Anxiety, Drama, and ADHD |

5 min read
Source: Eren Li

Source: Eren Li

Bite your tongue!

Impulse control is one of the greatest human superpowers.

It lets you resist the urge to “say that thing” you should not say. It helps you stop eating those delicious potato chips. It tells you it’s time to get out of bed and get moving to be at work on time when all you want to do is snooze forever. Impulse control stops you from bingeing or going too far with something. Besides physically bingeing on potato chips or social media, people with diminished impulse control have a reduced ability to put the brakes on mentally. This means thoughts go too far and feelings, good and bad, can get quite intense.

ADHD Brains Love Adventure and Drama

I should begin by saying that we all have some level of distractibility. “Bingeiness,” and random thoughts happen to us all; so when I say “ADHD brain,” I use the term loosely, recognizing we all exist on a spectrum and we all have some of this, to a greater or lesser degree. Dopamine is the key neurotransmitter here. Dopamine is the promise molecule of desire. It makes you want stuff rather than accept and be happy with what you’ve got. Because dopamine is hungry, it likes new things, and it also hates boredom and monotony — which is the equivalent of dopamine starvation.

Some brains are more hungry for dopamine and will seek it out when levels run low. In my work, I have seen patients who literally wake up and start looking for problems or things to worry about, otherwise known as “problem scanning.” Others will say things to get a rise out of people. Still others will wait till the last minute to start working — because it’s too tedious and boring until the deadline is tomorrow and it’s almost midnight.

A notable trait of the dopamine hungry brain is a need for novelty and stimulation of any sort — a rollercoaster, passionate romance, or a scary deadline that compels you to action. The variety of your playlist or interests in music may reflect this too. Variety and intensity abound.

An Anxious Brain Can’t Stop Itself

While the dopamine brain can binge on novelty as well as drama, the anxious brain is more stuck bingeing on negative things. Anxious people look for problems and overthink things, and also have trouble stopping themselves. Similar to the dopamine brain, the anxious brain cannot stop feeding on negative ideas and emotions. Anxious people often have awareness of this, but also realize they simply cannot stop themselves. This too is an impulse control issue where it is hard to turn off the negative thinking.

Anxiety and ADHD share the common link of diminished impulse control. ADHD brains have trouble putting the brakes on all emotions, while anxious brains can’t put the brakes on negative ones.

Negative Thoughts Are Like Junk Food

Unfortunately, negative thoughts are more powerful, or “sticky,” than positive thoughts. Why? Because humans are loss averse. This means that finding a dollar evokes less feeling than losing a dollar. So, things that are negative will get more attention than things that are positive. A negative comment or criticism, a worry, gets much more attention than a compliment or a positive expectation. Thus you can think of negative thoughts as junk food — and when you’re hungry, it’s easy to eat too much of the wrong thing.

Improving Your Impulse Control

Knowing yourself is key. And sometimes this means not making any big assessments or big decisions. If you know you can run hot and get intense about things, it’s good to recognize it when it’s happening. Learn to resist the sense of urgency that dopamine can create. Sleep on it, and “don’t hit send” on that difficult email or text. Draft it up. Sleep. Reconsider. Give yourself permission to make the intelligent decision to not act in the moment.

Being well rested, not stressed, and having time to relax and recharge puts gas in the tank and gives you a better ability to resist urges of all varieties — from negative ruminations to smart phone over-use, to literally eating too much junk food. And we totally see “comfort eating,” in people who are tired, stressed, under-slept, or over-worked. Do too much in a day, and you simply run out of the willpower to say “no.”

A little discipline can create more, but you have to start somewhere and be patient. This means making the choice to get more sleep, to spend time with friends, and to get your work done on time so you can leave and make it to the gym. Whatever you do, just resist the impatient (impulsive) urge to quit too soon. If you pick up a healthy new habit, stick to it for two weeks and take good notes before you quit! Take this seriously and “do good experiments,” taking notes before, during, and after.

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