Adult ADHD: Why it’s real, and what to do about it
By Aneesh Chatterjee
Posted on January 3, 2022
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is often tossed aside as a myth. An inability to focus on anything, keep track of deadlines, stay motivated, and get work done—all of this might just look like someone who’s exceptionally lazy, or uninterested. Acknowledging mental health as a real problem isn’t as obvious as a fever or a broken leg, for instance. The symptoms are harder to see, easy to miss, and far too quickly misunderstood.
Children with ADHD (especially in societies where mental health is not a well-acknowledged topic) often face reprimand, because their families or teachers see them as lazy and unwilling to improve their behavior. While this discipline might have good intentions, undiagnosed ADHD can follow the child well into adulthood and cause a series of severe problems.
This article is written both for people living with ADHD, and the people around them, who might struggle with identifying and acknowledging this condition.
It’s all in your head! Or is it?
Much like depression, ADHD is a heavily misunderstood topic. Many believe it’s simply a state of mind, and doesn’t actually exist as a medical condition. This, among other myths, has been debunked repeatedly in many scientific studies over decades. Experts have confirmed that not only is ADHD a real condition, but it’s just as much a physical, biological problem as it is a psychological issue.
For example, studies have determined that the brain’s frontal-subcortical regions are what’s responsible for ADHD in children and adults. In this part of the brain, chemicals like dopamine and norepinephrine, belonging to a group of substances in your brain called catecholamines, are released in response to emotional stress.
These chemicals are very important, as they’re responsible for a lot of your day-to-day bodily functions. Dopamine, for instance, helps you control physical movements, sleep, kidney and blood vessel functions, and most relevant to this discussion—helps you regulate mood, feel pleasure, happiness and relief, and focus on goals. Norepinephrine is a chemical your brain releases in high-stress situations, helping you cope. It increases your heart rate, blood flow, makes you more alert and observant, and can help you focus better.
When someone has ADHD, these chemicals and other catecholamines have trouble being released. In short, there are chemical deficiencies. While the extent to which these chemicals are lacking may vary from person to person, this has been identified as one of the primary indicators of ADHD. When these chemicals aren’t properly distributed by the brain, it can result in a lack of focus, inability to concentrate and learn, loss of motivation, and could even lead to anxiety, depression, and other issues.
How does it happen?
The strongest cause of ADHD is genetics. Studies show that parents’ genes are the most likely and direct cause of ADHD in children, and by extension, in adults. The highest amount of evidence implicates two gene variants, DRD4 and DRD5, both of which are versions of the D4 dopamine receptor gene. These genetic variants, inherited from parents, have the biggest connection with causing ADHD, as studies have shown.
There are other causes as well, aside from genetics, which can both contribute to the formation of ADHD and aggravate its symptoms. These environmental factors have shown to be related to ADHD, but don’t have as much strong evidence correlating them to the disease as genetic factors do. These are considered to be things that can potentially contribute to the causation of ADHD, or make it more likely for the child if they already have it.
While pregnant, a mother’s activities may influence the child’s neurochemical development. Smoking or drinking while pregnant have been identified as potential contributors to ADHD while the child is still in the womb. If the mother is obese during pregnancy, suffers internal bleeding, or goes through a premature birth, resulting in a child born under the healthy weight range for newborns, it can possibly contribute to ADHD formation in the child’s brain as well.
Toxins in the child’s diet, like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), as well as stress factors like poor upbringing, bullying, bad parenting, and social rejection have also been studied as causes for ADHD. While there’s not substantial evidence to back these, they might make it worse if someone already lives with this condition.
While there are solutions for people who suffer from ADHD, it’s equally important for their loved ones to understand this condition and help the individual feel accepted. Instead of chastising someone for being lazy and ineffective, understanding how this disease affects one’s mind can help you better manage your relationship with a patient of ADHD.
If you’re a parent, for example, and you have a child with ADHD, here are some very effective things you can do day-to-day which will make life easier for both of you, and cultivate a relationship of understanding. Some of these include breaking up daily chores into smaller, more manageable tasks for your child, avoiding micromanaging, managing your emotions, and encouraging healthy habits. This video also explains very simply how someone with ADHD thinks, and how you can communicate with them better—whether you’re a family member, a partner of someone with ADHD, a boss managing an employee, or a friend.
There is a stigma against taking medication for mental disorders. Many believe that taking ADHD medication will make you dependent, cause addiction, withdrawal symptoms, and make you fuzzy and slow. It’s important to understand that medication affects everyone differently.
However, if a patient has an honest conversation with their doctor about the severity of their condition, and takes the medicine at the prescribed dosage, it can help mitigate the effects of ADHD, and enable them to focus, learn, finish tasks, and be motivated. However, as stated before, it varies from person to person, and no decision should be made before consulting a doctor and being honest about your symptoms. There’s no shame in discussing mental health, and reaching out for help is a big step!
There are endless resources on how to manage ADHD beyond medication. The general idea is to use as many tools and habits as you can to organize your day, simplify your tasks, set reminders, and build a system that helps you stay on track. Some sources encourage using daily planners, Google reminders, reducing clutter in your environment, breaking down tasks, and changing preconceived ideas about how to approach some tasks.
For instance, Helpguide.org’s Tips for Managing Adult ADHD encourages organization, prioritization, and time management as primary ways to handle ADHD for adults. Simple things like setting aside specific time frames to do certain tasks, giving yourself assigned breaks, and breaking down big tasks into smaller subtasks can help you tackle projects and deadlines. Cultivating a clock-oriented lifestyle can help you as well. While it’s not easy to do, a little bit of effort every day can help you slip into a properly-timed daily schedule. Having a roadmap to your day pre-planned can make it easier to manage tasks and responsibilities.
Daily planners, weekly planners, and to-do lists are part of every recommendation list when addressing ADHD. Even if you don’t want to fiddle with physical notebooks, using a phone app or a digital organizer (like OneNote) to set goals you want to meet for the month, the week, and the day are excellent habits.
Removing distractions isn’t always possible (especially in a pandemic) but when you can, try to stay away from things that you know can easily distract you. Don’t keep your phone near you when you work. Turn off the TV. If it helps you concentrate, put on some headphones and play music. This video is a helpful introduction to some basic tools that can help you manage your condition.
Goal-setting can be something like “finish the first section of my essay by Wednesday at 9 p.m.” This does two things: It breaks up your task into a smaller chunk (you only have to do the first section, not the whole essay) and it gives you a specific deadline (9 p.m. on Wednesday). Try to be as specific as possible when you set goals and tasks, as it will help you organize better.
Organization is also crucial. Clean up your room, your workspace, even your computer’s desktop. Many ADHD guides recommend organizing, removing unnecessary clutter and maintaining a clean, tidy workspace. If possible, include a section in your daily planner dedicated to cleaning, organizing, and getting ready for the day ahead.
Overall, there are many behavioral changes you can make to address your symptoms. This document by the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) contains a long list of habits for organization, time and money management, and even driving. They include hyperlinks to other helpful resources as well.
There are numerous, very helpful apps designed to assist you with organization, reminders and task management. This Healthline article lists some of the best apps in 2021, including Evernote, Asana and Trello, among many others.
There is substantial evidence to prove that ADHD isn’t just a state of mind, or someone being lazy and uncooperative. It’s a biological condition. The good news is, just like with many other health problems, there are ways to manage it and still live the life you want to live.
There’s no shame in seeking help, being open about mental health and acknowledging the issue. While it may seem impossible to solve, ADHD is a very manageable condition that is effectively treated so you can conduct your life on your own terms.
If you think you may have ADHD, reach out to your doctor and ask for a diagnosis. If you’re diagnosed, there’s no end to the wealth of information on how to handle this disease. Follow your doctor’s instructions, work on your habits one step at a time, and you will be successful.