It may seem that the number of people diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyper Disorder has increased dramatically over the past few years. You may think that ADHD (as it is more frequently referred to), is simply the label given to children who cannot sit still in class. However, as research in the field of neurodivergence progresses, we are beginning to understand how ADHD manifests in adults.
You may be wondering if it is worth investigating at this stage in your life if you have ADHD. You’ve finished school, you’re in stable employment and on the surface of it, you don’t seem to have any difficulties. So why should you get tested? Getting tested and diagnosed with ADHD is more than just about having extra help at school. Typically, people who were tested were people who are predominantly hyperactive, however, there are other symptoms of ADHD.
ADHD is now considered to be a clinical difficulty with executive functioning. Executive functioning is the group of skills that allow you to organize thoughts and activities, prioritize what to do, manage time efficiently, and make decisions. Difficulties in these domains manifest as difficulties keeping your desk organized, scheduling your diary well, regulating your emotions, and sticking to a task. For someone with these difficulties, it is hard to keep track of eveyrthing you have to do, and what steps you need to take to complete a task.
All of us experience ADHD symptoms, forgetting where we left our phone or glasses, overbooking our schedule and realising too late that we have to be in two places at once. Does this mean you have ADHD? No. The frequency of how often you do these things, and they extent to which they have a negative impact on your life will determine if you fit the diagnostic criteria.
Being forgetful makes the everyday tasks and routine overwhelming. The problem is compounded by the fact that people around you may be resentful of the consequences that the diagnosis has on their life. Essentially, we have to acknowledge that living with someone with ADHD has real-life implications. In fact, ADHD coaches and experts report that the hardest part about living with ADHD is the judgement and shame and resentment, rather than the symptoms themselves. Remember that it’s not your fault or your choice, to have ADHD. However, this doesn’t mean you don’t have any control over the situation. You do have a choice to work with the diagnosis.
Learning if you have the diagnosis has several benefits. Firstly, it helps you understand your past experiences, and reconsider all the labels you gave yourself. Looking back, you may see that people thought you were lazy or stupid, but you knew that you were trying your best to achieve, only to find stumbling blocks. You may have felt unable to sit still long enough to focus on the material in front of you. Showing yourself some empathy helps with improving your motivation, prevents depression, and makes you more understanding of others too.
The next benefit, is that you can now recognise what your difficulties are, and how you can build strategies to address them. For example, you’ll know that you’re at high risk of losing your attention quickly, so you should avoid scheduling back to back meetings. You can take more frequent breaks. If you know that you’re also more at risk of getting agitated, you’ll start to recognise what triggers you, and learn about what situations to avoid. For example, if you know that people shouting is something that makes you lose your temper, you might want to share this with your loved ones, so that they can try to modify their behaviour.
Recognize Unhealthy Strategies
All of us resort to doing things we know we shouldn’t, because in the long-term they have consequences, but short-term, they provide comfort, or relieve stress. The classic example of course, is using sugar, or smoking, or drinking. People with ADHD are more likely to have to turn to external ways of calming themselves, because of the brain’s difficulty in regulating emotions. They are therefore more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviours, and subsequently, have to address the consequences of those behaviours, over and above ADHD symptoms. Therefore, it is crucial to you recognise what behaviours you may be in engaging in, and finding alternatives, and what pushes you to depend on these behaviours in the first place. Avoiding your triggers ensures that you will have less need to turn to the behaviour.
Once you recognise these behaviours, ask yourself, what purpose does this serve? When I reach for a drink, is it because I want to calm down? What can I do instead to ease my nerves? If you feel you can’t do without the behaviour, set yourself the challenge to delay the behaviour. Start small. Can you wait five minutes before reaching for the cigarette? If that’s doable, set yourself a bigger challenge, each time making the delay longer. There will be days where you might not be able to wait, and on other days
Set a Routine
Humans are by default, creatures of habit. We need predictibility, so that our brain can learn how to be more efficient on doing a task, rather than predicting what is going to happen next. Without having to use our resources on trying to figure out what comes next, we can divert our attention to other tasks. This in effect, is a way of channeling our mental capacity towards more demanding tasks.
Incorporate the following measures into your routine:
Start with Alone-Time – If you live with a family, set your alarm clock 15 minutes before everyone else, to start your day undistracted.
Schedule 15 minutes of “Screw-up” time. This is time in the day when you can catch up on something if things don’t go according to plan. This could be traffic, or someone keeping you waiting, or an unexpected phone call. Don’t plan your day with everything back to back, without the space and flexibility to accommodate for things going wrong.
Plan as much of your day and week as you can. This helps you avoid having to make last-minute decisions, and then trying to achieve them. For example, make a meal plan for the week, set out your clothes for the next day rather than waiting until the morning, and risk running late because you can’t find the right thing to wear. Constantly having to make decisions can be overwhelming and tiring.
Addressing Attention Difficulties
To compensate for attention difficulties, use reminders that are effective. Having a daily email reminder that you will ignore is useless. On the other hand, having a loud alarm that sets off at a time when you are able to complete a task is more likely to remind you of what you need to do, and you are more likely to complete the task.
Recognize if you are a visual or auditory learner. Do you learn new things by seeing them written down? Do you need to write things down yourself? Do you prefer the use of pictures? Do you need to be moving in order to be able to concentrate? It may not be possible for you to physically get up and move whilst you are listening to instructions, so you could try using something that allows you to incorporate movement discretely, for example, using a fidget spinner, playing with a pen, or if permissible, having a standing desk if you are in an office environment.
Do not spend too long on one task. Give yourself a time-limit, then take a break and move on to another task. You can revert back to the first task later on in the day. This gives you the chance to redirect your focus, without getting bored on any single task.
Engage in activities that require both concentration and coordination. This improves your working memory, and your ability to control impulses. If you have time for a yoga class, that’s great, but if you want something simpler and less time-demanding, you can practice walking on a straight line, whilst balancing something in your non-dominant hand. You can spend as little as two minutes on this simple exercise, it’s free, and it has long-term benefits, as well as the immediate advantage of helping you calm down if you are feeling agitated.
If you feel you need further support, speak to a psychologist or doctor about your concerns.