The Link Between Social Anxiety and ADHD
You get a call from an unfamiliar number and automatically hit end so you can avoid picking it up.
Calling to make appointments you need, seems like an insurmountable task.
You rehearse your drive-through order over and over while waiting in line so you don’t accidentally mess it up.
You’re mysteriously ill every time you have to share a project status update. It’s simply the thought of public speaking absolutely terrifies you.
What if it’s not you – instead, it’s the double-zinger of social anxiety and adult ADHD.
Although the number is alarmingly high, it shouldn’t really come as a shock to those living with ADHD.
Executive Functions, ADHD and Social Anxiety
Most people with ADHD have difficulty with executive functions like self-awareness and emotional regulation. They often can’t “read” people or situations the way their neurotypical peers can. This leads to awkward behaviors like talking too much, missing social cues, oversharing, or droning on when one else seems interested. These behaviors are associated with self-management, a known executive function challenge.
The seeds for social anxiety were probably planted in early childhood when you first began to realize there was something “different” about you. You may have had trouble making and keeping friends. Perhaps you were scolded for blurting things out in class or told to sit still by various adults. Other kids may have stayed away because you struggled to keep your hands to yourself. Or, maybe you were labeled a “troublemaker” and sent out of the room or had to sit close to a teacher. All of these experiences add up in your lived experience. Over time, we build self-narratives that can become emotional triggers years later.
Children learn proper social interaction by interacting with their peers and by modeling others. But kids with ADHD are often left out. It could be that social engagement was too much, or that you missed the subtle social cues. But kids can’t learn social skills when there’s no one to socialize with. So neurotypical kids tend to go one way and the neurodivergent…diverge. And they keep on diverging straight into adulthood where they’re just expected to know how to act.
It’s like being asked to play quarterback in a football game where everyone but you received a copy of the playbook.
Hello, social anxiety.
What is Social Anxiety?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, social anxiety is a chronic mental health condition characterized by “an intense, persistent fear of being watched and judged by others.” It can occur at home, work, school, and in social situations.
People with social anxiety may have a hard time speaking in public, meeting new people, going out to eat, using a public restroom, making appointments, or even interacting with an acquaintance they see on the sidewalk. Things like dating or interviewing for a new job can be paralyzing. Even just showing up to a party at their best friend’s house can leave them drained.
In many cases, socially anxious people will avoid situations that make them feel uncomfortable. This can lead to difficulty maintaining both personal and professional relationships.
It’s important to note that social anxiety is very different than just being shy. People with social anxiety experience physical symptoms such as blushing, sweating, shaking, increased heart rate, nausea, and even dissociation.
Dealing with social anxiety is difficult enough even without a comorbidity like ADHD. Combine the two and it’s not an easy path.
Strategies To Ease The Strain
If you suffer from ADHD and social anxiety, there are things that can help.
Whether you’re dealing with symptoms of social anxiety or ADHD, your first and most powerful tool is your breath. Studies have shown how breathing can instantly down-regulate your heart rate, add more oxygen to your blood and help inhibit those endless thought loops. Try Box Breathing, physiological sighs, or another technique. (Learn easy, effective breathing techniques from Hubermanlab podcast here.) Breathing is something you can do any time, and it’s free. Training yourself to use this technique when you’re spinning will take interrupting your trigger, remembering, deliberate action, and practice.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a common treatment that focuses on replacing irrational beliefs with rational ones in order to reduce anxiety and help you feel more in control of yourself. You’ll learn strategies for dealing with negative thoughts, preventing procrastination and/or avoidance behaviors, and separating your perception of things from the reality of the situation.
You might also consider talking to your doctor. Many adults are finding an ADHD diagnosis later in life. With a proper, thorough ADHD diagnosis adults can see if medication helps them manage ADHD symptoms, and positively impacts social anxieties. If you’re not interested in medication, there are many drug-free alternatives that you might find helpful.
Enlisting the help of a close friend or family member can also be beneficial. Whether they join you in the social situation to provide moral support or simply help you work through your negative thoughts and visualize a successful outcome ahead of time, having your own personal cheerleader can make things a lot less scary.
There’s a Better Way!
Everyone feels anxious every now and then. But when social anxiety begins to dictate how you live your life, it’s time for a change. The seeds may have been planted in early childhood, but it’s never too late to discover a better way to manage your ADHD and social anxiety.
Are you interested in improving your focus and accountability? As a certified ADHD Coach, I can help! Click here to book your FREE Discovery Call. I can’t wait to connect with you!