ADHD Misunderstood

You may have recently heard the phrase ‘everyone’s a little ADHD.’

With the explosion of social media platforms, it seems that people are more prone to self-diagnosing these issues. So if you find yourself questioning, ‘Wait…do I have ADHD?’ Well, maybe! And you’re not alone in that question. However, the idea that everyone struggles with these symptoms to an extent can be dismissive to those who do.

I think it’s most helpful to look at ADHD, or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity disorder, on a spectrum of what we call neurodivergence. Some people’s brains function differently (neurodivergent), while others have brains that operate closer to an average of the population (neurotypical).

One of the biggest misnomers is that ADHD is about a lack of attention, thus the name attention-deficit. In actuality, it’s an issue with how to direct, maintain, and coordinate that attention to make the moving pieces of our lives work optimally. Here are a few other common misconceptions and misunderstood challenges of ADHD that may help you to better understand this form of neurodivergence and support yourself or someone you love.

Misconception: ADHD means that you are lazy.

In fact, it’s often quite the opposite! Motivation is “the desire or willingness to complete a task.” Sometimes we have a desire to do something and understand its importance, and even the consequences of not doing it, but we just can’t get going.

This is where something called executive functioning comes into play. It’s like our brain’s little manager who sits in the front directing traffic and delegating tasks. When our manager is not functioning, because maybe they have too many tasks to attend to, there’s too much traffic, or they’re just tired or hungry, the person is simply unable to take the task from wanting to doing.

This can be confusing for neurotypical brains who witness a person with ADHD completing many tasks in little time. Or they may have lots of attention and focus for a new and exciting project. That can’t be an attention issue, right?? Well, not exactly. Having an executive functioning issue doesn’t mean attention is non-existent, it’s just fleeting, unharnessed, and non-discriminating. That can make it hard complete things you need to do AND things you are excited to do.

Misunderstood: Emotion regulation issues are also part of ADHD.

You may have heard of Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria, which has little research backing but is reported by people with ADHD. It basically means we have extreme reactions or feel intense emotions at perceived or actual rejection. Sounds pretty typical, right?

Well, executive functioning is also responsible for reigning in our emotions and helping us to prioritize and process information.  Imagine having one thing, no matter how big or small, that you just can’t let go of. It completely derails your day and prevents you from focusing on other more important tasks. When that executive manager is busy or exhausted, emotions can get away from us. This can look like being highly reactive, impulsive, or having intense emotional responses that lead to shut-down.

Examples of emotion regulation issues are extreme anger or irritability in arguments, freezing (doing nothing) when overwhelmed, intense sadness, avoiding situations involving social rejection, impulse spending, or traveling on a whim. Regulating emotions is a crucial part of managing ADHD symptoms and should be part of the conversation.

Misconception: stimulant medications are like doing drugs or are addictive.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard people express their fear of addiction to stimulant medications. Or, judgment toward others taking any psychiatric medications. Most people don’t seem to find issue with taking medication to relieve seasonal allergies, or a headache. We can’t necessarily will ourselves out of those (at least not to my knowledge!) Yet ADHD, along with many other mental health symptoms, is often trivialized as laziness or a moral failing of willpower. I can only imagine how that might affect a person struggling with motivation to seek treatment and stick to a medication plan.

While COVID-19 pandemic extensions for telehealth gave people greater access to evaluation and diagnosis, current drug manufacturing issues and government restrictions still make it very difficult for people to get consistent access to prescribed medications. It is true that stimulant medications can be abused when taken in large amounts. But this is not the case for how they are prescribed for ADHD. A good way of looking at medication management is a minimum dose to get the maximum effect. For many, that just means leveling up to somewhat neurotypical functioning.

Much of this misconception stems from the nature of how stimulants work. Think of drinking a cup of coffee every day. You’ll notice you need just a little bit more to get the same boost as your body adjusts to caffeine. When your body doesn’t get the expected caffeine you might feel a little sluggish throughout your day. As with many other medications, stimulants can have less of an effect overtime, and a withdrawal effect if stopped abruptly. There are other medication options that include non-stimulants, and medications are not the only treatment.  Unfortunately, there is no magic pill that will completely alleviate symptoms or teach life skills. But medication management in combination with therapy and coaching can be a really important tool. 

Misunderstood: Coping with ADHD symptoms has a financial cost.

You may have heard of something called the ‘ADHD tax.’ Like with many physical challenges, the financial cost of dealing with a long-term issue can add up, especially if unmanaged. This might amount to receiving fees for missed appointments, forgetting to pay bills on time, credit issues with debt, impulsive spending, difficulty managing budgets, additional cost with time to complete education programs, or just seeing providers regularly to manage symptoms. Whew what a list!

It’s important to recognize that people struggling with ADHD are not just living in a bubble. So, there may be a number of other life factors making it difficult to manage.  We can’t ignore the impact of experiencing trauma and discrimination to stress and overall health. For people who are differently-abled or managing chronic health issues, adhering to care plans and making appointments might be a crucial part of life. When we have challenges regulating emotions, planning, and organizing, this can exacerbate each of these issues and contribute to financial cost. The bottom line is, paying more for things is no fun. Hopefully this gives some insight into how managing neurodivergent challenges can add up and compound over time.

The bottom line…

Although the task of managing neurodivergence can seem daunting, all is not lost! Throughout this post I refrained from using the term disorder as much as possible, even though the name ADHD implies it. I believe our language around describing neurodivergence often communicates there is something inherently wrong or flawed with our brains, which contributes to shame and stigma. Neurodivergence is just that: a difference or variation in the way people’s brains operate.

Although there are challenges, let’s also acknowledge some of the amazing parts. Like being able to hold interest in exploring a lot of different subjects, out-of-the-box problem solving, and expansive creativity. The people you know and love, or yourself with ADHD, might be some of the most creative, quirky, or energetic individuals. When we dispel myths and misconceptions, we can better understand ourselves and others, which is a step towards accepting differing ways of being in the world.

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