I work with a lot of adults with ADHD. It’s surprising how often depression and anxiety go hand in hand with this diagnosis. However, there are good reasons the three seem to go together.
If you have ADHD, you’re probably familiar with not getting things done when they should be getting done. You’re well aware of all the tasks and chores you’ve let pile up on your to-do list, yet still can’t seem to get started. You walk by it or shuffle it around on your desk, but you never actually start it. But it takes up a lot of space in your head thinking about it.
Procrastination is one of the most common traits in ADHD. We put off things until the very last minute while also telling ourselves we need to get started. When we do finally start the project, it’s usually when we’ve put it off as long as possible. And now the pressure is so high, we’re aware it’s not possible to put it off any longer. If you’re a high school student, this usually means the day before it’s due and you have to pull an all nighter. If you’re a married man, it might mean your wife has started doing a google search for divorce attorneys because she’s tired of asking you to finish the basement project you started nine months ago.
This is When Depression Sets In
The weird thing is, once we actually start the project, it’s not as bad as it seemed. We actually get it done and feel pretty good about it. But we usually endured a truckload of self criticism before we started, which takes a toll on our self esteem. How many times have you wondered what’s wrong with you since everyone else starts their homework and gets it done? How about that stack of paperwork that sits on your desk that your colleagues get done without breaking a sweat? What’s wrong with you? That’s when depression can set in. You know you’re not working up to your real potential. People think you’re lazy or think you just don’t care.
The reason this happens is people with ADHD don’t do well with tedious tasks that take a lot of mental effort. It’s not that we’re dumb. In fact, there is some evidence that people with ADHD tend to have above average intelligence on the whole. How else could we get away with only listening half the time and still figure out what we’re supposed to do? People with ADHD often feel mentally overwhelmed by figuring out where to start, how to start, or worry about screwing it up when we do start. We tend to make careless mistakes by going too fast when we do start.
You’re Not Lazy
People with ADHD aren’t necessarily lazy either. There are just tasks we do better on than others. Boring, tedious tasks are usually last on our list. This can be paperwork, writing assignments, laundry, mowing the lawn, etc. I once built an entire garage by myself in a week. That’s not lazy. However, I have also been known to let my mail pile up for weeks before going through it. It just sits on a table until I finally summon the willpower to open the mail and sort it out. Building a garage = fairly easy to start and finish; dealing with boring mail that I have to read through= hard to start.
Some of the problem is that ADHD people experience sensory overload. This can often be visual overload or thought overload. Too many things in our line of sight, or too many thoughts competing for attention at once. If you take a fifth grader with ADHD and put a sheet full of fairly simple math problems in front of him, he’ll probably stare blankly at it for a few minutes before he starts…if he starts. Or, he will start it and do pretty well at first, then start making mistakes because his mind is wandering.
If you take a blank sheet of paper and cover all but the first row of math problems, he’ll do much better because the visual stimulation is less, and a short row of problems is less overwhelming to see than a whole sheet of problems. Keeping moving the paper down as he completes rows and he’ll probably do much better.
However, when the fifth grader gets a poor grade on the sheet of math problems because he couldn’t stay focused, no one can blame him for getting down on himself. This doesn’t necessarily change as we get older. Adults suffer from this type of problem all the time, and we compare ourselves to people with normal brains. People who don’t have ADHD also tend to judge and make assumptions about us as well. It’s hard for them to understand why such seemingly simple things can be so hard for us. And this too can lead to depression.
Our Own Thoughts Are Distracting
People with ADHD often get hijacked by our own thoughts. We try to listen to you but we have this movie playing in our head while people talk. If you say one word that reminds us of something else and our train of thought switches over to another track as if someone pulled that switch you see in movies. We don’t change speed or anythng, it just happens smoothly and we’re not even aware we went down this other track as we chug along down this other lane while you’re still talking. Then we hear you say, “Are you even listening to me?”
Not wanting to get in trouble for not listening yet again, of course we’re going to say, “of course I was listening” and try to bluff our way through it. While it gets really tiring for other people to deal with us, it’s just as frustrating being the one who keeps screwing up.
ADHD and Anxiety
ADHD and anxiety tend to go along together for a slightly different reason. With ADHD, you tend to forget things a lot. You miss deadlines, forget important dates or appointments, forget to prepare for meetings, forget you had a test in history, and so on. We also tend to lose things or leave them behind. I once left my camera at shops or restaurants twice in a row while on vacation. The second time, my wife was not willing to retrace our steps to retrieve it. Fortunately, it was still there when I went back for it both times. Also, fortunately, my wife was still there when I returned for her with the cameral. (Although the look on her face would have soured milk).
Those of us with ADHD tend to be surprised by these things we forget…well, sort of. We usually remember about the meeting or test when we walk into the room and everyone else is ready to go but us. Then it comes flooding back to us…”oh yeah the test, how could I have forgotten about this? I’m such an idiot!” Sometimes we just have a nagging feeling for hours or even days that we are forgetting something important. Then the wedding anniversary hits and we realize what it was. Many people with ADHD find themselves rushing to try to fix things at the very last minute in hopes it won’t be discovered that we forgot or were unprepared.
Sometimes we try to bluff our way through a meeting we forgot about and hope we can BS our way through it well enough to not get caught. But this still leaves us with the feeling that we’re a screw up and wonder why we can’t just remember this kind of stuff like normal people.
Well Meant Criticism
ADHD people grow up hearing things like, “You’re so smart, if only you would apply yourself”. We’re the ones who leave our drink on top of the car —repeatedly—as we drive off. We say the wrong things at the wrong times, or we drift off when people talk to us and either have to admit we stopped listening or frantically try to figure out what the person is talking about so we don’t have to admit we weren’t listening to them. We also get in trouble for not remembering things we just talked about with people ten minutes ago.
All these small problems can lead to anxiety as you are constantly aware that you’ve screwed up a lot in the past and are likely about to screw up again today. When something does go wrong, such as something not getting done at work or home, we usually assume it’s our fault because it’s always our fault. If someone tells us it’s our fault, we have to take it as fact because we know our tendency to forget things.
What to Do About it
So, if you have ADHD…and depression…and anxiety, you’re not alone. There are some things you can do to help minimize the effects. You can also learn to live with it in such a way that you remember you’re still doing way more things right than you are wrong, and be okay with that. You will probably always have ADHD symptoms to some extent, but there are things you can do to minimize the problems. For more information about ADHD, give me a call.
Gary Watson is a Solution Focused Therapist in Grand Rapids Michigan. He provides counseling for couples, teenagers, and adults. He can help with anxiety, depression, stress, college and work stress, relationship problems, and more. For more information, please visit the website at www.turnaboutcounseling.com.