(Originally published August 17, 2018, Updated September 30, 2021)
When it comes to worrying there is an upside for ADHD adults. That is, it can motivate you. But, if you’re reading this article, I know you’re more interested in doing less worrying, as it comes with a cost. I get it. Worrying causes stress and takes up your time and energy. Time and energy you’d like to spend in other ways.
The key to managing your worry is to use curiosity to figure out both figure out what you’re worried about and what, if anything, you want to do to address the worry. But, right now, instead of being curious, you might be trying to avoid worrying thoughts. Makes sense! Worrying is uncomfortable.
But, when you avoid your worrying thoughts, you’re just delaying the discomfort. That is, you could try watching TV, having a glass of wine, or playing a video game to get your mind off whatever you’re worrying about. But it doesn’t work in the long run, does it?
Because your worrying thoughts are like a boomerang. No matter what you do to try to get rid of them, they’ll come back. So, if you’re tired of your worry taking up so much of your time and energy, try using the strategies below. When you do, you’ll find they won’t ricochet quite so often. Promise.
Why Do ADHD Adults Worry So Much?
Yes, everyone worries. But ADHD adults are more prone to getting stuck worrying to the degree that it interferes with their ability to do what is important to them.
Of course, that’s a problem and the reason it’s so important to understand and address. I know you want to get right to the workarounds. But to make sure you choose the right ones for you it’s helpful to first understand how your ADHD may be contributing to your excessive worrying.
And the place to start is to look at your ADHD related working memory challenges. Remember, working memory is where you temporarily (10-15 seconds) store information you are using to accomplish a task. For example, when you are writing the introduction to a report, you are holding in mind one sentence while you try to craft the next sentence, so it gels.
Your ADHD working memory challenge is you have less capacity than your neurotypical peers. So, after your 1-1 with your boss, you intended to work on the report due tomorrow. But at the end of the meeting, your boss offhandedly said he wanted to talk to you next week about your career path.
Now you’re worried, thinking to yourself, “What did he mean by that? Am I in trouble? He’s going to let me go… Your worry consumes all your working memory so you can no longer work on the report. You’re really freaking out.
How Working Memory Challenges Affect ADHD Adults When They Worry
Not only is this worry unproductive because you are no longer working on the report, but also because you are not able to entertain alternative perspectives or solutions that might help you get unstuck. You’re just not able to transition from worrying to something else, anything else. Like a needle stuck on a record (remember those?), the worry keeps on playing over and over in your head, becoming more and more pronounced.
If you had more working memory space, you might be able to think to yourself:
- “Maybe I could think about this later because I have to finish this report now.”
- “I should talk this over with Tania. Maybe I’m missing something, and he didn’t mean what I thought he meant. She’s good at helping me process these things.”
- “I should just set up a meeting with him to try to get some clarification.”
But you don’t think about any of these perspectives and the report is no longer on your mind. So, hours later you remember, “Oh s***! I need to have that report done by 3 today!” But, at least in part because of your problems with working memory associated with ADHD, you get stuck worrying
But you can’t afford to rent out this valuable real estate in your head to just worrying. There is too much you want to accomplish, right? Following the steps below can help minimize the chances of your worrying hijacking your ADHD brain.
Accept Your Worrying Thoughts and the Accompanying Feelings
Just as acceptance of a situation might better serve you in some situations so too will acceptance of your feelings and thoughts related to that situation. Though I know you may be tempted to “run away” from your worry. Makes sense. Worrying is stressful and uncomfortable.
But rather than extinguishing your worry, you’ll likely end up magnifying it. It’s like telling yourself not to look at the pink elephant in the middle of the room, right? When you’re not acknowledging your worry, it may come out sideways, like getting mad at someone, when that person had nothing to do with the situation. Right. Then you feel even worse.
While you can’t outrun your emotions, you can learn to live with them, so they have less of a hold over you. To do this the first step is to remember your worrying thoughts are just words, sensations, and images – not necessarily reality. Because it is when you decide they are true and you fused with them, they can cause you pain.
The next step is to practice diffusion, using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) techniques. Remember the example of worrying about what your boss meant by his comment in your 1-1. You could diffuse that thought with one of the following techniques recommended by Happiness Trap author, Russ Harris.
- One technique is to tell yourself, “I’m having the thought my boss doesn’t think I’m doing a good job and is going to let me go…” You could go even further and tell yourself, “I notice I’m having the thought my boss doesn’t think I’m doing a good job and is going to let me go…”
- You could take the thought and sing to yourself to the tune of “happy birthday.”
- Try hearing the thought and a cartoon character’s voice, like Mickey Mouse.
- Take 10 deep breaths as slowly as possible and notice the sensations as you inhale and exhale.
As you practice, notice how the thought has less of a hook on you, and remember the goal is not to get rid of the thought. Rather the goal is to lessen its impact so you can take effective action, whether that action is to do nothing or to seek out a solution.
When You Start to Worry, Do Nothing – At First
Since working memory challenges can make it difficult to hold multiple perspectives in mind at once, often the best first step is to do nothing. Of course, the amount of time you spend doing nothing will depend on the context.
Obviously, if your water heater is leaking, you might pause for a moment to get your bearings. And then leverage your ADHD laser focus to figure out what to do. But often, though your worry may feel like an emergency, it really isn’t, right? So, if you’re prone to getting stuck in your worry, you can anticipate and create a plan for what to do in these times.
The first step might be to first be aware of what it feels like in your body when you are starting to worry. As this can serve as your cue to take a beat. Do you feel it in your head, your gut or someplace else? Then remind yourself it is best to slow down and give yourself space and time, rather than letting the worry consume you.
Decide whether you can wait an hour, a few hours, a day or more. Give yourself whatever time seems reasonable given the context just step away from the worry. Because, when you do this, you’ll be in a much better place to decide whether you need to do anything at all. And, if you decide you need to address the worry, then you can figure out how to do that.
Then Get Out of Your Head
Since your ADHD symptoms can make it hard to decide on and implement solutions to address your worries if you’re only letting it swirl about in your head, it’s important to externalize your worry, ways to accept the situation or possible solutions/options and an execution plan.
I know that sounds really daunting! But it doesn’t have to be. The key is to remember you don’t need to have the whole plan flushed out in the beginning. You only need to decide on the next possible step that will move you in the right direction.
You could start getting out of your head by talking to someone you trust about your worries and what you might do to change the situation. it could be a friend, family member or therapist. This will help you at minimum feel less alone and might also help you clarify your thoughts and feelings. You might even be able to what you want to change and the options to do that.
In addition, or as an alternative, you could use writing to externalize your thoughts and feelings. While you obviously don’t get the benefits of interacting with another person, writing about your worries can also help you clarify your thoughts and think about solutions. And the advantage of writing is you can do it anytime.
And Figure Out If Your Worry Is “Real”
Then make sure you identify whether there is a solution to your worry. Because you don’t want to make the all too common misstep of trying to solve a problem that is not, well, real. You might make this mistake if you have fallen into one of the following negative thinking traps:
- black-and-white thinking
- disqualifying the positive
- emotional reasoning
- jumping to conclusions
For ADHD adults negative thinking is all too common, for sure. So, is important to figure out whether your worries might be “exaggerated.” What is something you are worrying about right now? Curious whether your worry is due to distorted thinking? Check out ADHD and Avoiding Negative Thinking Traps Part 1 and Part 2 to learn more. You can learn to manage these thoughts and minimize your worry.
Then, if you decide your worry is at least somewhat valid, the next step is to decide if and/or how you want to change the situation.
Stay Tuned for More About ADHD and Worry…
In the next post, I’ll guide you through the steps you can use to either accept the situation you are worrying about or put your worry to work using a solution-focused approach.