ADHD, Anxiety

Why do some kids with ADHD do great in school?

I was one of the kids who had pretty good grades, top ones at subjects I loved, good enough ones at the rest. I even got my Master’s degree before getting diagnosed. It was only when I started working full-time, requiring sustained effort 8 hours a day, that I crashed and burned.

My “trick”? Crippling anxiety. Yes, anxiety can mask ADHD symptoms to a large degree. Anti-anxiety medication only made my ADHD worse, and, strangely, stimulants reduced my anxiety as well.

Here are the main things I noticed:

1. The anxiety rush before a test triggers hyperfocus

The day before a test, I would go into panic mode. I would spend all night reading through the material with laser focus, worrying about what my parents will think if I failed, or how embarrassed I would feel if my teacher called out my name saying I got a low grade. 10 years after finishing school, I still have nightmares about going to a test unprepared.

The amount of information I could retain in such a short amount of time is mind-boggling. I would cover a semester’s worth of computer science material in 1-2 days and get a decent grade.

I would always promise myself that “next semester, I will study ahead of time and not get in this situation again”. I would always fail at that, because…

2. Without anxiety, I can’t get anything done

If there wasn’t an imminent deadline or exam, I would go into procrastination mode. I would think that it would be best if I studied, but “it can wait until tomorrow, a new video game is out!”.

Any side projects I wanted to do, any subjects I was passionate about and wanted to learn more about, I would just postpone indefinitely.

3. I became convinced that, if I’m anxious enough about something, it will all work out

What made this coping mechanism even more unhealthy is that I firmly believed the universe would align itself just right if only I worry enough about the outcome of something.

The sad thing is, it was true, at the time. Any exam I wasn’t in panic mode about, I would get a bad grade at. Any thing I didn’t care deeply about would just not get done.

So I would purposefully try to get myself panic about things, thinking about all the ways in which they will go wrong.

I now know it’s not the only way, and now I can do work without being anxious, but it took a lot of medication, therapy, mindfulness and discipline to get there. And I still sometimes fall back into old habits.

4. Life feels like a roller-coaster ride of crisis mode followed by exhaustion

After working hard 1-2 days before an exam, once it was all over, I would collapse with exhaustion.

I would sleep 12+ hours and then spend a few days relaxing and catching up on my favorite video games or TV series.

On rare occasions, where there was one exam after another, I would be able to pull off both, but then the collapse would be even longer.

5. Sustained effort is impossible

Even if these kids are doing well in school, they still need help.

When I started my first job, I was in crisis mode. Anxiety levels were through the roof. It was a job I loved, and I wanted to make a good impression.

The first couple of months were great. I was in hyperfocus mode, excited to learn all the new things. I got praise from my bosses for learning everything so quickly and doing such a good job.

Then the crash happened. I felt overwhelmed and exhausted, but, unlike at school, I could not get a break. My anxiety levels dropped after receiving so much praise. I still had to go to work every day for 8 hours.

I began procrastinating at work, thinking it would help. “Just read one more post on Reddit to gather strength, and then I’ll be able to focus and do a great job again”.

Then the guilt kicked in, leading to feeling more overwhelmed, and more procrastination. I can’t say I was surprised when I did eventually get fired.

Still, there is hope. After my diagnosis, I got my first stimulant medication. At my next job, I was able to focus for the required 8 hours without feeling as overwhelmed. It also helped that the work had a bit more variety, and a bit more interruptions during the day (meetings, helping coworkers, etc.).

Get treatment early if you suspect you have ADHD, even if “you’re doing well in school”.

What was it like for you while studying?

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