Living Your Best Life with ADHD
Chances are you have heard of the diagnosis of ADHD before. It’s not altogether uncommon to know of someone who is dealing with it. But how much do you really understand about the diagnosis beyond a young child with too much energy?
Even when you look within the medical and mental health community you will find similar confusion. If you ask enough medical and mental health professionals about the diagnosis of ADHD you will soon find, it might be the most misunderstood conditions.
Is it a medical condition? Is it emotional? Attentional? What causes it? It seems like there might be more questions than answers.
Although there are many researchers studying the causes, implications and treatment of ADHD, there remains scant information out there on how it really impacts people. There is further confusion when you consider that there are three variations of the diagnosis. In fact, there’s even debate as to whether adult ADHD even exists (it does, although it does not present the same as childhood presentations).
In many instances, the people who have been diagnosed with ADHD, their families (parents, siblings, spouses), and those who work with them (teachers, supervisors, co-workers) don’t fully know what ADHD is and how to effectively deal with it.
WHAT EXACTLY IS ADHD?
The full neurobiological explanation is far more in-depth than we will delve into here. Instead, we will focus on some of the most important points that people dealing with ADHD (as well as those who live or work with them) should know.
If you look at a brain scan of a child diagnosed with ADHD, you will find that certain parts of the brain (particularly the prefrontal cortex, the area right behind your forehead) are lagging behind in development. While these brain structures are growing in size and strength, they are slightly behind that of their like-aged peers.
For example, it has been described by leading researchers that certain structures of the brain lag about 2 years behind a typically developing brain. So a 16-year-old will have the development in those areas of a typical 14-year-old. As a result, the jobs performed by those parts of the brain are not being done at the level desired or expected. If your high school sophomore has the prefrontal cortex development of a middle schooler, you probably still have the expectations of someone preparing for success in college in two years’ time.
The responsibilities of the brain structures most readily impacted by ADHD are responsible for what are commonly referred to as Executive Functioning. These functions include:
It becomes easy to see why tweens and teenagers dealing with ADHD on top of the pressures of growing up can become stressed.
AREAS OF LIFE THAT MAY BE AFFECTED BY ADHD
Because of these deficits, ADHD can influence someone’s schooling, safety awareness, job performance, career development, financial stability, driving skills, self-care, and compliance with societal expectations and rules. It also has implications for someone’s ability to socialize appropriately, family relations, romantic relationships, and involvement in group activities.
What’s more, people with ADHD are more likely to have learning disabilities, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, defiant behaviors, bipolar disorder, eating problems (including binging), Autism, and antisocial tendencies.
THE THREE VARIATIONS OF ADHD
ADHD is way more than a young child who just can’t sit still.
The most commonly known version is the Hyperactive/Impulsive presentation. Some of the characteristics of this type include fidgeting/restlessness, difficulty staying seated, acting as if driven non-stop by a motor, excessive talk, inability to wait for their turn, interrupting inappropriately, and not waiting for permission to do something. This is most likely what comes to mind when you think of someone who has been diagnosed with ADHD.
The Inattentive presentation can be just as impactful as the Hyperactive/Impulsive type. This variation is much more “invisible” than the louder, fidgety variety, therefore leading to frequent misdiagnosis of something else. The most common characteristics for the Inattentive type include careless mistakes, difficulty maintaining focus (with the exception of highly desired or greatly enjoyed activities - think Fortnite or Youtube), mind wandering, incomplete tasks, not following instructions as provided, overlooked details, missed deadlines, poor time management, disorganization/losing track of important items, failing to follow a specified order of actions, difficulty sustaining effort for an expected period of time (again, highly desired activities don’t count here), easy distractibility by thoughts or occurrences in the environment, and forgetfulness (unless it is part of a very well-rehearsed routine). People with ADHD can have one type of these and not the other.
The third type is when someone has both, which is called Combined presentation.
WHAT ADHD IS NOT
In many respects, this is far more important information to review with individuals who have been diagnosed with ADHD and their families.
ADHD is not indicative of someone’s intelligence or potential for success in life. While intelligence is a measure of someone’s academic capability (usually average, if not better), ADHD can affect their ability to reach it. Someone might be very capable of learning, but this is limited if they have to do it in a room with an overwhelming number of people and a lot of distractions. Someone might possess a terrific knowledge base on a particular subject, but be unable to access and use that information based on factors specific to that situation.
ADHD is not laziness. People with ADHD usually do not lack motivation (often, they might not even realize that). It’s all in the follow-through. ADHD affects how well someone can initiate or maintain their action towards a desired goal. They want to do what is expected of them, but something is interfering with their ability to make that first step happen.
ADHD is not intentional. The part of the brain in charge of accomplishing tasks is not at full size or strength. This is not their fault and its important for the people around them not take it personally. ADHD can cause a person to be inconsistent and frustrate the people around them. But with the right gameplan, their true abilities can be unleashed.
ADHD is not a lack of goals. People with ADHD can identify their goals and desires as well as anyone else. Where they may struggle is in formulating and executing the plans they need to accomplish their goals. Again, with the right strategies in place, they are very capable of reaching their goals.
ADHD is not being broken. It means a different style of approaching life is needed for someone to reach their true potential.
FIRST, A WORD ABOUT THE MOST COMMON TREATMENT FOR ADHD
A number of different strategies have been shown to improve outcomes for people living with ADHD. Research has shown that stimulant medication is highly effective. That said, it’s not the only intervention that leads to improvements. However, it does lead to a lot of noticeable improvement when it is the right type and dosage.
MY ADHD TREATMENT APPROACH
What I do to help people (and their families) with their ADHD is teach coping skills, compensation strategies, and environmental/routine hacks necessary to accomplish their goals with or without ADHD medication. I include information regarding what medication treatment can and can not accomplish.
We work together to develop strategies for maximizing someone’s ability to accomplish a number of important life skills, including:
There will be some degree of trial-and-error to find what ultimately works best for you. Most people experience substantial improvement in fulfilling the expectations that others place upon them or those you place upon yourself.
We also work on skills and approaches for addressing the other problems that individuals with ADHD may encounter. These include techniques for effectively dealing with mood (anxiety, depression, anger, frustration, mood swings), relationship difficulties (communication, collaboration, connecting, prioritizing, co-parenting), and improving lifestyle (establishing an exercise routine, decreasing substance use, healthier eating, developing financial responsibility, safer driving).
There are skills and techniques for everything that ADHD affects, by working together closely with your ADHD therapist, you will learn them.
I don’t weigh in as to whether you should or should not take a medicinal approach to treatment. However, I provide individuals and their families with a plethora of information, including pros and cons of medication treatment. This helps people make an informed decision for themselves or their children. My approach to this process is to provide research-based information as you make a decision for your situation.
COMMON ADHD QUESTIONS
A FINAL WORD ON ADHD
Life with ADHD is very manageable with the right diagnosis and treatment. It’s important that you or your child receive a proper diagnosis in order for your ADHD psychologist to work with you to find the right treatment. We can work together to ensure you or your child get what you need to live your best life.