Demystifying Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
By Elena Simonsen
“ADHD is not about knowing what to do, but about doing what one knows.”
- Russell A. Barkley, Ph.D., editor of The ADHD Report
So many of us struggle with focus and concentration at some point in our lives, and it can be hard to distinguish whether it is due to something simple (i.e. not enough sleep, burnout, stress) or something more complex, such as ADHD and/or ADD. The term “ADHD” tends to be over used quite often, so it is understandable if you find yourself questioning the symptoms you may be experiencing as well as wondering what ADHD actually is. On top of it all, there are a lot of myths and misunderstandings surrounding the diagnosis of ADHD too! So if you are feeling uncertain about what is going on for you, before you definitively apply this label to yourself, let’s explore it in a bit more detail.
Here are some common myths (and the realities behind those myths) that we as counselors, frequently hear:
● Myth: ADHD is not a medical issue
Fact: someone with ADHD doesn’t choose to have difficulty focusing. ADHD is a condition based on both genetic and environmental factors.
● Myth: People with ADHD aren’t as intelligent as those without ADHD
Fact: ADHD is not related to intelligence. Rather, it is related to one’s ability to focus. A person can be highly intelligent and simultaneously struggle with ADHD.
● Myth: ADHD only affects children.
Fact: although ADHD is most commonly associated with and diagnosed during childhood, people of all ages may struggle with ADHD.
What is ADHD exactly?
To start, let’s define Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). According to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is the book all mental health professionals use to guide their work, ADHD “is a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development.”(American Psychiatric Association, 2013) and consists of three main components:
Inattention- this may present as being disorganized or having trouble focusing on your current task.
Hyperactivity- this may look like having trouble staying still, constantly fidgeting, or restlessness
Impulsivity- this may look like constantly interrupting others, or making major decisions, like quitting a job, without much thought.
Additionally, ADHD is typically identified and diagnosed in childhood, as symptoms must be present prior to the age of twelve in order for a diagnosis to be made. This means that in order to be given an ADHD diagnosis, several symptoms (such as inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity) must have been present in childhood (typically by the time you are twelve years old) even if you don’t receive a diagnosis until you are an adult.
While many people experience the symptoms listed above, it’s important to note that for someone to be diagnosed with ADHD, these symptoms must impair daily functioning in some way, have been present for at least 6 months, in multiple areas of your life and cause some level of distress. For example, maybe you consistently can’t get your work done at school and it is significantly impacting your grades or you have experienced job loss as a result of your symptoms. Another example could be always struggling to stay still in social situations and people make comments to you about it. Finally, you must have:
● at least 6 different symptoms of inattention (5 for adults), such as:
Overlooking details or being negligent in your work
Avoiding things like schoolwork that require you to keep your focus on one thing for an extended period of time
Frequently losing often-used items such as wallet, keys, phone
Being easily distracted from tasks by things going on in your environment or your own thoughts
Being forgetful when completing daily activities like paying bills or doing chores
Struggling with organization
● As well as 6 different symptoms falling into the category of inattention or hyperactivity (5 for adults), such as:
Restlessness, difficulty sitting still
Interrupting others often
ADHD Compared to Other Diagnoses
Just because you struggle to focus or sit still doesn’t necessarily mean that you have ADHD. In fact, ADHD can have similar presentation to several other conditions, including:
● Trauma- if you have experienced a traumatic event, or a series of traumatic events, you may also struggle with focus and attention, which may impact your daily functioning.
● Learning disabilities- if you struggle with a learning disability, you may struggle to focus in school or at work due to frustration with difficulty grasping concepts. If this difficulty focusing is only present in situations where you’re attempting to learn a new skill or concept, it’s less likely that you are struggling with ADHD.
● Mood Disorders- you may have trouble focusing if you’re experiencing depression, anxiety, or another mood-related disorder. If you’re struggling with anxiety, the difficulty concentrating is due to worrying and is not present in general situations. If you struggle with depression, the difficulty focusing is only present when you’re in the midst of a depressed state.
Additionally, it is not uncommon to struggle with more than one issue, such as trauma and ADHD. We all know how easy it is to go down the Google or WebMD rabbit holes that lead to multiple self-diagnoses. So if you suspect that you’re struggling with one or more of these conditions, it’s important to seek feedback from a clinician (either a therapist, psychiatrist, or other health care practitioner specializing in assessment and diagnosis of mental health disorders) that can provide you with a formal diagnosis. Once you have an appropriate diagnosis, you can then seek the support and care that you need and begin implementing behavioral strategies that will help you better manage your symptoms.
Getting Support for ADHD
If your provider identifies that you are, indeed, struggling with ADHD, they may suggest a few different modalities of treatment that will help you improve your focus and attention and be more present in your day-to-day life:
● Medication. Your medical provider may recommend taking medication in order to help reduce your symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity. The two most common types of medications doctors prescribe for ADHD are:
● Stimulant medications, such as Adderall, Vyvanse, and Ritalin
● Nonstimulant medications, such as Strattera
It’s very important to have your doctor closely monitor your medication to ensure you are taking the appropriate type and dose to meet your specific needs.
● Psychotherapy- working with a therapist that is skilled in helping those struggling with ADHD can help you to learn skills that allow you to:
● Get (and stay!) organized
● Break down tasks into smaller, more manageable pieces
● Develop and practice skills (such brain hacks and strategies ) to use when you find yourself struggling to maintain your focus and attention
● Improve relationships that have been negatively impacted by ADHD
● Learn mindfulness techniques, such as meditation, grounding skills, and breathing techniques to help you return your focus to the present moment when you find your mind cannot stay on your current task
Now that you have some clarity on the signs and symptoms of ADHD, and available treatments you are better equipped to spot and get help for this diagnosis. It may also be easier for you to identify and support other people in your life who may be struggling with ADHD. And with help from a trusted provider, you can learn to better manage your symptoms, feel more present and focused and improve your overall wellbeing.
Be Your Best Self + Thrive Counseling uses a holistic, non-judgmental approach to help you build an alliance with your mind, body and spirit that work together for your benefit. Elena is a therapist who is experienced in working with people seeking to learn mindfulness techniques. You can find out more about her here. Book your free consultation here to discuss how we can help!
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596