highly sensitive. I know you might be harder on other employees, but I need to receive corrections with a softer tone so my emotions don’t go haywire.”

I learned that lesson hard this summer after working with two leaders that were the exact opposite: very strong and not emotionally sensitive people, so they didn’t understand the burden I dealt with every day. However, I know that was partially my fault. I never let them know I had a medical reason for having emotional breakdowns if I received too many corrections in a day. Now I know what to do for next time so I don’t have to switch departments at another job.

Actually, there’s a medical term for this: rejection-sensitive dysphoria. Here’s a quote about what that feels like from an ADDitude Magazine article:

“I’m always tense. I can never relax. I can’t just sit there and watch a TV program with the rest of the family. I can’t turn my brain and body off to go to sleep at night. Because I’m sensitive to my perception that other people disapprove of me, I am fearful in personal interactions.”

According to the article, a fear of failure is often catastrophic for people with ADHD – and that’s why we take corrections at work so personally. We’re just super sensitive. However, some leaders won’t budge. They’ll just say, “Oh, that’s my management style. I’m not going to change it for you.” If you hear that, just do me a favor and quit that job. It’s not worth the misery. I even challenged a leader on this issue, and I wasn’t afraid to do so. I don’t usually challenge authority, but I felt like I wasn’t being listened to, so I spoke up. Don’t let people put you down for having feelings. The best bosses and leaders I’ve ever worked with get to know each member of their team individually and cater their leadership style towards them. This is also known as “self-awareness,” or the ability to understand how your actions affect those on your team, according to Catering Institute. They won’t change it for people who can adapt to it, but for those who can’t, they’ll take a slightly different approach.

That’s how you know you have a leader who cares. Some of the professors I’ve had at Biola use that approach as well, so I know it’s not a task too difficult to ask for. Working with leaders who aren’t self-aware makes me super anxious because I’m always worried about impressing them, but they’re never impressed with me anyway because I’m a failure in their eyes, so it creates this incredibly violent cycle that only ends with self-hatred or self-harm. That’s why it’s important to find a safe work environment, so you don’t harm your emotional and physical health in the process.

Taking this all into account, it seems the majority of the ADHD/anxiety relationship comes from overcompensation of imperfections. We don’t tend to think logically, but we understand figurative meanings and can read between the lines exceptionally. We’re flexible people and adapt many approaches for the same task. We’re profoundly intuitive and creative. Our mysteriousness stumps so many people that they become frustrated with us, and we often internalize their responses towards us.

In addition, anxiety can also result from conflict with people due to our highly sensitive nature. We’re so empathetic that we take facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice into account when we converse with someone, which is how we know how they feel about us. I’ve had people tell me point-blank, “No, of course I like you,” but all these non-verbal cues scream, “I’m only putting up with you because I have to.”

I hope all this information helps in some way, whether you’re primarily inattentive, hyperactive, or a combined-presence type (which is me). Hopefully, this knowledge will help you work through anxiety and live a healthier life.

Originally published: August 19, 2018
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