By Atara Bachrach, Website Manager
Hi! I’m Atara. And I have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, also known as ADHD. If you’ve met me, you probably already knew that, and if you didn’t know, now that you’re reading this you’re probably thinking to yourself: “Ohhhh! Yeah, that makes so much sense.” Even if you don’t know me, you’ve probably heard of ADHD before and/or know someone who has it. This October is ADHD Awareness Month, and in writing this article, I hope to positively contribute to this cause. I do, however, also strongly encourage you to do your own research, as I am only one person, and there is so much more out there about ADHD.
This is a time dedicated to removing the stigma surrounding ADHD by spreading awareness and providing access to accurate information, tools, and resources. ADHD can impact people of every race, gender, and age, regardless of their IQ level, and it is estimated to affect over 7% of children, follow approximately 33% of those kids into adulthood, and manifest in around 3.4% of adults. Its presence is not always equally obvious in those who have it, so it can-and all too often does- go easily both undiagnosed and misdiagnosed, more commonly in girls than boys.
As you’ve probably figured out by now, ADHD is way more than just what it seems on the surface, and it’s a lot more complicated than people think. It’s not just “can’t sit still-can’t pay attention” disorder. Of course, that can be a part of it, but it’s much, much bigger than that. Despite common misconceptions surrounding it, ADHD is not a disease or a mental illness, or an “excuse for slacking.” It doesn’t only affect kids, and it doesn’t always mean bad grades or anger-management issues. It’s not developed as a result of watching television, eating habits, or poor parenting, and it’s not just another name for laziness. Most of all, ADHD is not fake. It is very real, and it is most certainly not a choice. Still, there are plenty of people in today’s society who continue to not ‘believe in ADHD.’ A great number of studies have been performed on this very topic, however, and after taking almost 100 years to get to its current place in the DSM5, ADHD is now conclusively considered a very legitimate (very not-made-up) neurodevelopmental disorder, meaning its presentation is directly related to the actual development of the brain.
These studies have shown that the part of your brain that is responsible for managing, well, pretty much everything, looks extremely different in people with ADHD. It’s called the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) and, sitting at the forefront of your brain, it is basically in charge of all the “executive functions,” which regulate things like attention, behavior, actions, and emotion. Scientists still don’t know exactly why, but they found that in individuals with ADHD, there is both reduced size of the PFC as well as weakened transmission of certain neurotransmitters (the molecules that are in charge of communication throughout the body and brain by transmitting signals), resulting in a deficit of chemicals that are crucial to the optimal function of the PFC (including dopamine and norepinephrine). In other words, there isn’t enough “mental fuel” to filter things in and out and to make them run as efficiently as they should.
ADHD is often compared to a race-car with the brakes of a bicycle: our brains are constantly moving at rapid-fire speed, which is so cool, but we’re not always able to get them to stop when we need them to. To put it simply, people with ADHD do not have as much control over their “mental command center” as those without. According to several studies done by the NCBI [National Center for Biotechnology Information], this affects an extensive list of things, including but not limited to memory, decision making, emotional dysregulation, and other executive functions.
Of course, ADHD looks and feels different for everyone, but here’s the best way I can explain it from my own perspective: imagine if your brain was a smartphone. A typical phone is capable of providing notification settings, granting the owner control over which notifications are able to go off, when, how, and at what volume. Now imagine that same phone with a million different apps, but all of the settings were broken and you couldn’t shut off any of the notifications. Loud and annoying, right? Almost even stressful. Well, that is what my brain feels like most of the time- just constant input from everywhere all at once, but no real or consistent way of filtering out what I need and what I don’t, or when it’s relevant.
Something else that many people do not know about ADHD is that it is a generally a comorbid disorder, meaning that it often,if not almost always,comes along with other complications. People with ADHD are at higher risk for developing anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and, without proper intervention, addiction. This is especially prevalent later in life, as the adult ADHD brain “includes a wider spectrum of emotional dysregulation and functional impairment.” People with ADHD are more inclined to experience things like impaired processing, not to be confused with low intelligence, emotional flooding, black-and-white/all-or-nothing thinking, task paralysis (this can look like basic procrastination, but there’s a ton going on up there when this happens that people can’t see), periods of hyperfocus as well of periods of dissociation, RSD (Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria), and all other kinds of executive dysfunction incarnate.
There is an extensive list of symptom criteria that need to be met and validated as “excessive, pervasive, and persistent,” before an individual can be diagnosed with ADHD. Once diagnosed, there are several forms of treatment one can consider. There are different forms of therapy and coachings, and there are also several different kinds of medication used to treat ADHD, stimulant and non-stimulant both.
Here’s the thing: My brain might move and process things completely differently than someone else’s, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. All it means is that our brains aren’t wired the same way. It doesn’t make any of us better or worse than the other, it just causes us to see the world through a different lens, and that can actually be beautiful. I like to use the symbol of a lightning bolt to represent my mind because it makes me supercharged with all kinds of powerful, fast-paced energy and creativity. You see, ADHD might be one of my biggest challenges, but it is also my biggest superpower. My brain is designed to thrive under excitement, sometimes even chaos, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
If you’re reading this and don’t have ADHD but might know someone who does, do me a favor? Try to understand that it’s hard for us, too. We really just want to do things, but it’s inherently more difficult for us than for the neurotypical mind. We’re not intentionally trying to make your lives harder, we’re really not. So if/when we fidget, accidentally interrupt you, forget our thoughts, get distracted, can never seem to do our laundry or clean our rooms, or lose our things… try to understand that it quite probably is as a result of something more complicated than it seems. We’re just trying to slow down our speed-racing brains for a world full of traffic signs.