Your attention deficit disorder may be an anxiety disorder

Are you one of those people who simply cannot concentrate for long enough? Do you find that no sooner than you start doing something, that your attention is scattered all over the place? Do you find that you log onto your computer and within minutes are surfing every possible tangential site that you find?

Your problem may not be a problem with your attention. In fact, it may be that the primary problem resides elsewhere in your brain.

Your brain attends to things due to circuits that connect your frontal and parietal lobes. Your frontal lobe, an important part of the “thinking brain” helps to focus attention and keep your mind on what it is supposed to be on. However this frontal lobe is also connected to other parts of the brain besides other attentional areas. If we look at the connections closely, we can see that it is very connected to your emotional brain as well, and the amygdala, an important part of the emotional brain can send “shock waves” through to your attentional center without your even knowing this.

Fear and anxiety may be conscious or unconscious. Unconscious fear has been proven to exist. When people lie in an MRI scanner, there are certain conditions under which they will have no awareness of seeing something threatening but the amygdala-part of the unconscious brain registers this and sends impulses that act as “shock waves” or a “brain earthquake” to your brain’s attentional center. This can all happen under the radar-without your being aware of it.

Unconscious anxiety sounds so unlikely. After all, if you are anxious, shouldn’t you feel it? Not really. In fact, unconscious anxiety may even impact the amygdala more than conscious anxiety-without your being aware of anything to do with this. The brain effectively has a “silencer” on but the bullets of anxiety reach your attentional center.

When you treat the “ADD” as if it is a primary problem with attention, you are not really addressing the cause. The anxiety is always there, hitting up against the wall of your medicated ADD. Steadying your attention can decrease your anxiety, because the reverse effect occurs as if the frontal lobe is putting “reins” on the amygdala, but if the anxiety resurges, the reins will fail.

What then can you do about this? From meditation to attentional exercises and psychological insights, there are many things that you can do. To start with, the following may be helpful:

1. Ask yourself: If anxiety were the culprit, what would the reason be?
2. Have you tucked away any fears that you don’t know how to deal with?
3. Do you avoid situations to avoid anxiety?
4. Are you “tolerating” anything in your life, and if so, what?
5. What are your greatest unfulfilled desires and how could your dissatisfaction about this be impacting you?

If you write down brief answers to these questions, you will be well on your way to understanding the possible unconscious anxiety in your brain. If you work with a professional, ask them about his, and check to see if treating the anxiety restores your attention. Exploring this possibility in the longer term is usually what helps people find a way to deal with the anxiety. Remember, anxiety is really just “electrical energy” gone haywire in your brain. The best way to deal with random electrical energy is to make sure you are “grounded” and to make sure that there is an appropriate channel through which it can flow.

It may well be that your attention deficit disorder is actually an anxiety excess disorder. Consider this carefully before deciding on your strategy. Taking a little extra time to explore this may be worth the wait.

Srini Pillay is a psychiatrist and author of Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear. He blogs at Debunking Myths of the Mind.

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  • Steven Park, MD

    If you have ADHD and anxiety issues, and if you prefer to sleep on your side or stomach, it’s likely that you’re not able to get deep sleep. This can aggravate symptoms of ADHD and anxiety by causing a low-grade stress response, heightening your senses and your nervous system. Why do stimulants like Ritalin help children be more calm and focused? Perhaps because they’re not sleeping well due to the fact that they’re not breathing well at night. We know that apneas and hypopneas can change your brain’s biochemistry, as well as to alter your brain’s tissue structures.

  • MIS Prof

    Amen to the article. My training and experience leads me to agree with the specific advice offered. I will say that I’ve seen lots and lots of students with “learning disabilities” that are really nothing more than general anxiety or simple test anxiety.

    I’m not talking about specific diagnosed disabilities like dyslexia. I bend over backwards to help these students with test conditions, with the way I present material, and with the types of assignments I construct. These students usually do relatively well in my courses.

    Although I’m an advocate for technology, I also think technology has reinforced this anxiety and fragmenting of attention. If you want to see full-blown anxiety in someone (particularly 15-25 years old), just take away their cell phone, computer, tv, mp3 player, and video games for an hour.

    Anxiety may be a psychological feature of students’ lives unrelated to school, but it is likely related to school in more complicated ways. Anxiety may lead to or be a result of not studying, not doing homework, letting other people do their homework for them, plagiarizing, and so forth (all widespread and commonly accepted as normal behavior).

    Anxiety can be a result of the pressures of trying to maintain an affluent lifestyle (smartphones with expensive data plans, concerts, new cars, $6 coffee drinks, etc.) and a full course load at the same time.

    Anxiety can be the pressure of trying to please Mom and Dad (and family and society in general). It can be the pressure to get a college degree when the person really isn’t suited for college work. (Academia involves a lot more than job training. And there are other ways to make good money … my electrician and plumber both make more than I do as a university professor after 30 years).

    All this pressure is a recipe for disaster which manifests as high levels of anxiety (by finals week at the latest). I try to be sympathetic and helpful to my advisees and students experiencing anxiety and are not able to focus or stick with one train of thought more than 2 minutes, but sometimes I get frustrated when clearly they are not willing to do their part.

    It’s a great joy when a student responds to coaching and support about anxiety and sails through a semester. I just wish it happened more often.

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