What ADHD Actually Is

ADHD (or ADD, as it used to be called) is such a misunderstood disorder, especially among adults, that I figured I’d dedicate an article to clearing up misconceptions and helping folks who suspect they have it figure out what to do next.

First, some general principles that organize my thoughts on ADHD:

  • ADHD is a developmental disability, not a mental illness. (More on this later.) This means that it begins in childhood and lasts for life. Individual symptoms might wax and wane, and your environment may be more or less conducive to the way your brain works, but ADHD doesn’t get “cured.”
  • Therefore, you do not “age out” of ADHD. If you were (accurately) diagnosed with it as a child, you still have it.
  • It’s possible for a condition to be both over- and under-diagnosed. That’s not contradictory at all. It just means that we’re looking for it in places it isn’t, and we’re not looking for it in places it is.
  • Having ADHD does not mean you have to take medication, and not being helped by ADHD medication doesn’t mean you don’t have ADHD. Those are separate questions, and there are effective strategies for ADHD besides medication.
  • ADHD has neural substrates [1] (I hate using jargon, but there’s honestly no better way to say “a specific thingie happening in your actual physical brain blorb that relates to the behaviors or subjective states you experience and others observe,” so from now on, that’s what “neural substrate means), but like all disabilities, it’s also socially constructed in many ways. That means that culture and community influence how ADHD symptoms are expressed and understood. That means that we shouldn’t be surprised when ADHD presents differently in women, people of color, etc. Rather, that’s exactly what we should expect.

So, what is ADHD exactly? Here’s the only explanation that matters:

ADHD is a disorder of executive function.

That’s it. ADHD is not about being hyperactive, forgetting things, interrupting people, losing your homework, or any other specific symptom. You can have ADHD without exhibiting any of those classic behaviors, but everyone with ADHD experiences impairment of their executive functions.

What is executive function?

Executive functions are the brain processes that help you decide what to do and when to do it. Many of these processes take place in the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain that evolved relatively recently and helps us with higher-order cognitive tasks.

There are lots of different executive functions, especially if you get really specific with it, but here are some examples:

  • inhibiting impulses that you don’t want to act on
  • temporarily storing information that you need to use or process (a.k.a., working memory)
  • choosing what to pay attention to
  • ignoring distracting stimuli, whether internal or external
  • figuring out what steps it would take to accomplish something
  • having a sense of how long things take (for instance, when you should start getting ready in order to leave on time in order to get somewhere on time)
  • sorting relevant information from irrelevant information
  • switching smoothly between thoughts or tasks (a.k.a., cognitive flexibility)
  • adapting quickly when a plan falls through or new information becomes available
  • paying attention to and noticing your feelings and impulses

All of us, including people with executive function issues, do these mental tasks all the time. Often they happen without conscious effort. For instance, when you read a book without getting distracted every time a car drives by outside, you’re using executive function skills. When you get dressed and leave the house in the morning, you’re using executive function skills.

There are many different components to executive function and they involve different parts of the prefrontal cortex, and other brain regions too. Executive function can be impaired by many other things besides ADHD, such as autism, inebriation, sleep deprivation (or, in my case, narcolepsy), and basically any mental illness. However, when you have depression, the executive function issues resolve when the rest of the depression symptoms do. When you have ADHD and depression, the mood issues might go away but the executive dysfunction remains.

How does executive dysfunction explain ADHD symptoms?

Let’s look at some typical symptom descriptions from the DSM-V criteria for ADHD [2]. First of all, I hate these because most of them are worded in a way that’s specific to children, and most of them just sound really negative and stigmatizing. But it’s what we have for now.

For instance, the phrase “makes careless mistakes” often comes up. “Careless” implies that the person does not care enough about the task, which is why they made the mistake. But that’s not how ADHD works. A person with ADHD might make a “careless” mistake for a number of reasons:

  • They were having trouble choosing what to pay attention to, and did not notice that they were making a mistake.
  • They didn’t realize that the area in which they made the mistake was relevant. It may be obvious to you, but it wasn’t obvious to them, so they didn’t make an effort to avoid the mistake.
  • They forgot a crucial piece of information that they would’ve needed to avoid the mistake and didn’t know how to go about finding out, or didn’t notice that they’d forgotten until it was too late.
  • They couldn’t make an accurate estimate of how long the task would take, and made the mistake or allowed it to remain in their rush to get the task finished.

Here’s another example: “often interrupts.” People with ADHD might interrupt others for different reasons, too:

  • They got so excited about what they wanted to say that they were unable to inhibit the impulse to speak.
  • They know that because of their impaired short-term memory, they will forget what they want to say if they don’t say it now–and they lack the cognitive flexibility to quickly find another way to solve this problem without interrupting.
  • They find it difficult to switch smoothly between speaking and listening.
  • They failed to pay attention to the fact that the other person was still speaking.

Other criteria for ADHD are simply examples of executive dysfunctions themselves, but sometimes diagnostic criteria aren’t very useful because they tend to describe how other people experience the person with ADHD, not how that person experiences their own life and their own mind. For instance, one of the most common things I hear from people with ADHD is “I just feel constantly overwhelmed, like I can’t manage my life and keep up.” That’s nowhere in the diagnostic criteria, and if you said it to a therapist they might assume depression or anxiety. (Which many people with ADHD have, more on that later.) But that’s the feeling that results when your executive functioning doesn’t match what your lifestyle demands.

What about hyperactivity?

Hyperactivity is kind of the red-headed stepchild of ADHD symptoms. Many people with the disorder don’t have it at all (though you wouldn’t know it from stereotypes and media representations), and it’s not necessary for the diagnosis. The DSM deals with this by dividing ADHD into “types”: inattentive type, hyperactive-impulsive type, and combined type. You can still have symptoms from the other category to be one of the “types,” you just have to be predominantly that “type.” It’s kind of confusing (and in my opinion, unnecessary).

Hyperactivity doesn’t initially seem to have anything to do with executive dysfunction, except perhaps in the case of impulsive behaviors. What about executive dysfunction would cause a person to need to fidget, or to talk very quickly or feel restless all the time?

I’m not convinced that ADHD as we currently think of it is all one disorder. I think it’s two that often go together: one that I’d call executive dysfunction syndrome, and another that some researchers already call reward deficiency syndrome.

(Unfortunately, one of these researchers is using the term to promote some dubious claims about genetics and substance addiction[3], but I’ll be using it more generally.)

I don’t want to get too derailed by talking about dopamine, but in a nutshell: when we do or experience things we enjoy, certain brain regions release the neurotransmitter dopamine–especially if the reward was unexpected in some way. The chemical is a sort of a signal to the body to seek out more of the thing.

We know that people vary in how much and under what circumstances their brains produce dopamine, as it’s linked to all kinds of neurological/mental conditions. But it’s possible, too, that there’s a sort of spectrum–for some people, a relatively small reward is enough to trigger a noticeable burst of dopamine, while others need much more.

Maybe people with hyperactive traits are those who need much more–so they’re always on the go, always moving, just to feel as engaged and interested as others may feel just from petting a cat or listening to the rain. And it would make sense, because dopaminergic pathways[4] are involved in executive function, too.

Anyway, that’s mostly (somewhat scientifically-based) speculation, and it doesn’t really matter. The point is, some people with ADHD struggle with hyperactivity, and some don’t. Executive dysfunction is really the core of the disorder.

And what about depression and anxiety?

If you have ADHD, you almost certainly have lots of symptoms of depression and anxiety, too. You may even qualify for the formal diagnoses of those disorders. Think about it: for your entire life, you’ve struggled to accomplish what others see as basic functions. You may have failed classes, dropped out of educational programs, gotten fired (or quit to avoid getting fired) from jobs, lost friends and partners due to executive dysfunction, and generally failed to accomplish what you want to accomplish. Worse, if you’ve been undiagnosed, you haven’t even had the language to explain to yourself (much less to others) why you failed at those things. You’ve probably internalized others’ opinions that you’re lazy, “stupid,” unmotivated, and unlikely to amount to much. Unless you come from a very privileged background, you’re probably terrified about your future and have no idea how you’re going to pay the rent given that you can’t “adult” well enough to get things together.

The thoughts that therapists consider indicative of depression and anxiety–“I’m a failure,” “Nothing’s ever going to work out,” “What if I lose this job/relationship/apartment,” “There’s no point in even trying anymore”–might actually be very “realistic” thoughts for a person with undiagnosed, untreated ADHD to have. Cognitive behavioral therapy teaches people with depression and anxiety to question their automatic thoughts and see how “irrational” those thoughts are. But what if you have very good evidence that you’re probably going to lose your job and alienate your partner, because that’s how it’s been for your whole life?

That’s why it’s very important for people who think they might have ADHD to dig beneath these thoughts and urge their mental health providers to do the same. Antidepressants, anti-anxiety meds, and therapy that’s focused on these symptoms can provide a bit of relief to someone with ADHD, but it won’t do much, and it won’t help with the ADHD symptoms. And that’ll only reinforce the belief that nothing will ever get better.

The good news is that medication, therapy, and lifestyle interventions that are targeted specifically at ADHD are very effective. Even knowing (or suspecting) that you have ADHD can immediately make things better, because it lets you stop blaming yourself and helps you access advice and support that’s helpful. So while your negative thoughts might be “accurate” in a sense–maybe you really have failed at basically everything you’ve tried, and maybe right now you’re failing too–with the correct diagnosis, all of that can change, and it can change quickly.

What should you do if you think you might have ADHD?

For starters, don’t invalidate your suspicions just because a professional hasn’t diagnosed you (yet). Most diagnoses happen because the patient noticed something first.

Unfortunately, when it comes to ADHD, a lot of medical professionals have their own biases which aren’t helpful to anyone in this situation. Be prepared to advocate for yourself a bit. The good news is that once you’re referred to the right professional, you shouldn’t have to keep advocating for yourself. They will advocate with you.

If you have a primary care doctor, tell that doctor about your concerns and ask to be referred for a neuropsychiatric evaluation.[5] These tests are performed by doctors with MDs or PhDs in clinical psychology, and they’re the primary way to diagnose ADHD. They’re also quite accurate because they measure neurological processes that can’t be faked or altered intentionally. So while some people feel nervous about not being believed when they say they have ADHD symptoms, these evaluations are a great way to put that concern to rest. You can’t fake these results just because you want stimulants.

If you don’t have a primary care doctor, but you have a therapist or psychiatrist, same thing. But if you’re not seeing any medical professionals, I’d actually suggest taking the counterintuitive route and setting up a primary care doctor first. They’re sometimes more likely to have a quick referral for a neuropsych eval available.

If you are uninsured, keep in mind that large medical systems and university hospitals often have substantial financial aid available. For instance, Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center, where I get everything from my annual flu shot to my cancer surgery, provides assistance to anyone whose income is under 400% of the federal poverty line. Some people end up getting their care almost, or nearly, for free.

Most counties also have free or sliding-scale mental health services for uninsured residents. I’m employed by one of those. Our clients get counseling, case management, vocational assistance, psychiatry appointments, and other services mostly for free, and their medication is free, too, through a charitable pharmacy. The only issue with that is that charitable pharmacies won’t stock all psychiatric medications because some are very expensive. Stimulants tend not to be available, but that may not be true for every county.

(Also, here’s my regular reminder that until they have repealed the ACA, they have not repealed the ACA. If you can, apply for insurance this fall.)

Getting diagnosed can be helpful even if you don’t want medication. But even if you don’t get diagnosed, there are lots of ways to cope with your symptoms, whatever they’re technically called. If you have a therapist, explain to them that you’re struggling with executive function and ask them to work with you on that. If you can afford it, you can also work with an ADHD coach[6]. It’s an emerging off-shoot of life coaching that specifically focuses on the challenges faced by people with ADHD. (I actually hope to get trained as an ADHD coach someday when I can afford it.)

Besides that, two books I recommend to everyone who has or might have ADHD are:

  • More Attention, Less Deficit by Ari Tuckman [7]
  • ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life by Judith Kolberg and Kathleen Nadeau [8]

Here are some articles that people I know have found helpful:

Many people also find the ADHD subreddit helpful.

This article is already getting super long, so I’ll save all my other thoughts for part 2. (A preview: why prevalence of ADHD is increasing, what connection (if any) there is between ADHD and autism, how ADHD affects relationships and emotional processing, and why people with ADHD are sometimes very good at getting certain things done!


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neural_substrate

[2] https://images.pearsonclinical.com/images/assets/basc-3/basc3resources/DSM5_DiagnosticCriteria_ADHD.pdf

[3] http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/2015/06/10/strange-world-reward-deficiency-syndrome-part-1/#.WrphwP0lExF

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dopaminergic_pathways

[5] https://www.med.unc.edu/neurology/divisions/movement-disorders/npsycheval

[6] https://www.adhdcoaches.org

[7] https://www.amazon.com/More-Attention-Less-Deficit-Strategies/dp/1886941742

[8] https://www.amazon.com/ADD-Friendly-Ways-Organize-Your-Life/dp/1138190748/ref=dp_ob_title_bk


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What ADHD Actually Is
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