Once considered a childhood condition, Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) has become a much more common diagnosis in adults. This is post THREE of a series in which I cover misconceptions about ADHD, some of its challenges, plus advantages it gives those of us who have it.
When I finally got my official diagnosis of ADHD in my 40s and started telling people about it, I would get responses like, “Don’t label yourself,” or “You don’t have to limit yourself by putting yourself in a box.” Those types of responses felt frustrating because, far from being limiting, my diagnosis was incredibly freeing!
To me, it was like being a dog raised in a cat family and thinking he’s a cat. When he finally finds out he’s a dog, what a relief! His biology, his anatomy is different from his family’s. Unlike his feline foster siblings, he’s not designed to climb trees well, so it’s totally OK that he can’t! Conversely, however, he is much better at long-distance running than they are.
I don’t want to carry the analogy too far. Certainly, people with ADHD—ADHDers, I like to say—are as human as anyone else, and we live in a human world. Still, many challenges we face are not unique at an individual level. In other words, we’re not weird or deficient humans; we’re just a different group of humans, and that’s neither bad nor good.
In this post: lack of focus/hyperfocus, and the biology behind why people with ADHD are different, not lazy.
In my first post on the topic, I talked about misconceptions about Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, including that ADHD is not an attention deficit—it’s an attention difference. With that in mind, let’s recall some frustrations that people with ADHD face:
- Rejection Dysphoria/Guilt Complex (covered in Part I of this series)
- Recognizing only two timeframes—“now” and “not now”
- Difficulty with neatness, organization, and prioritizing (I covered these two in my second post in this series)
- Two sides of the attention coin—lack of focus/hyperfocus
- Social awkwardness/emotional regulation
In this post, I’ll cover
- some aspects of challenge #4
- some of the differences in the ADHD brain that cause that challenge, as well as how those differences affect us in other ways, and
- how part of challenge #4—hyperfocus—is also a superpower.
Challenge: Lack of Focus or Hyperfocus—No In-Between
Remember how in my last post I talked about how we ADHDers view time? Either “now” or “not now?”
Our attention span is a similar case of extremes. Either we are easily distracted or we get so locked into what we’re doing that, short of an atomic bomb going off next door, nothing can pull us away. We don’t hear our spouse talking to us, we forget to eat, we don’t go to the bathroom . . .
Why is this?
Did people with ADHD evolve to be humanity’s lookouts?
My psychology professor in college mentioned one theory: there is some thought that ADHD developed as a function for humanity’s “guardians.” Like the watchman in a meerkat community, the ADHDer would be the lookout. He would not get so focused on one thing that a movement in his peripheral vision wouldn’t grab his attention. He would never get stuck in one area long enough to miss something happening on another segment of the wall.
When it comes to survival, though, he would be all in. “How do we take care of this?” “What do we need next?” “What should we do now to stay alive?” In other words, the distractibility that frustrates us and those around us in schools, offices, meetings, and so on, was actually good in earlier times. It kept us alert to dangers. Yet when there was danger, it received our full attention.
Is that theory true? I don’t know, and I don’t know if there’s a way to prove or disprove it. Still, I do know that when physical crises occur, my mind gains an amazing clarity. A few years ago during the winter storm that took out most of Texas’ electrical power, my normally patient, go-with-the-flow husband was a bundle of nerves and irritation. I, on the other hand, felt calm and alert. Do we have enough water? What is our food situation? How can we stay warm at night? Who needs assistance? It was almost a role reversal. In that type of situation, I have noticed that I feel much calmer, more in control, and less chaotic or overwhelmed than usual.
Interest-Based Nervous System
In any case, as I’ve said, ADHD is a misnomer. In fact, there is some thought of renaming it an “interest-based nervous system.” What does that mean?
Well, when most people are bored, they find it hard to pay attention. If they don’t enjoy an activity, their motivation to do it flags. With ADHD, multiply that. A lot.
It’s like this: you get to the car and realize you don’t have your phone. For a neurotypical person, that’s an inconvenience akin to walking a few feet through the front door of your single-story house to get the phone. Doesn’t take that much motivation to do it. For a person with ADHD, however, the inconvenience and lack of motivation are more like you’re parked on the street and your phone is in your apartment—on the 12th floor. Oh, and the elevator is out.
This causes a lot of guilt for ADHDers because it looks like a willpower issue or simple laziness. For example, a successful businesswoman with ADHD recently told me that she struggles to do her personal bookkeeping. “I put it on the calendar for Monday nights,” she told me, “But the reminder pops up, and I’m like, ‘Nope!’”
It’s not a willpower issue, though. In fact, according to an article in ADDitude magazine:
Neuroimaging studies have revealed the structural differences in the ADHD brain. Several studies have pointed to a smaller prefrontal cortex and basal ganglia, and decreased volume of the posterior inferior vermis of the cerebellum — all of which play important roles in focus and attention.
What this means is ADHD is not a difference in behavioral preference. Instead, ADHD appears to be partially attributed to a difference in how the brain is structured. What may look like behavioral choices — laziness, sloppiness, and forgetfulness — are likely due to differences in brain structure.(emphasis added; “Face It — People with ADHD Are Wired Differently” Oren Mason, M.D. and Tamara Rosier, Ph.D, 9 May 2023.)
These neurological differences have effects on motivation and focus as well. It’s why people with ADHD are called neurodivergent, along with people who are on the autism spectrum or have certain other neurological conditions.
Along with apparent structural differences, researchers have found a tendency towards much less dopamine activity in the brains of ADHDers than in those of neurotypical people. This is this important because dopamine, according to WebMD, “plays a role in how we feel pleasure. It’s a big part of our unique human ability to think and plan. It helps us strive, focus, and find things interesting.”
What does that mean for ADHDers? Decreased dopamine activity often equates to us finding little to no perceived reward in an activity. So, it’s hard to even start it, no matter how much your logical mind tells you that there is some benefit. It’s one reason ADHDers often leave important tasks till the last minute—fear of the consequences of not doing something can be a much stronger motivator than the promise of a reward way down the road for doing it. (The time blindness I mentioned in my last post also plays a factor, both in calculating how much time we need to do something and in feeling motivated to do it—a reward that’s “not now” doesn’t feel real.)
This low dopamine activity also probably explains why people with ADHD often find day-to-day life tedious, exhausting, and overwhelming. Thus, it’s easy to fall into addictive behaviors, to always be looking for—or creating—excitement, and to seek higher forms of stimulation.
For me, spicy foods, strong, dark coffee, sauerkraut, bleu cheese, and other foods with strong or intense flavors help. For others, it’s sugary treats. When it comes to entertainment, like many ADHDers, I like sci-fi, fantasy, and superhero movies—stories that have nothing to do with boring reality. Not all people with ADHD find excitement or stimulation the same way, but I have found these things are common to many of us.
How to deal with all of this?
My business coach recently gave me some great insight into why I can’t just “will” myself into doing things I don’t find interesting or exciting. She reminded me that what keeps humans moving forward is a combination of drive and grit. Drive comes from our interests and passions: it’s our motivation. Grit is what keeps us going when motivation flags. Every individual only has so much grit, she said. So ideally, we’d tap into our interests and passions to keep our drive up and not have to use our finite store of grit.
You can see why this can be problematic for ADHDers. In a world where bills and food prep and household chores and routine work are the norm, it’s easy for us to get bored and find daily life unrewarding. So, we have to tap into our grit much more often than neurotypical people, and since grit is finite, we run out of it much more quickly than the average person.
One solution that works well for me is to plan my daily/weekly schedule with a balance of structure and flexibility.
For example, I put meetings and a handful of certain tasks on my calendar that won’t get done otherwise. Everything else? It goes on a to-do list. The planned items give me enough structure to not descend into total chaos, but the to-do list with each task assigned an A, B, or C priority helps me get to them as they seem interesting or become time-sensitive.
Structuring my schedule like this also helps me balance the distraction/hyperfocus continuum. If I’m struggling with focus, I grab a “brainless” task that doesn’t require a lot of concentration. Also, it gives me a quick win, and thus a bit of a dopamine surge.
Hyperfocus is Also a Superpower
Another thing I’ve found is that sometimes, if I lack motivation to get started on a task, to push myself to start it anyway, if I can muster the willpower. Then, once I get started on it, I start feeling good about crossing something off my list, and/or I get interested in the task, and my hyperfocus takes over. Before I know it, I’m done!
What? Isn’t hyperfocus a challenge? Yes, it can be—when you get so involved in something that you don’t eat, sleep, or go to the bathroom. Yet it can also be a superpower.
Whether in writing, event planning, or something else that I enjoy doing, I have gotten many compliments throughout my life, not just for doing a good job, but for how thoroughly I’ve covered my topic. How well-put together my party is. And so on.
That same hyperfocus that makes us ADHDers rude to family members by ignoring them when they’re trying to talk to us works in our favor. When something is enjoyable to us, we go all in. We eat, drink, and sleep it until it’s just how we want.
And that’s one of the silver linings of ADHD—so many of its features that make our life harder also make it more beautiful.
In Sum . . . .
Till now, I’ve covered:
- Misconceptions about ADHD
- Four challenges ADHD presents (guilt complex/rejection dysphoria, time blindness, organization/prioritization, and lack of focus/hyperfocus), and
- Two superpowers—the ability to see all sides of an issue and hyperfocus.
Next month, I’ll cover the final challenge, emotional regulation/social awkwardness. I’ll also get into one-two more of some of the ADHD superpowers!
As I said at the beginning, ADHD is neither good nor bad. It comes with challenges, but it also has some amazing benefits.
I can’t wait to discuss this further with you!