ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is considered to be a mental health condition, as well as an “invisible disability”. In honour of ADHD month and Invisible Disability Week (October 15-21) we’ve put together some information to share with people to help increase awareness about ADHD, which affects children, youth and adults.
Knowing more about how ADHD impacts the functioning of the brain provides insights into the condition that help us accept and understand what it is, and how we can support ourselves and others with ADHD.
Being a person who has ADHD, I have had the benefit of learning about it through having both personal and professional experiences, and hope that sharing some of what I have learned might be helpful to others.
You may have heard the ADHD brain as being “differently wired”. There is a reason for that! There are differences in how the ADHD brain functions, mainly based on two parts of the brain: the prefrontal cortex (thinking) and amygdala (fight/flight/freeze). These parts of the brain are responsible for both emotional reactivity and emotional control, and continuously work together to help us emotionally regulate and manage day to day tasks.
When an individual has ADHD, these two parts of the brain have more difficulty communicating and working together than for neurotypical people. For a person with ADHD, you may see this reflected in challenges with their emotional regulation (managing mood, thoughts, and behaviours) as well as their executive functioning skills (getting things done, being able to shift focus, and impulsive decision making).
The good news is that ADHD can be well managed with lifestyle approaches, including medication for some, and through developing a set of strategies and tools that work for the individual and their life.
The bad news about having ADHD is that it is challenging. ADHD can impact a person’s self concept, self esteem and well being. Often, people develop co-existing disorders, such depression and anxiety, because of the struggles that having ADHD can bring. Additionally, there can be costs to having ADHD:
Increased costs due to lost items, distracted driving leading to accidents; emotional costs: forgetfulness of important events, impulsive communication, missing out on things, poor follow up in friendships leading to disconnection; psychological costs: making mistakes in the workplace, feeling of not living up to potential, and self recrimination for one’s behaviour; physical health costs: being more prone to accidents, cuts, bruises, poor sleeping and eating habits, and self medicating with substances.
Despite those possible challenges, the advantages of having ADHD are many. Having a heightened awareness of the surroundings, increased intuition, creative thinking, empathy for others, extra energy, and the ability to respond quickly to things when needed are some of the benefits of the ADHD brain.
ADHD is also known as a “superpower” because of these unique qualities and gifts.
It is understandable that the behaviours of a person with ADHD impact their relationships, at home, school, and work. Neurotypical people may find the behaviours of a person with ADHD annoying, irritating, difficult to understand or accept. It may be hard to not personalize the behaviour and feel hurt, especially in close relationships. However, understanding that having ADHD it is not the person’s fault and supporting their functioning are things you can do.
If you or someone you care about has ADHD, there are many things that you can do to help support the brain to function and minimize symptoms. Here are a few.
Tips for Supporting Brain Function:
1. Help to reduce internal distractions. Take care of physical needs, including rest, nutrition, thirst, the need for movement. Learn to breathe deeply, especially when under stress. Tune into what the body needs. Set up reminders to take care of yourself, take the time to plan for meeting physical needs, such as making food ahead of time.
2. Acknowledge feelings. Recognize how emotions are impacting you, especially negative ones, and take time to release them. Learn what works best for you. Movement, rest, play,
meditation, journalling and connecting with others are all different ways we can release the
energy of negative emotions. Reflect on how different feelings impact your thinking and
behaviour and learn from your insights.
3. Encourage adaptive thinking. When negative thoughts come up, reminders to “just breathe” and “slow down” and “you’ve got this-you’ve done hard things before”. Reframe challenges into something that can be handled, not a reflection of a person’s character. Reminders that it’s OK to make mistakes. Use humour. Reminders of successes, no matter how small.
4. Encourage the use of “mental brakes”- lengthen the space between the stimulus (event) and response. Consider having a “pause button” to help to slow down the thinking and reduce impulsivity. Ask does this need to be right now? Do I need to pause? Delay communication and decision making so you can weigh things out, talk with someone you trust, and consider how emotions might be playing a role. Do one thing at a time.
5. Take time to plan and make lists. Write things down, record it in your phone, have different lists for different things. Take time every week to make plans for the week and “to do” lists. Reflect on how long things will take when planning so that transitions are being considered and you are being realistic. Make time for things you have to do and make time for fun.
6. Set “SMART” goals, which is an acronym that gives a template for setting goals for yourself.
S stands for specific, make the goal very detailed,
M stands for measurable- a goal that you can know if you are progressing and when you achieve it,
A stands for attainable, making sure it’s reasonable and achievable,
R stands for realistic- ensure the goal is something you can accomplish, and,
T stands for time sensitive, meaning that you give it a time limit or time frame to work within. Using this model can help you look at things in your life you want to target for accomplishment, improvement, or change, and help you develop a plan for getting there.
7. Reflect on your relationships and your behaviour. If you have caused harm or upset to others, even if unintentionally through your behaviour, consider how you can make amends. Educating others in your life about ADHD, apologizing for missteps in relationships, taking responsibility for your behaviour and setting goals for change are ways that you can improve your relationships with others.
Christine Bibby, MSW, RSW