By Dr. Alex Dimitriu
Checking your phone for the 10th time this hour? You can learn a lot about yourself through observing this simple habit. People with ADHD and anxiety share the common element of impulse control. They can both be “bingey,” – and check their phones or do other things repeatedly.
Shiny! Understanding the ADHD brain
The ADHD or “dopamine brain,” loves novelty and stimulation in general. It does much better when there’s some chaos rather than some silence. I use the term “dopamine brain” because ADHD is a medical diagnosis, and in reality, everyone is on the spectrum between having too little or too much dopamine sensitivity and dopamine desire. Evolution kept the more dopamine-hungry brains around for their creativity, potential for positive intensity, as well as how well they perform when everyone else is overwhelmed, or the deadline is tomorrow. People with ADHD literally perform better on cognitive tests with white noise playing in the background than with silence.
However, when there is peace and quiet, the dopamine brain is actually hungry, and “food,” or stimulation can come from positive as well as negative sources.
How the anxious brain differs from the ADHD brain
While the ADHD brain is looking for anything exciting or new (which includes worry), the anxious brain is more problem obsessed – ie, checking a performance review, a stock price, blood pressure, or a lab result. Whether it’s doom scrolling or rubbernecking past a car accident it’s hard to ignore the fact that humans are surprisingly drawn to things that are unpleasant and even scary. One quick look at news headlines will prove that bad news tends to be more “sticky,” and certainly far more popular than good news. This can easily go too far. Anxious people can endlessly loop about negative or disturbing things – like a critical email from a boss, or something your friend said. The more disturbing, and the more you fear it, the more it returns. “Bingey,” behavior as well.
The negative is more “filling,” because humans are loss averse. Losing a dollar creates more pain than the joy of finding a dollar. So negative things easily command more attention and energy than positives. This results in a tendency to obsess about the negative, for both people with ADHD and anxiety. It’s the mental equivalent of bingeing on potato chips instead of salad, and equally hard to stop.
Managing both the ADHD and anxious brain
So, what to do? Don’t let yourself get hungry! Have healthy, “snacks.” Emotionally, this means having structure – or predictable and positive stimulation, so you don’t get bored, and know what’s next. Calendared events, and scheduled work routines help create a background structure. Part of this is breaking down large tasks into smaller steps, each with its own time deadline. Making progress on smaller steps is easier than a large project. This is why many people with ADHD do better in high school than in college. In high school, projects are smaller, and deadlines are shorter. In college, some exams and projects could be due in months – and this is where a lack of organization hurts. So, break things down into “snacks;” use outlines, and set small daily or hourly goals for progress, a little at a time to avoid getting too “hungry,” bored, or lost.
If you are either anxious or dopamine-hungry or both, you are likely to over-indulge. So, watch what you eat! This means having the awareness that fixating on the negative comes easy and the positive takes more work. Realize that both are sources of dopamine, or drama, but the positive is much better for you in the long term. Catch yourself going down thought spirals and make some effort to reach for the positive thought than the negative. One form of this I’ve called instant CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) – put simply, whenever a negative thought enters your mind, try to come up with a positive counterpoint, and actually try to believe it (aim for 1/2 the time as a first goal).
Getting good sleep helps tremendously too. Under slept people have repeatedly been shown to be more impulsive. Be sure to get at least 7 hours of sleep per night, and this might mean aiming for 8. “Turn tech off at ten,” is always helpful advice for people, ideally no screens in the last hour or two before sleep. Regular bed and wake times can also really help with sleep quality.
In all cases, impulse control may well be the highest human virtue. This means the ability to effectively steer your mental car around life’s potholes. Patience and impulse control are two sides of the same coin. Try to practice both whenever possible – put the potato chips down sooner, chill out in traffic, bite your tongue, and turn the TV off at 10. Don’t check your social media “one more time.” Practice when it’s easy, so you have a chance when it’s hard. Impulse control is like a muscle that can be strengthened with practice. Controlling your impulses long enough to sit and meditate for even 10 minutes a day helps.