Regulate & Rewire: An Anxiety & Depression Podcast

ADHD or Survival Mode? Let’s talk about it

July 25, 2023 Amanda Armstrong Episode 23
Regulate & Rewire: An Anxiety & Depression Podcast
ADHD or Survival Mode? Let’s talk about it
Show Notes Transcript

ADHD is one of the most common overlapping diagnosis for people who struggle with anxiety or depression. Today I take you on a little trip down my personal exploration of whether my symptoms that were diagnosed as ADHD were actually ADHD or rather a natural result of the unsustainable life I was living at the time. I also invite you to muse about some of the same things if it applies to you. Hit play to hear the conclusion I came to for myself and to hear more details about my story.

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Welcome to regulate, and rewire and anxiety and depression podcast where we discuss the things I wish someone would have taught me earlier in my healing journey. I'm your host, Amanda Armstrong. And I'll be sharing my steps, my missteps, client experiences and tangible research based tools to help you regulate your nervous system, rewire your mind and reclaim your life. Thanks for being here. Now let's dive in. 

In today's conversation, we are going to explore and really just muse about whether some of the symptoms you might be experiencing our true diagnoseable ADHD, or whether these are some of the symptoms that are a result of being stuck in survival mode of trauma of chronic stress. And to start this episode, it feels appropriate for me to set some context that my professional training my professional expertise is in working with anxiety and depression. But my personal experience, and mental health journey has also included attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which is more commonly known as ADHD. So while discussing adhd with you today, I want you to know that it is more through my personal lens definitely flavored by some of my professional experience, because ADHD is a really common overlapping diagnosis for anxiety or depression. But while discussing ADHD, today, I am inviting you more or less into the inner musings and journey of my personal experience. And as with everything in this podcast, take what serves you, and move on from what does not. 

So a little bit about my journey. I was diagnosed with ADHD after a very simple and quick I think like a 10 minute questionnaire in a psychiatrists office. So I went to my doctor, just my general practitioner who then sent me to a psychiatrist, a 10 minute questionnaire later and he was like, yep, you have textbook ADHD. Now, do I think the diagnosis was accurate? Probably yes. To some extent. But was it the entire picture? No, it absolutely absolutely was not. So before we get into kind of teasing out how I think it was accurate, but how I think it was, you know, inaccurate or too quickly diagnosed. 

Let's just talk for a second about my insanely busy and incessantly chattery brain. To this day, I often have hundreds of thoughts, ideas, wanders, worries, all swirling around in my brain. And I have actually now learned how to harness the way that my brain works because it is if you were to sit, my brain and my husband's brain next to each other, they are just different brains. And I have a lot of assumptions as to why and actually, let's just lean in to my brain and go a little row for my outline. Since we're talking about ADHD, it feels really appropriate. A conversation my sister and I were just having a couple of days ago, was in looking at kind of the differences between her and I how we show up in the world compared to our partners, so she has a fiance who was raised spent the majority of his like early years, living in another country where he'd go to school and then hours after school were, you know, fairly unstructured, free time, etc. And my husband grew up in very rural Ohio. So although he was involved in school, you know, drama and basketball, cross country, etc. He also had a lot of like, unstructured time after school and on the weekends like he tells me he would often go to the local creek and just like be by himself flipping rocks over looking for crawdads versus mine in my sister's childhood. We were booked sunup till sundown we went to school, we went to church things we had piano lessons and Taekwondo. I was involved in high school in debate, and I was a track athlete, and I was in a like, singing performing arts program. And we were just talking about how her and I have this like productivity based self worth, we go, go, go, go go. We're very uncomfortable with rest. And we both ended up with partners who can very easily rest. Like they're very even keeled. They have no problem being leisurely. And her and I really struggle with that. And we were talking about how you know we attribute a lot of that to just the way that we were raised her and I weren't raised with a lot of downtime or, you know, open ended. Time. So as much as that I think contributes to the way that we show up in our practice, productivity versus like leisure time. I also think that that probably impacted the way that my, my brain operates and develops, right. It was constantly jumping and shifting gears from one thing to the next to the next to the next. 

So this begs the first question of, okay, is this my hardwiring, I just came here, and my brain was different, and it works differently, and warrants a true ADHD diagnosis, or are some of the symptoms that check the same boxes, they look the same as traditional ADHD symptoms. But is that how maybe my brain was trained by the environment that I was raised in, whether that was, you know, maybe a traumatic childhood or traumatic environment where you constantly had to be hyper vigilant looking over your shoulder? Or maybe something more like the experience I just shared with you where we were just go go go and booked and planned minute by minute by minute? I don't know, right? A lot of today's conversation is just going to be Oh, interesting, huh, I haven't considered that. 

So again, musing is kind of the word and the energy that I want to bring into this conversation. So coming back on track to my outline for today's conversation. So like I was saying, I have a pretty busy brain. And as of today, I have learned how to harness this in and use it in a pretty helpful and productive way. Especially because as an entrepreneur, I wear a lot of hats, I have to shift gears quite quickly. But for a long time, it really felt like a curse, like especially in school, I struggled to focus in class to do homework, to take tests and of all of those textbook things. But the result was always what you wanted. And what I mean by that is, you wouldn't have looked at my school performance and said that I struggled, I actually always got pretty good grades, I was even in some honors classes, because I figured out how to hack the system in a way that worked well enough for me, for example, in high school and college, I remember there were a couple different times where a friend of mine would be studying for a test on Monday. And the test wasn't until Friday. And I remember literally thinking to myself, like what a schmuck like what a waste of time they're gonna forget everything like why in the world would you study on a Monday for a test that you have on a Friday, because my brain did not retain information. I was a queen, like study crammer, I would stay up until two in the morning. And then I would go take the test. And I would get a decent grade, I would get an A or a B on that test. But if you were to have given me that same test a week later, I probably barely would have passed it. 

And so what I now realize that I was doing is I would memorize rather than learn. It never occurred to me until grad school, that my brain might not be the norm, that maybe it did make sense that you would study on a Monday for a test that you had on Friday, right, slowly learning gathering concepts and information so that you could take that test. Again, because I had found the hacks and I had figured out the systems that worked well enough, in my favor. Nobody cared how I got a good grade in school, they just cared that I did. And I had parents and teachers that praised and rewarded me for doing so. Now, outside school, again, like I just shared with you, my life didn't call for a lot of singular focus. So I shared with you before I was an adult diagnosed ADHD. And I think that again, was because I had that productivity based self worth. I wanted to perform. I found the hacks that worked for me to get the results so nobody ever looked at at anything else. But I definitely have some kind of Hallmark signs that when paired with poor performance in school, often strengthen kind of the boxes that get checked for ADHD diagnosis, especially in kids. I was very talkative. I would often doodle I would have to kind of distract myself I would get bored often in class, and just kind of check out. 

But it wasn't until grad school that this became really problematic for me when I was falling asleep in class. I had a looming thesis deadline and I could not get my myself to sit down and write more than a paragraph of my master's thesis at a time. And I distinctly remember one day thinking like, oh my gosh, Amanda, like you're an adult, you are an adult, what's wrong with you, you should be able to pay attention in class, you should be able to do your homework, like, you should be able to get through just a sink full of dishes without getting distracted. Like, there is definitely something wrong with you, because I was beginning to pay more attention. And my friends could get through class, and my friends could sit down and study and my roommates could just do the dishes, and then go about their life. And I would barely, I mean, an afternoon, a normal afternoon for me would be like, write a paragraph of an essay, go do half of the dishes, like go throw the ball for my dog, come back and write another paragraph of my essay. So inefficient, so, so frustrating, I would find myself when I was reading any textbook material, I would have to read the same paragraph like 11 times. 

And, again, this looming deadline for my thesis was kind of the make it or break it for me. And so that was when I was like, Alright, I gotta get help. Like, I had enough friends who had talked about ADHD, or whatever I was, like, I need to go to the doctor. And so I set up that appointment. And, actually, we're gonna rewind a second. And I'm going to be really honest with you. Because the first attempt at exploring whether it might be ADHD happened before I went to go see my family, doctor. And this came out of that sense in that feeling of desperation of like, there's something wrong with you, you have to get this thesis done. And so here is what really happened first. But again, I think for this story, I need to give you maybe some additional context. So in college, I did not drink. Actually, I still don't drink. I went to one of the biggest party schools in California, actually. And I didn't drink, I didn't smoke pot and never did drugs. I was wild. And I was stupid in other ways, but nothing ever substance oriented. And I really like chalk that up to me being very, very much a control freak, I prefer to be the friend that everybody could count on, to hold their hair back when they were puking or to pick them up at 2am. Again, because I got a lot of self worth out of being needed. That's a story for another day. But long story short, I am pretty extroverted naturally, I'm very social, I never felt like I needed the help of any substances to have a good time. And that kind of freaked me out. 

But I was in a place where Desperate times call for desperate measures, or what for me at the time, felt like desperate times and desperate measures to that sweet, sweet past version of myself. I had that looming thesis deadline. And I was really, really struggling to get through more than a paragraph at a time I was falling asleep in the middle of my textbooks. And to no surprise to most of you, I had heard about this like mysterious Adderall thing that could make you so focused that you would match your socks for hours or like, clean the grout in your bathroom with a toothbrush. Like all of the silly things that 20 year olds say they do when they take Adderall. And the idea of, of taking something that was not prescribed to me put knots in my stomach, but I had a buddy who had a buddy and $20 later, I had Adderall. 

And I am certain at this point that this is something I probably should not be admitting on a very public podcast, one that my kids may one day listen to, but you know, it is what it is. And I will share the following details simply because I know that at least one of you out there will be able to relate to this and others of you may get a good laugh out of how hilariously nervous I was to take like a single dose of Adderall for the purposes of doing schoolwork better. But I had been warned about all of the things by a friend like it could give you cottonmouth it might make you dizzy, you could lose your appetite, not be able to sleep for three days like Be careful that you don't take it in the wrong environment because you might focus on the wrong things. Like for example, my friend who took Adderall to do their homework and ended up at least he claimed matching his socks and folding his clothes perfectly for hours instead. So cute little 20 something year old me, I like packed up my food into little Tupperware containers with post it notes to remind me when I wanted to eat it, I filled my big water bottle. And then I went into one of those like, top floor corner library rooms and like locked myself in. So I could not possibly get hyper focused on anything, but writing my master's thesis. And I took the Adderall, and what do you know, Friends, I was still hungry at appropriate times, I drank water at regular intervals. And I actually was able to get through pages and pages of my research in just four or five hours. My friends, it was a wonder drug for me. 

But before any of you start thinking, Oh, maybe I need this, please listen to the end of this episode because I now haven't taken Adderall in or any medications for my ADHD in almost seven years. And I want to talk you through why and and and and for those of you who are currently taking ADHD meds, who think I may try to convince you out of taking them or shame ADHD meds in this episode, I'm absolutely not going to do that either. So for anybody who might be curious, who maybe whether you have ADHD or if you've been diagnosed, I'd love for you to keep listening. And again, this episode is very, very much just me taking you through like my personal journey and musings of trying to figure out what symptoms were associated with which root cause. And so now that I have become really honest, and told you my little story about how I actually was first introduced to Adderall. Once I did realize that this was something that felt really helpful for me that made me feel like my brain was more normal, like my other friends who could sit and study and yatta yatta yatta. I then went through the proper channels to my doctor who then sent me to a psychiatrist. 

So back to the part of the story that we started at. In the psychiatrist office. He gave me a form, I filled out the form, he read through it and was like, yep, you have ADHD. And I left with a prescription. I think this entire appointment lasted less than 25 minutes. And here's the truth. The prescription those meds they really helped. I was more focused, I was more productive. And I was a big, fan. Big fan for a while for a few years. The problem is that the psychiatrist never asked me about my life. He never asked me how much sleep I was or was not getting, how stressed I was feeling, how much or how little exercise I was doing. He did not collect near enough information to know whether the symptoms of having an inability to focus, irritability, my excessive talking impulsiveness, forgetfulness, or because of true ADHD, or simply a result of chronic stress and nervous system dysregulation. My doctor nor the psychiatrists asked me about my life, they simply looked at my symptoms. And if you've listened to a lot of other podcast episodes, you've heard about this season of my life before. At the time of my diagnosis, I was taking 22 units of grad school, folks, that's bananas. People usually take 12 or 14, I was taking 22 units, while also separately collecting my thesis data, working two jobs managing my social life. I had a dog, I was actively volunteering through both my church and the local Habitat for Humanity chapter. In fact, I was the president of the Habitat for Humanity club at my university. Are you kidding me?

That is an unbelievable amount of things to be juggling at the same time. I was maybe maybe getting six hours of sleep a night. What I really needed one of these practitioners to do was to ask me about my life. What I desperately needed was for somebody to tell me to quit a job to get more sleep. to maybe drop a class or two until next semester, I know now that a lot of the boxes on that form that I checked yes to wear because my brain was so worn down. Because my life was begging me to go 200 miles an hour nonstop. And so I often get asked about medication, my experience my opinions. And so for I think the third time, I'm gonna reiterate, I'm not a doctor, I'm not a psychiatrist, I don't do meds management with clients. But it is something that we often talk about. I have personal and professional experience with and opinions about medication. What I am sharing with you today is personal experience and opinion based only. 

So jumping back for a few minutes to my story of medication. Again, he didn't ask those questions, or make any of those suggestions. He simply made the diagnosis and prescribed my medication. And the truth is, it worked. It worked for me. It did what I needed it to do. But what it did, in part, was continue to facilitate an unhealthy and an unsustainable lifestyle. It helps me to focus when I needed to focus, it helps me to be more productive, which gained me praise, all of which just reiterated that, yep, you should be able to do it all, you should be able to do it all well. And you should be able to do it all well as it looks like everybody else is doing. And so over the next two to three years, I was kind of on and off ADHD medication as needed, I would take it get things done, I'd hate the side effects, I'd go off it for a while, and then kind of rinse and repeat. And every time I took it, I became a little bit more aware of some of the side effects. I would, you know, clench my jaw when I was on it, I would have headaches when I was wearing off the dose. The next day, I would notice my ADHD would typically be a little bit worse. And then my symptoms started to layer. What I used to recognize as just being a hard time focusing was now becoming undeniable anxiety, there was occasional depression. And when I didn't find the support that I needed for anxiety or depression in mainstream Mental Health offers, that was when I really began to learn about the nervous system, this mind this body connection. 

And that was when I started to question. Were the symptoms a true ADHD diagnosis? Or was all of this my heart having a hard time, you know, focusing my forgetfulness, the anxiety was that all symptom of a dysregulated nervous system of unhealed trauma of chronic stress. And I began to wonder whether this medication was actually something that I needed to manage ADHD, or whether it was just a substance that increased my capacity to facilitate this unhealthy and unsustainable lifestyle. And the conclusion that I've come to is that it was both. It was both i Do you believe that I have ADHD. Now I have not done any additional or extensive testing. And I actually in doing some research for this podcast episode, I came across a pretty comprehensive just article on the internet. I will link it in the extended shownotes on my website on the blog for you to check out and read it goes through a lot of different ways that you can seek out an ADHD specialist and get a proper diagnosis. I do not believe what happened to me was a proper diagnosis. 

There is so much nuance to ADHD, especially if you're an adult seeking an ADHD diagnosis because a lot of the kind of more formal symptom box checking is really catered more towards children. And if any of you listening are practitioners who are specialists in ADHD, and you click on the article that I link in the show notes and you have a better one, send it to me, I will be happy to add that to this space. But the conclusion I personally came to was that it was both I even when I've been in my most regulated state. I just have a little bit of a busier brain that jumps from place to place to place. We could argue maybe again that has to do with the way that I was raised. But in especially contrasting my brain and my husband's brain. We spent a lot of time together my brain just is different. 

And as I have learned how to recognize the way that my symptoms sync to my menstrual cycle, as I have gotten out of chronic survival mode, as I've created a more regulated more sustainable life, I have been able to, like I said, for the last seven years, I've been able to manage the way that my brain works in a really organic way and in fact, sometimes even harness the way that it works as a strength in the way that I run my business. 

And one of the last stories I want to tell, before we kind of wrap up today is just to give you some more food for thought, I remember in my second or third appointment with my psychiatrist, to get my prescriptions renewed. I asked him, you know, like, Why? Why can some people focus and other people can't? I've always been curious, I want to know the why. And he said, you know, think about animals in the wild. You have a lion who's a predator animal and you have a squirrel who's a prey animal. A lion is calm and focused, and he came that way. And a squirrel is easily distractible. And he came that way. And so he went on to explain to me how some humans come hardwired, more like predator brains where they can focus, they're more calm. And other human brains come more high, hardwired, like prey brains, where they're, you know, easily distractible. And at the time, I accepted this explanation and I clung to it even right, I was born way. Well, that just is what it is. And I had this magic pill that fixed it. And I didn't have to dig any deeper. I didn't have to examine or change anything about the way that I was living. Because I was like, Yep, I'm gonna do a future conversation around do we use our diagnoses as justification or as information. And at the time, it felt really good to use this diagnosis as justification for not having to do or change or re examine anything. And I now look at that diagnosis as information. But at the time, that explanation worked for me, that justification was what I needed to take the medication that got me through a really hard season of my life. 

But the fact remains that my life was unsustainable. I said yes to things when I should have said no, I desperately needed more sleep, I had some big, unhealed and unacknowledged trauma patterns of hyper vigilance. And it all caught up to me. And so to bring in the amusing, I want to take this explanation that my psychiatrist gave me then and spin it through a nervous system lens. So instead of taking these two extremes of predator and prey with you know, a lion or a squirrel, let's think about a dog. Now, of course, there are exceptions, as there are with anything, but for the most part, a dog will become a product of its environment, and its experiences. If the dog experiences a secure home, plenty of food, and love, positive reinforcement, leisure, play, and so on, you will likely experience a dog that is calm and friendly. But now take that same dog and expose them to a lack of food, a lack of shelter, abuse, just chaos of any kind, you are going to experience a very different dog, maybe one that is skittish or reactive and some may even label as aggressive. Now, are there variations of temperaments based on biology breed genetics, sure. But you take most dogs and give them what they want, and they need and you are going to be left with a pretty good dog. And I think humans are the same. I think that we all come with variations of biology, genetics, etc. But we are very much products of our environment and experiences. 

So if you have a history of trauma, if you are quick to jump to worst case scenario, or you feel like you're always waiting for the other shoe to drop, if you are chronically stressed out or rarely feel rested. Well then, of course, it makes sense that you're hyper vigilant, it makes sense that you're distractible because you never know what's coming around the other corner. If you are used to chaos will then something that is calm like a classroom, or maybe your work environment is going to feel is going to have low levels of stimulation. You're going to feel distracted, you're going to feel bored. 

You have heard me say this before, but the current state of your nervous system them is always a combination of your past lived experiences and your current life circumstances. So what if you for just a moment, explored what you've called ADHD through a similar lens? What if you got really quiet and you ask yourself? Do I think it's really ADHD? Or is it possible that my system just feels overloaded, that there's unhealed trauma? Am I saying yes to often? Am I running on fumes constantly? And if so, then does it make sense that I feel an act more like prey than predator? 

I went through so many of these same questions as I began to try to heal my anxiety and depression through a nervous system lens. And I brought everything into question. And I really got curious what symptoms were genetic or biological hardwiring versus what symptoms were consequence of unhealed trauma and stress. And part of that exploration for me was to go off my ADHD medication completely. And really try a holistic approach that involves changing my habits, I made a lot more space in my life, I set boundaries, I got more sleep, I prioritize rest, I learned how to sync my cycle and recognize how my symptoms were different, I was more able to focus or more distractible at different parts of my menstrual cycle. And I'm still not perfect. I still blow by play and rest for productivity often. But my life looks and feels a whole lot different than it used to. 

And in fact, I was sitting in a coffee shop just yesterday, next to two women in their mid 20s, who were talking about a friend who was currently working and volunteering while she's studying for the LSAT, and one of them said, Oh, man, I remember being just like that when I was her age, I just want to shake her or hug her and tell her you need to rest or you're going to break. And I just chuckled under my breath and thought like, same girl. Same. I wish someone would have made that clear to me back then to so many of my symptoms weren't because I wasn't good enough, or that I came with some different hardwiring. It was because I neglected rest and all of those symptoms, were letting me know that I was heading for that breakdown. 

So to this musing, back to our original question, is it ADHD? Or is it survival mode? And I'm not here to give you your answer, but to just invite you into that conversation, either with yourself or with a loved one or maybe with a practitioner. Because do I believe that people are born with brains that are wired a bit differently? Sure. You bet, absolutely. But I also think that we have almost all been raised in a society that values productivity overwellbeing, and that doesn't recognize or support the diverse needs and strengths of various individuals. 

My brain is so creative and rad when I'm regulated. But when I'm dysregulated, and stressed out, those same things can create frustration and reactivity. So to bring it all together, I could talk about this from hours and hours and hours and hours. But here are three tangible takeaways from today's conversation. 

Number one, I have come to the personal conclusion that most of what was diagnosed as ADHD for me, were actually natural symptoms and consequences of unhealed trauma, and a debilitating, really busy and stressful life. And that I was prescribed medication. That was really helpful in that season of my life, and I am so grateful I had access to it. But the fact remains, that for more than simply symptom management, I had to make some very real life changes and to do some deep healing work. And I believe profoundly that the way that I was diagnosed was incomprehensive. Lazy and honestly, irresponsible for a practitioner to make such a quick diagnosis for such a nuanced condition. 

Number two, is an invitation for you to compassionately explore whether your symptoms are a result of an unsustainable lifestyle of unhealed trauma. or if you think it is because of what I've been calling your hardwiring? And does the answer to that exploration change how you want to approach your symptom management or healing. And so this is just that invitation to compassionately explore what this might look like for you. 

And tangible takeaway number three is that a simple 10 minute questionnaire does nothing more than create a snapshot of current symptoms. And when that is all that is used for a diagnosis, it falls short of providing you with anything other than a tool for symptom management. For true root cause healing, you need to step back and take a whole human whole life approach to healing and find specialists and practitioners who are going to support you in that comprehensive exploration. 

Alright, friends, that is it for today's discussion. And, as always, I would love love, love to hear from you. What are you getting from this podcast? What would you like to hear in future episodes? Where do you agree with me? Where do you disagree with me, I'm always open for that discussion. But until next time, I am sending you so much hope and healing. Thanks for listening to another episode of The regulate and rewire podcast. If you enjoyed what you heard today, please subscribe and leave a five star review to help us get these powerful tools out to even more people who need them. And if you yourself are looking for more personalized support and applying what you've learned today, consider joining me inside rise my monthly mental health membership and nervous system healing space or apply for our one on one anxiety and depression coaching program restore. I've shared a link for more information to both in the show notes. Again, thanks so much for being here. And I'll see you next time.

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