ADHD: Everything you need to know
In this article, we’ll cover:
- What is ADHD?
- How does ADHD work?
- Signs and symptoms of ADHD
- Types of ADHD
- Ways ADHD can affect your life
- Do I have ADHD?
- Getting professional help for ADHD symptoms in Australia
- ADHD medications
- Practical strategies for managing ADHD
- ADHD in women
❓ What is ADHD?
ADHD, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, is a psychological condition that can cause people to experience issues with focusing, organisation and time management. People with ADHD are often impulsive or spontaneous, and also are frequently creative thinkers and good problem solvers.
How does ADHD work?
No one knows for sure why certain people have ADHD. But health professionals have noticed that the brains of people with ADHD function a bit differently from those of people without it.
In the brain, there are parts that drive your ability to focus (your anterior cingulate cortex) and parts that impact your ability to stop yourself from acting on your thoughts or impulses (your prefrontal cortex).
For people with ADHD, the brain’s activity is a bit lower in these areas (and in a few others) than in people who don’t have ADHD. However, this doesn’t make them any less intelligent or capable. It simply explains why people with ADHD can have challenges with focusing and with organising their lives, and yet be great at creative thinking and problem solving, as we’ll discuss later.
🚩 Signs and symptoms of ADHD
There are three main symptoms of ADHD:
- Issues with concentration and focus: Mental health professionals call this ‘distractibility’.
- Lower likelihood of planning for future rewards or consequences: Psychologists have found that people with ADHD are less likely than people without ADHD to make choices now that will have a positive effect at a later time. Because of this reduced planning for the future, those experts say, people with ADHD are ‘less sensitive to delayed reinforcement’.
- Greater likelihood of thinking and acting in the moment: Psychologists call this ‘impulsivity’.
However, a person who experiences these symptoms might not necessarily have ADHD. Many ADHD symptoms are common, and are experienced regularly by people without ADHD. When health professionals diagnose someone with ADHD, it’s because that person is experiencing these symptoms more than other people their age.
Let’s explore how these main symptoms can affect the everyday lives of people with ADHD.
Challenges with focusing or concentrating (distractibility)
People with ADHD can find it tricky to focus or concentrate on certain things. For example, they may:
- have difficulty in focusing on work or school
- find their thoughts wander during important conversations with friends and family
- be easily distracted by things like noise, persistent thoughts, or notifications on their phone
- be unable to remember why they walked into a room or opened an app.
On the bright side: The same factors in the brain that cause people with ADHD to feel distracted can also cause them to be better at ‘divergent thinking tasks’ such as brainstorming.
Finding it hard to stay organised (less sensitive to delayed reinforcement)
People with ADHD are less likely to consider the long-term positive or negative results of their actions, like the results of an assignment that’s due in two weeks. Instead, they are more concerned with the immediate or short-term outcomes of their behaviours. Here’s how this can affect the lives of people with ADHD:
- They forget to complete tasks around the house, at work or at school.
- They are often late to appointments with friends and family, or forget to show up.
- They often lose stuff, such as keys, wallets and headphones.
On the bright side: People with ADHD may be more likely to do something worthwhile, such as start a new project or a new hobby, because they’ll be less inclined to think far ahead and be discouraged by the work or planning it might involve.
Thinking and acting in the moment (impulsivity)
People with ADHD often act on the basis of their thoughts at any given moment. This can result in their:
- frequently feeling bored or restless
- interrupting others, often without meaning to
- fidgeting with pens, water bottles or other objects
- taking part in risky activities without thinking about the consequences
- staying really focused on one engaging thing (such as a game or social media app) without realising how much time has passed.
On the bright side: A person who often acts impulsively might also be able to live more ‘in the moment’ than other people and not worry about the future or things they can’t control.
🧠 Types of ADHD
Health professionals talk about three main types of ADHD: hyperactive/impulsive, inattentive/distractible, and combined.
- Hyperactive/impulsive: People with hyperactive-type ADHD frequently experience symptoms such as fidgeting, restlessness and impatience (e.g. they sometimes interrupt when others are speaking).
- Inattentive/distractible: People with this type of ADHD often have symptoms such as forgetfulness, distractibility, and difficulty in listening to or following a conversation.
- Combined: This is the most common type of ADHD and is characterised by symptoms of both the hyperactive and inattentive types.
These types help health professionals and people with ADHD to understand their condition and treat issues that are going on with them. However, people with a certain type of ADHD can still experience symptoms that are common to the other types.
What’s the difference between ADD and ADHD?
You may have heard about attention deficit disorder, a condition similar to attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. However, these days, health professionals use one term, ‘ADHD’, to refer to both of these conditions, and the term ‘ADD’ isn’t used any more. In effect, they mean the same thing.
💡 Ways ADHD can affect your life
People with ADHD are aware of how they can be affected by their symptoms at work and school. But they might not be aware of how their condition can affect other parts of their life. Here are a few examples:
- Creativity: People with ADHD score higher on ‘divergent thinking’ tasks, which are helpful for humour, creative thinking and problem solving. If this is something you identify with, be sure to invest in your creative skills going forward. Managing ADHD can be just as much about using your strengths as it is about working on the challenges you face.
- Addiction: ADHD can make people more impulsive and more likely to act based on a short-term sense of enjoyment or satisfaction. These two factors lead to people with ADHD being more vulnerable to addiction. If addiction is an issue for you, check out our addictions page to learn more.
- Social life and relationships: ADHD can affect people’s social lives in a number of ways. One factor is rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD), which can mean people with ADHD are more affected by rejection by family, friends and co-workers. People who are affected by RSD sometimes develop ‘people-pleasing’ tendencies or avoid situations where they may experience rejection.
To learn more about how ADHD can affect your life outside of work and school, and things you can do to feel better, check out our article here.
🤔 Do I have ADHD?
These days, young people are gaining a greater awareness and understanding of ADHD, due to the amount of information that’s available on the web and social media. Many of them are curious about whether they might have ADHD, which could explain some of the real challenges they are experiencing in their everyday life. If you are wondering about this, that’s a good thing – it means you’re taking steps to learn more about yourself and your mental health.
However, ADHD can’t be diagnosed through online forms, quizzes or articles. In fact, it’s a condition that GPs and most psychologists can’t diagnose – it’s a job usually left to ADHD specialists. As we’ll discuss in the next section, this process can be helpful, but it can also be a long and expensive one.
If you’re wondering if you have ADHD, check out our article here for more information.
If you haven’t been diagnosed with ADHD, but face challenges like the ones described above, that doesn’t make your experience any less real or important.
👩⚕️ Getting professional help with ADHD symptoms in Australia
If you’ve been struggling with symptoms of ADHD, one of the most helpful things you can do is get help from a psychiatrist, psychologist or other mental health professional.
Getting help from a psychiatrist
Psychiatrists are a popular option for people looking to get help with ADHD. This is because they are the only mental health professionals who can prescribe medicines that are specifically designed to help with ADHD. To be prescribed medication, you’ll need to receive an assessment for ADHD, which may take place at a specialist ADHD clinic.
If you're under 18, you may get help from a paediatrician who is qualified to diagnose ADHD and prescribe medication to help manage it.
This path can be immensely rewarding for some, but it can also be expensive and take a long time. In Australia, ADHD diagnostic clinics are rare and so it can take months or more to be assessed.
Medication can be an effective way to manage ADHD symptoms, if it is used alongside help from a mental health professional and practical methods such as those listed in this article below.
There are two main types of medications used to treat ADHD:
- Stimulants: These medications work by increasing the amount of dopamine in the brain, which can reduce the feelings of distraction and hyperactivity people with ADHD experience. They have several known side effects, such as loss of appetite, feelings of frustration, and issues with sleep.
- Non-stimulants: These medications work differently from stimulants and are often used when stimulants cause too many side effects. They take longer to start working, sometimes up to several weeks.
Do I need to take ADHD medication to manage my symptoms?
Many people who use these medications have found them helpful, but not a ‘cure’ to the challenges they face. Some spend months or years trying different medications. Others experience too many side effects or don’t get enough benefit and stop taking them entirely.
For many people who successfully manage their ADHD symptoms, the best solution is some combination of help from medicine, mental health professionals and practical self-directed management techniques, which we talk about below.
Getting help from a psychologist or other mental health professional
Other mental health professionals such as psychologists, social workers, peer workers and counsellors can’t prescribe ADHD medications, but they can be a helpful resource for managing ADHD symptoms. They can:
- help you identify issues with your mindset that can make your symptoms more difficult to manage
- listen to your accounts of the challenges you’re experiencing and offer their professional analysis and advice
- use proven therapy methods such as CBT and ACT, which can be helpful for people with ADHD
- help with experiences such as anxiety and depression, which are more common among people with ADHD and can also worsen its symptoms.
💪 Practical strategies for managing ADHD
Whether you’ve been diagnosed with ADHD or have noticed that you’re experiencing some of the symptoms, there are lots of practical strategies to help you gain a greater amount of control in life.
How to manage feeling distractible
Forgive yourself for being distracted
As we’ve discussed, if you feel distracted often, it’s not your fault. It’s not something you’re choosing to experience.
In fact, some psychological research shows us that attaching a feeling of negative judgement gives ‘power’ to these distracting thoughts and makes it harder to break away from them.
Instead of saying something like ‘I need to stop getting distracted’, tell yourself something along the lines of: ‘That’s okay. I’ll just get back to what I was doing.’
Try different ways to focus
If you’re having trouble focusing on one particular activity or task, try different ways of going about it.
- Think about doing the activity in a different way: For example, if you’re trying to research a topic by reading articles online, watch a YouTube video about it instead.
- Change up your setting: Try working on challenging tasks in another room, in a coffee shop or at the library.
- Make distracting things less easy to access: Turn your phone off and/or put it in another room. Try browser add-ons such as Forest that allow you to block certain sites while you focus. Use dedicated apps to get work done, rather than doing it in a web browser where a distraction is just a tab away.
Timers can be a really helpful way to stay on track if you’re feeling distracted. A good way to use timers is the ‘pomodoro method’, where you set a 25-minute timer to focus on your task, and after that’s done you set a 5-minute timer to relax and do whatever you want.
How to manage feeling disorganised
Break down tasks into smaller parts
According to health professionals, people with ADHD are less responsive to positive or negative outcomes that are far in the future. One way to get around this is to break down big tasks into smaller ones that will provide that sense of short-term validation.
This can work in a large-scale sense, such as breaking up a 2,000-word assignment into five 400-word parts. But it can also work on a smaller scale, such as by breaking up that 400-word section you’d like to write into ten 40-word parts.
This strategy works because you can get a feeling of accomplishment or validation once you achieve any goal, even a small one. That positive feeling can snowball into a sense of ‘momentum’, which can then help to keep you going.
Use tools that keep you engaged
By now, you might be aware of all kinds of digital tools that can help you organise your life, such as Notion, Google Calendar or Any.do. These tools can be helpful, but like any tool, it depends on how you use them. You might have used one of these tools for a few weeks, felt great, and then stopped using it, after which you became disorganised again.
Instead of thinking about what you’ve done wrong (i.e. ‘This stuff never works. I can never stay organised’), think about why you weren’t able to stick with that tool. If it felt too time-consuming or cumbersome, try a more lightweight solution, such as writing your tasks down in a notebook or daily planner.
One helpful free tool for organising your life is Habitica. It works like a video game by giving you rewards such as coins and XP for getting tasks done and organised. This can help to reward your brain for completing short-term tasks (e.g. writing an introduction for an assignment), which can help you to achieve a longer term goal (e.g. completing an essay that’s due in two weeks).
👩 ADHD in women
Some studies have reported that men are diagnosed with ADHD at higher rates than women are. However, research like this only tells us the rates of people who are diagnosed – if you’re not a man, it doesn’t mean that you’re less likely to have ADHD.
As we mentioned earlier, professionals refer to three types of ADHD: hyperactive (characterised by restlessness and high energy levels), inattentive (characterised by distractedness and forgetfulness) and combined (with features of both). All genders experience these different types of ADHD.
However, women, and people who were ‘assigned as female at birth’ (AFAB) are more likely than men to experience the ‘inattentive’ type. This type is less visible to teachers and parents because it doesn’t impact as much on families and classrooms as the ‘hyperactive’ type. This may explain why in the past, men have been diagnosed with ADHD at higher rates.
What can I do now?
- Check out our article about the ways ADHD can affect your life (in ways that don’t have to do with work or school).
- Want to chat with a peer worker who can listen to you and support you? Book a free, text-based session with ReachOut PeerChat.
- Have a look at some more articles and videos about ADHD here.