I recently listened to a podcast in which a doctor referred to Attention-Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, as a gift that needs to be unwrapped. As we come out of the holiday season, it’s hard to imagine such a gift being as popular as the ones that arrived from Amazon deliveries or trips to the mall. It’s certainly not a gift that anyone places on their list. But it’s important to remember that ADHD isn’t gifted only to those who were naughty rather than nice. It’s a gift that does not discriminate – despite prevailing myths, such as, “Only kids get it,” “People just need to try harder and get organized,” and “I don’t have it because I can stay focused for a long time when I watch my favorite shows on Netflix.” The true gift in realizing that you have ADHD is in the knowledge that you can do something about it to help you better control its effects on your life.
What exactly is ADHD, and what does it look like?
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder is a neurodevelopmental disorder. It’s caused by genetics and other biological causes, not bad parenting, too much screen time, or food additives. Not enough dopamine is produced in the prefrontal cortex, which leads to problems with executive functioning, impulse control, and emotional regulation. According to the DSM-5, there are three types of ADHD: inattentive, hyperactive-impulsive, and the combined type.
Features include problems with paying attention, impulsiveness, and overactivity. Other traits include poor executive functioning, difficulties with organization, and struggling to stay on task or pay attention in meetings. Then there is cognitive hyperactivity, meaning that the mind has trouble winding down. You might have a difficult time relaxing and feeling that you’re always on the go, in overdrive, restless and impulsive.
ADHD may also manifest itself through poor activation, or procrastination. You may get easily overwhelmed and shut down, especially when the activity is not in your wheelhouse or else seems hard or boring. Other ill effects include a poor working memory, a struggle to shift focus (especially when hyper-focused on something interesting) and poor emotional regulation – that is, frequent outbursts due to low frustration tolerance.
Some gift! So now what do I do?
Remember, knowledge is the gift! If you identify with any of these behaviors and think that ADHD could be the reason, don’t panic. A good place to start is with your primary care physician. Along with assessment, lab work is often ordered to rule out thyroid disorder. Often, doctors recommend psychological testing to help rule out other possible causes of your symptoms.
If the diagnosis is clear, you could ask a psychiatrist to do a psychiatric evaluation to clarify the need for medication. Stimulant medication, such as Ritalin or Adderall, is not recommended for everyone, but is often worth trying, when you have a doctor that you trust to work with you to find the right medication and dosage. There are also many non-medication treatment options available, such as behavior modification, nutritional recommendations, and therapy, to name a few. A therapist who specializes in ADHD can help individualize a treatment plan that targets decreasing problematic symptoms, while increasing more positive habits and practices.
Treat yourself to this gift!
Without treatment, negative messages such as, “You can’t pull it together,” or “You’re such a bad parent!” can continue to imprint on your mind, leading to feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, anxiety, and even depression. So get help if warranted and “unwrap the gift” of knowledge about your attention deficit. Realize that your brain works in a different way, and with it come strengths, including the ability to think outside the box, be creative, multitask, be laser focused on what you’re passionate about, and be empathetic.
Angela Cook, MSW, LCSW
Angela Cook, MSW, LCSW has 25 years of clinical social work experience helping children, teens, adults and seniors find peace within themselves and their relationships. She has extensive training and experience helping clients empower themselves in successfully resolving issues related to trauma, attention deficit, anxiety, depression, OCD and regulating emotions. Mindfulness, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Play Therapy, Solution Focused Therapy, Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), Cognitive Stimulation, and Trauma Focused – CBT are just some of the treatment modalities Angela uses in her counseling practice.