Why my challenges are also a blessing

A few months ago, I challenged myself to do something scary. Really scary. I spoke about having ADHD and dyslexia in front of hundreds of people over two nights here in Bozeman.

It was a PechaKucha talk meaning I had six minutes and 20 seconds to tell my story. I created a Powerpoint of 20 slides that played 6 seconds each behind me on stage at The Ellen Theatre. It was a powerful experience hearing people react to my words as I spoke.

It was also affirming having folks — even people I didn’t know — praise the presentation. More importantly, I was surprised and pleased to have several people thank me, themselves having been recently diagnosed or having struggled with these issues for years. Some even sought me out for advice.

Whoa!

If I think back on the days when I first started keeping this blog, I realize how far I’ve come from that anxiety-ridden, depressed woman. Now, I feel strong, confident and capable. And I’m getting things done … not despite, but BECAUSE I have ADHD.

Don’t get that? Watch the video.

Dopamine — making us dopey?

 

“The more pleasure you seek, the more unhappy you get.”

— Dr. Robert Lustig

I’ve kicked the habit. I have resisted doing puzzles online for nearly two weeks now and this time I think it’s going to stick. It was an embarrassing habit wrought sometimes of boredom, but most frequently of fear and procrastination.

It happened after attending a Kopriva Science Seminar at Montana State University a couple of weeks ago. The speaker was Dr. Robert Lustig, author of “The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains” and New York Times bestseller, “Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease.” 

Though Lustig’s talk focused on our eating habits and how they affect our brain function, he touched on the damage we experience as a result of computer use.

He posed this question: What’s the difference between pleasure and happiness? Have you ever considered this? It’s simple really: pleasure is short-lived, happiness is longterm.

So why is this important and how does this distinction affect brain function?

Imagine you’re eating your favorite food — mint chocolate chip ice cream, for example. Your brain gets happy because it’s being satisfied with sugar and fat and all the stuff that we’ve been trained to enjoy (yes, trained, but that’s another post about Lustig). That happiness you feel is short-term — once the ice cream is gone, the pleasure dissipates.

Let’s consider that same dopamine triggered by, say, cocaine. Lustig (and many others) say longterm dopamine surges damage, even destroy, the neuropathways that enable us to feel pleasure creating a tolerance to the triggers that make us feel good. Our solution? We use more, eat more, gamble more, do more puzzles. See where I’m going with this?

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“The more pleasure you seek, the more unhappy you get,” Lustig says.

Dopamine affects executive functioning or decision-making and perception, so we need a certain level of it. But too much dopamine and an addicted pleasure-seeking brain is unable to decide to “just stop using” because sensory information isn’t getting to other parts of the brain. When those neuropathways are damaged, it leads to deficits in memory, attention and problem-solving. Dopamine deficiency is also thought to cause Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, depression, bipolar disorders, binge eating, addiction, gambling, schizophrenia and ADHD (right?), according to Psychology Today.

And there are studies indicating that online gaming, even simple computer use, produces that pleasure-producing neurotransmitter dopamine (and has other negative brain-altering consequences).

Yikes! Am I right?

I have enough trouble with my executive functioning … scared straight, I was.

The ADDled Brain and Anxiety

I never thought of myself as an anxious person. Maybe I wasn’t when I was younger. Truth be told, though, I suspect I’ve had anxiety issues most of my life and was never treated for it.

It’s common for people with ADHD also to have issues with anxiety and depression. I mean, who wouldn’t be depressed when our brain differences aren’t recognized or accepted in a world that is becoming increasingly hyperactive and overwhelming?

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, about 4 percent of American adults (or about 8 million people) have ADHD, half of whom also have an anxiety disorder.

I had a 50-50 shot at NOT having anxiety — my luck, I guess. And speaking of luck …

A 2017 study of 423 adults selected on the basis of gambling habits or impulsivity (impulse-control being one of the issues associated with ADHD — see my post about puzzle obsession) found that 20 percent had symptoms of ADHD. However, only 7.3 percent had received a formal diagnosis and, ostensibly, treatment for it.

“ADHD symptoms were associated with significantly lower quality of life, lower self-esteem, higher emotional dysregulation, higher impulsivity-compulsivity questionnaire scores, more problematic internet use, greater occurrence of psychiatric disorders, and impaired stop-signal reaction times,” the study’s authors wrote.

So it’s not surprising anxiety plays a role in my life. Now that I’m older, I’m learning how to handle it better. I mean, my anxiety isn’t severe — I hadn’t even considered I had it, for goodness sakes. But now I realize, it does get in the way — particularly with sleep, decision-making and impulsivity (read: puzzles).

My curiosity was piqued a few weeks ago when I heard a story on NPR about a study that found specific brain cells in mice that seem to control anxiety levels. Although Mazen Kheirbek, assistant professor at University of California, San Francisco and lead author of the study, says the research is preliminary, it could lead to better treatment for anxiety.

Avoidance is a typical and healthy response to threat, the authors write in the introduction to the study published in the journal Neuron. But people with anxiety can overestimate threat leading to excessive avoidance behavior.

Can you say procrastination?

The hippocampus region of the brain is thought to be involved in mood and anxiety disorders. But little is known about how or why some people’s brains cause them to worry excessively.
scared mouse

Using highly technical methods I won’t go into, researchers discovered a specific neural pathway in the hippocampus of mice that appears to generate avoidance behavior in stressful situations.

Of course, and Kheirbek was clear about this when speaking with NPR, research conducted on lab animals doesn’t always translate to humans.

Still, it gives me hope.

It all ADDed up — Part I

You’d think I’d have been upset. But a few years ago, when a psychiatrist told me I had Attention Deficit Disorder,* it was a relief.

That diagnosis — one I’d always suspected — didn’t exist during my childhood. But it explained a lot about my life. Why I experienced so much failure in school, jobs, relationships. Why I’d made so many less-than-ideal decisions. It also confirmed that, like many with ADD, I have dyslexia  my brain sees things differently than so-called normal brains so I had trouble reading and writing.

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So here’s the ugly truth: I struggled in school though I did well enough. My teachers and parents seemed to know I was intelligent but didn’t know how to help me focus. I had to work hard to get good grades.

Particularly in my first few years in college.

You see, I thought I wanted to be a biomedical engineer and the thought still appeals to me. I love the idea of conceptualizing and creating things to help people live better lives. And although I did well in science and math in high school, unlike my college cohorts, I did not take advanced placement courses. Remember bell-curve grading?

So there I was at a midwestern university with more than 100 students in an un-air-conditioned lecture hall. The temperature and humidity were nearly identical at about 100. The chemistry class was taught by an assistant whose command of the English language left something to be desired. Not exactly the best learning environment for even the most conventional of learners.

By the end of the first week of my third semester at this university, I was throwing my shoes at my dorm room door in frustration. I decided something had to give.

Needless to say, I never did get a degree in engineering. Was that a failure? I sure saw it that way at the time.

Skip forward several years. After transferring to Goucher College — a small, liberal arts college that was women-only at the time, I found a new world. More nurturing than the university where a dean told me my SAT scores were the lowest in my class (they were in the top 80 percentile or better nationally). The only reason I got into the school of engineering was because I was a women, he added.

Yes, that really happened. But that was 1979. Although I was aware of gender discrimination, it didn’t occur to me that’s what this was. In reverse. But not really. By accepting a student who didn’t fit the criteria of the school, weren’t they merely setting me up for failure? Probably.

But I don’t blame anyone. It’s just how things were then. And besides, that’s not the point.

After four and a half years of college, several changes in majors and a parental bribe to pay for off-campus dance classes in exchange for not changing my major once again (this time to dance therapy), I graduated with a degree in elementary education. Big whoop. (Apologies to education majors everywhere — a very noble and under-appreciated profession). But before I had finished school, I realized teaching was not for me – not in the traditional sense anyway.

I hate to admit it, but I probably read only half of what I was assigned in college and still managed to graduate with decent grades. I just didn’t have the ability to focus enough to read that much. And I needed more focus than most given the dyslexia.

According to Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D., “About 50 to 60 percent of people with ADHD* also have a learning disability,” he wrote in ADDitude magazine. “The most common of these is dyslexia, a language-based learning disability that affects reading. Eight to 17 percent of the population is affected by dyslexia, and it is vastly misunderstood.”

As a very young child, when I learned to write my name, it would often come out Joby (the legal spelling of my name is Jody, but I changed it because I didn’t like the aesthetics of the J and Y). Turning that ‘d’ around should have been a clue that I had this so-called disability. But again, we’re products of our time.

Although it was 1877 when German neurologist Adolf Kussmaul coined the term word blindness to describe people with reading difficulties, there is still not much known about dyslexia. In fact, it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that scientists started investigating the underlying causes of the condition.

All this to say, children growing up in the mid-20th century were not diagnosed with and therefore not taught how to overcome the challenges associated with dyslexia and ADD. We just learned to cope. Or we didn’t. And we failed. Occasionally.

* I use ADD and ADHD interchangeably.

My ADDled Brain’s ADDiction

“There are no extra pieces in the universe. Everyone is here because he or she has a place to fill, and every piece must fit itself into the big jigsaw puzzle.”

                –Deepak Chopra

I admit it. I have an addiction.

I also have mild depression and anxiety — conditions not uncommon to people with ADD or women going through perimenopause, of which I have both.

Yay for me!

Though it’s not destined to destroy my physical health like alcohol or drug addiction, mine does feel self-destructive. It affects my ability to pursue my career and creative goals.

My addiction? Puzzles.

When I’m feeling stressed, anxious or overwhelmed and want to avoid work, I turn to online jigsaw puzzles, word games, crossword puzzles and Sudoku.

Side note: Nearly 1 in 5 American adults are affected by an anxiety disorder each year, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Now substance addiction is a different animal than say, gambling or puzzle playing, I don’t deny that. Using alcohol, drugs or even tobacco has true physiological effects. But in terms of brain chemistry, I wonder how different those addictions and mine really are.

For me, I think doing puzzles calms my overwhelmed and sometimes anxious brain, much like a heroin addict who soothes his anxiety or pain by shooting up. OK, I admit, that’s probably a stretch given the physical ramifications of not taking a highly addictive substance, as in withdrawal, which is a serious health concern in and of itself. But either way, both addictions result from a lack of impulse control (as embarrassing as that is for me to admit about myself).

Self-proclaimed Puzzlecrossword addict Dean Olsher is ambivalent about crossword puzzles. In a 2009 interview with Melissa Block on NPR, Dean Olsher spoke about his book, “From Square One: A Meditation, With Digressions, On Crosswords.”

Olsher confirms my thinking about puzzle addiction. Reading from his book on NPR,  he says, “Entering a crossword is like stepping into the clean, white cube of an art gallery or into a church or a Japanese rock garden. There are days when solving puzzles feels like a practice — the next best thing to seated meditation … It is more honest, though, to think of crosswords as a habit, like smoking. It’s just something to do every day because it’s there.”

Soothing, right?

However, Olsher also asserts that puzzles “have an addictive, immersive quality that keeps people coming back for more.” Part Zen and part addiction, he likens them to their own form of mental illness.

Yiiiiiiiiikes!!!

According to an October article by National Institutes of Health, researchers found that “addiction’s power lies in its ability to hijack and even destroy key brain regions that are meant to help us survive.”

Healthy brains reward healthy behaviors, it says. Exercising and eating healthy foods switches on brain circuits that makes us feel good, so we’re motivated to repeat those behaviors.

When a healthy brain senses danger, it elicits a chemical release that prompts the body to react quickly — the so-called fight-or-flight response. According to a  Harvard Medical School article on depression, “Every real or perceived threat to your body triggers a cascade of stress hormones that produces physiological changes. We all know the sensations: your heart pounds, muscles tense, breathing quickens, and beads of sweat appear.”

But drugs and alcohol mask those chemical responses by hijacking the brain’s pleasure/reward circuits, the NIH says. Addiction sets danger-sensing circuits of the brain into overdrive, making an addict anxious and stressed when not under the influence, leading them to want more and more.

For substance abusers, it becomes a vicious cycle that has them using drugs or alcohol to avoid feeling bad rather than to feel good.

And those stress hormones? They are produced as a result of increased activity in the frontal cortex of the brain — lo and behold, one of the areas of the brain affected by ADD and depression!

If you’re tempted by something questionable—like eating candy instead of a healthy dinner or buying things you can’t afford—the frontal regions of your brain can help you decide if the consequences are worth the actions. But if your frontal cortex isn’t totally functional, as is the case with addiction, ADD and depression, you may not have the ability to rationally stop yourself from doing something you know won’t be good for you. I feel that. It becomes an intense struggle to control impulses. And, like any addiction, it gets in the way of living life.

But I can report now that I have cut down on my puzzle-playing over the last few months during which time, this post sat in my draft folder. Maybe I felt the need for some good news before I came clean to you.

I’m far from cured. I still take an occasional trip to my favorite online puzzles. But I’ve deleted games from my phone and I often stop myself when I feel the urge, so I’m getting there. So does PA exist — a support group for puzzle addicts?