February 14, 2019

What is ADHD?

Do adults have ADHD? What are some common ADHD traits? Read on to learn more..

What is ADHD?

In Summary

  • ADHD is a difference in brain chemistry and structure.
  • ADHD affects people of all ages.
  • ADHD is the most common neurological condition diagnosed in children.
  • Some common symptoms experienced by people with ADHD include: being easily distracted, not being able to follow directions or finish tasks, forgetting about daily activities, having problems organising, losing things, and a distorted sense of time.
  • Some common, but less talked about, ADHD traits are: an interest-based nervous system, emotional hyperarousal, and rejection sensitivity (1).
  • Another common experience for people with ADHD is hyperfocus; leading to some specialists suggesting that it would more aptly be called ‘attention deregulation’ instead of attention deficit.
  • Every person with ADHD has a unique combination of traits, challenges and abilities.
  • ADHD is often treated with medication to increase the amount of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain.
  • Some people can manage challenging ADHD symptoms by certain lifestyle changes.

What is ADHD?

ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is a complex neurological condition that is characterised by challenges with inattention, organization and lack of impulse control (2). At the moment, ADHD affects around 5% of children and adolescents and 2.5% of adults worldwide, though it’s likely that many adults go undiagnosed (2, 7). ADHD is divided into three sub-categories; predominantly inattentive, predominantly hyperactive and a combination of the two. Recently many experts have started referring to these as presentations instead of types (including in the DSM-V), in order to clarify that someone’s presentation can change over time (7). Traits and challenges can change as a person gets older, as can the way that each of the three types manifest (3).

Most people diagnosed with ADHD have difficulties with executive functions, such as planning and following through with activities, keeping a structured routine, or maintaining organization. Working memory can also be a challenge and many people with ADHD have a distorted sense of time. Dr. William Dodson (1) points out that there are three very commons additional features of adult ADHD, related to social and emotion regulation, and not inattention, that are common across the three types but less talked about: an interest-based nervous system; emotional hyperarousal; and rejection sensitivity (1).

ADHD symptoms

Again, there are three different types of ADHD (see footnotes), but some of the most common ADHD symptoms include (5, 7):

  • Inattention
  • Overlooking details
  • Difficulty organizing certain tasks and activities
  • Not following directions or being able to finish tasks
  • Poor time management
  • Forgetting about daily activities
  • Losses necessities for daily activities
  • Hyperactivity
  • Challenges with impulse control
  • Difficulty relaxing
  • Restlessness
  • Easily distracted
  • Difficulty waiting in line
  • Executive dysfunction
  • Hyperfocus

is a key component of ADHD, related to the interest-based nervous system (1). What it means is that for many ADHD brains, if a topic (or project, activity, or conversation) is interesting and/or meaningful or there is time pressure, people can enter periods of hyperfocus; meaning that the person is able to deeply focus. This reality is part of why some experts think a better name might be ‘Attention Deregulation’ as opposed to ‘Attention Deficit’, as often challenges are more about harnessing attention at specific moments rather than not having it at all (8).

Causes of ADHD
The precise causes of ADHD and the variety of ADHD traits are not fully understood. ADHD is largely genetic and impacts a person's physiology, but environmental factors, as well as comorbidities can impact the manifestation of certain ADHD traits and the development of them over a person’s lifetime. The vast majority of children with ADHD go on to be adults with ADHD (around 85%). Unfortunately, only about 10% of adults with ADHD receive treatment (7).

How ADHD is diagnosed
According to the diagnostic criteria for ADHD, there must be a certain number of symptoms for attention difficulties, hyperactivity or impulsiveness and they must manifest across time and in at least two different contexts. In order for a diagnosis, the characteristics must significantly affect the person's life and development. The symptoms must occur in different situations, in order to exclude other environmental factors (for example, anxiety in school, learning complications, or difficulties in the family).

ADHD treatment: What can you do about the diagnosis?

There is no one size fits all treatment for difficulties associated with ADHD traits. People with ADHD are unique individuals, thus treatment should consider particular individual support needs and challenges. Certain medications, including both stimulants and non-stimulants, as well as diet supplements and therapy (like CBT, craniosacral therapy, sensory processing therapy among others) can be supportive. Though stigmatized in some parts of the world, stimulants are the longest-used ADHD medication and have been shown to be effective for the highest percentage of individuals. They work by increasing dopamine and norepinephrine levels in the brain. Dosage, timing of medication, and the type of medication can significantly impact effectiveness. Some studies show that a combination of diet intervention and certain types of therapy can improve the quality of life and development of a person with ADHD immensely. Both mindfulness and exercise have been shown to improve the quality of life and reduce challenging ADHD symptoms. If you think you or someone in your family might have ADHD, if possible we highly recommend seeking medical advice from a professional. In the meantime, ADDitude mag has tons of great resources for learning about ADHD, online self-assessments, and much more if you’re curious.

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