Anxiety Unraveled

I never thought of myself as an anxious person. I thought anxiety was more like panic or phobias, and I don’t tend toward panic or phobia. My thoughts have changed with my ADD research. Anxiety is not what I thought it was, it’s more. What is your definition of anxiety?

Originally, anxiety was the body’s way of protecting you. When a situation is dangerous the body increases cortisol and adrenalin, turns the rational mind off, and you go straight into fight-or-flight mode. Today, for ADDers especially, the signals can get confused yet the body still responds correctly to the signals it gets.

Juliana Hatfield describes what I had thought about anxiety before. “Sometimes I feel like a human pin cushion. Every painful emotion hits me with ridiculously exaggerated force. And the anxiety feels like hands inside of me, squeezing my guts really hard.” And all the positive advice about “let it go” doesn’t work when you are a human pin cushion or your guts are being squeezed. That well-meaning advice is for people who don’t suffer from anxiety because of their wiring.

Reading that quote reminded me of how I get “fuzzy vision” when I’m in crowds or in a new situation. Eighth grade Home Ec, day one, I was late because of an eye appointment. I entered the class not being able to see because of being dilated and panicked, grabbing the first seat I saw — not with my friends. Not a big deal in itself, but that panic was uncomfortable. In crowds, I also can’t see the people I know if they leave me unannounced, even if they are right beside me, because of that panicked, fuzzy vision. Those are examples of anxiety, I’m learning.

Sure, some anxiety can be countered by logic, for many people. Not all of it can, I’ve learned. When you have ADD/ADHD, your wiring keeps you from managing anxiety in a logical way. Awareness can help you overcome your anxieties — sometimes. Planning ahead can help you avoid situations that make you anxious — sometimes, maybe even most of the time.

One description I heard that helped me better understand anxiety was that all your thoughts flood into one bucket and that leads to a feeling of being overwhelmed. ADDers are prone to feeling overwhelmed anyway, and this is part of the reason. There aren’t compartments to help sort what’s a priority and what’s not, or what level priority something is. With practice, and maybe medication and counseling, you can learn to calm that flood and allow compartments to form for thoughts to sort themselves into.

Anxiety is stress. It’s worry. It results from the distress of not knowing when you are going to forget something, say the wrong thing, or show up at the wrong place/time. Anxiety arises from chaos. It also comes from humiliation, rejection, and failure. It can arise from not feeling in control or part of the community you are in.

As I heard Michael Ferguson, author of Drummer and the Great Mountain, talk about ADD and anxiety with Bahman Sarram, his co-host on their podcast, I came to understand some of my quirks are really anxiety. For example, I didn’t like writing papers in college at the last minute because it made me anxious that something would go wrong or I’d have to pull an all-nighter. My solution was to get it done early. Also, I’m good at packing — suitcases, dishwashers, and even cars — and get edgy (another word for anxious) when others do it less efficiently than I do. Now that I have a better understanding of my ADD and can see that these may be expressions of ADD-related anxiety, I feel I can better handle them. No point in insulting people any more than necessary. 🙂

You can bring your cortisol levels down by increasing your dopamine levels. How? Exercise and nutrition are big keys in reducing stress, and therefore cortisol and anxiety. Quit being your own worst enemy and having this personal war with your anxiety. Three 30-minute cardio workouts each week will increase your dopamine. Pair that with eating real food and cutting the artificials (colors, sweeteners, flavors, preservatives) from your diet, and you have a winning combination for having a good dopamine level. Supplements can also help. While GABA is a good amino acid to help calm anxiety, its precursors — L-Theanine, magnesium, and B6 — are better because they create the amino acid as needed.

This point has also helped me understand my jitterbug phase. I was so depressed when my first husband and I got divorced that I knew I had to get out of the house. I somehow chanced across a backbeat jitterbug class. It was so much fun! And I started hanging out after class and dancing with the long-time jitterbuggers. I realized pretty quickly that I needed a jitterbug fix at least four nights each week to keep the crankiness and depression — anxiety — away. Now I understand that I intuitively used cardio to keep my dopamine up. It worked and I made new, life-long friends.

To bypass the anxiety path there are other things you can do, besides becoming aware of your anxiety — exercise and eat nutritiously. Meditate.. Get adequate sleep. Create a habit of envisioning your day with the end point in mind. Relax more during and at the end of each day. Set boundaries. Avoid the news.

To short-circuit the anxiety path when you get on it, there are several techniques to employ. One technique Michael Ferguson shared was a three-step strategy: name the emotion that arises with your anxiety; name the object of your emotion or anxiety; name the Why in this moment for that anxiety or emotion. Consider journaling about things involving the anxiety. Rub or tap your solar plexus as you are in the moment. Breathe slowly and deeply when you are engaged in anxious situations.

Your anxiety can come from any number of sources. Get in touch with yours so you can start creating a plan to change the button and the reaction. Remember, though, that some of your reaction can’t be helped — it’s the way you are wired. Some of it can be overcome with practice. Be gentle with yourself as you learn new ways of handling this complex emotion and physical reaction.

ADDers can’t will anxiety out of their lives any more than they can try harder to pay attention, as non-ADDers can. You can learn to manage your anxiety, and even overcome some of it with mindfulness.

Anxiety often results from unmet needs. Tend to getting your needs met as you tend to your reaction to your anxiety. Life will be sweeter for your efforts.

The Dalai Lama gets the last words here — for now. Change his word “worry” to “be anxious” and enjoy.
If you don’t have a problem… then don’t worry.
If you have a problem, but you can’t do something about it….then don’t worry.
If you have a problem and you can do something about it …then don’t worry.

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