Have you ever found yourself unable to focus on one task for more than a couple of minutes? Or even find yourself switching between many different activities with lightning speed? These are some of the most common symptoms of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). However, most people who were not diagnosed as a child never suspect that they may have ADHD. I didn’t even think to consider that I might have ADHD until I started doing research. I read books, followed people on TikTok, joined Facebook groups, and listened to Podcasts.
If you think you might be one of those adults who have ADHD without realizing it, here are ten common telltale signs:
- Short Attention Span & Forgetfulness
- Executive Dysfunction
- Emotional Dysregulation
- Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria
- Sleep Issues
ADHD falls on the Neurodiversity spectrum and because of this spectrum, everyone who has ADHD will not have the exact same symptoms. Often times, the symptoms also look different between men and women, children and adults. There are three major types of ADHD and each type presents differently in people. The three major types of ADHD are:
- Combined Type
- Impulsive & Hyperactive Type
- Inattentive & Distractible Type
I personally experience all ten of these symptoms in various amounts every day.
When you have ADHD, you may sometimes feel a strong urge to do something, even if it’s not a good idea. For example, you might be tempted to buy something you don’t need, push the button with the “do not push” sticker, or donate blood (yes, I did that on impulse once! It’s a long story). You might be more likely to say things that you’ll regret later or jump into risky activities without thinking about the consequences.
A part of the brain called, the prefrontal cortex, helps us regulate our impulses. In people with ADHD, this area of the brain is less active than in neurotypical people or those who don’t have ADHD. There’s also evidence that the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, which are related to mood, are less active in people with ADHD. This combination can lead to the impulsivity that’s often associated with ADHD.
We are dopamine seeking maniacs! Or at least, I am. Which leads to the next symptom of ADHD. Our incredibly high likelihood of getting distracted by literally every. little. thing.
If you have ADHD, you may find that you have more trouble paying attention than others do. The butterfly flying past the window, the sensation of a tag touching your skin, the sound of the AC turning on. Anything and everything will distract you. This can be especially true when you’re doing something that doesn’t interest you much, like studying or doing paperwork, or doing a repetitive job. You may find that you have a harder time finishing tasks, as well, because you’re much more likely to get distracted.
I often find myself starting one task and ending up fifteen minutes later with ten tasks started, zero tasks finished, and confusion as to why I’m doing whatever the current task is. My husband jokes all the time that I say I’m going to bed, but what I really mean is that I’m going to go into the bedroom and immediately get distracted for the next thirty minutes by odds and ends that I notice while trying to get into bed.
Short Attention Spans & Forgetfulness
Going hand in hand with the easy ability to get distracted is our often short attention spans and forgetfulness. If I set an item down while doing something else, I will immediately forget the item is there. I sometimes spend hours looking for items that ended up in the fridge, in the bathroom, or some other random place in my home that they don’t belong in simply because I got distracted and set the item down.
I once left my phone in the freezer at work because I set it down to count an item and didn’t remember to pick it up. It sat there for over an hour before I finally retraced my steps and activities and found it. Whenever I’m doing an important task at work, I have to have this mental repeat list going on in my head – because the moment I stop repeating the list, I just know I’ll get distracted and forget something.
Staying focused and on task is hard when you struggle to remember things. This forgetfulness can affect your schoolwork or job, as well as your relationships. You may find yourself missing appointments, cancelling plans, or losing important items like your phone, wallet, or keys. You might also have trouble with short-term memory and have a hard time remembering information you’ve just learned.
Besides being forgetful and easily distracted, we also have very short attention spans. This means that you have a difficult time paying attention to one thing for a long period of time. The reason for this has to do with your brain chemistry; it takes more energy to stay focused on one task. It also takes more energy to sit still, so you’re more likely to get bored easily. Alternatively, you may be completely focused on one thing, but not in a productive way.
Disorganization is a common symptom of ADHD. You might have trouble keeping track of your homework or important papers, remembering to pay bills on time, or cancelling free trials before you get charged. People with ADHD tend to have a more “chaotic” way of thinking compared to others. It’s not that we are necessarily messier or don’t care about our things, but rather that we have trouble with self-organization.
Disorganization can lead to problems in many other areas of life, such as poor time management, trouble managing money, missing appointments, and poor academic performance. You may find that you’re always running late and can never seem to get your act together. You might also procrastinate a lot and find yourself trapped in a cycle of never getting things done.
One of the reasons I struggle with procrastination is when I become so overwhelmed with all of the steps in a task that I am unable to start at all. I sit in my chair telling myself, ‘Do the thing!’ and then don’t do the thing. This can be incredibly frustrating.
It’s common for people with ADHD to have trouble with “executive function” (EF), which is the ability to regulate your emotions, your working memory, staying focused and on task, switch between tasks, and using self-discipline. EF can be negatively impacted by having too much or too little dopamine (a neurotransmitter that helps regulate your emotions).
Studies show that people with ADHD have less active receptors for dopamine in the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for EF. When EF is impacted, it can be difficult to concentrate, get things done, start tasks, and stay organized. This can make life more stressful and cause feelings of shame, guilt, and frustration.
People with ADHD often benefit from having a routine, but also need to adjust it over time. It’s important to learn how your brain works and how you can help it function at its best. There are some workarounds for our brains though. Things like body doubling, rewards systems, lists, and more help tremendously. Some of those things may look and seem strange to a neurotypical person, but for me, having these tools has helped so much! It is because of things like that, that I’m able to write this blog at all!
Not only does ADHD affect our executive function, but it also can cause dysregulation and disruption in our emotions. This is especially common in people with ADHD who are also diagnosed with a mood disorder, like depression or anxiety. Depending on your symptoms and how severe they are, you may experience mild emotion dysregulation or have significant emotions that swing from one extreme to another.
At one point in my life, before I knew I had ADHD, I thought I might be bipolar. Why? Because my emotions jumped ALL over the place and I couldn’t keep a steady base line to save my life. I do not have bipolar (which was fairly easy to discover once I did some actual research into it), but I still have pretty extreme emotional reactions to just about everything.
I think that is part of why I benefitted from therapy and coaching in the past. Having someone to bounce things off of helps me know where the baseline is and if I’m over (or under) reacting to things and experiences in my life.
People with ADHD who are depressed or have anxiety may also have significant emotion dysregulation. This can make it harder to get through your day and stay productive. One way to cope with emotion dysregulation is to create a list of things that help you stay positive. This can be anything that relaxes you and helps you feel more in control. I also like to listen to affirmations when I’m trying to go to sleep to calm my brain down and train my brain to have a healthier pattern of thinking about myself and others.
One interesting thing to note is that many ADHD-ers discovered that taking medication for their ADHD helped improve their mood disorders as well (whereas, often times, taking anti-depressants or anti-anxiety meds didn’t actually solve the problem). Often times, we are mis diagnosed with a mood disorder when it is actually a reaction to overwhelm and an overactive brain.
Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria
If you have ADHD, you may experience significant frustration and feel easily irritated or hurt by things that others don’t even notice or think twice about. This is called rejection sensitivity dysphoria (RSD) and is often a symptom of having an underlying mood disorder. People with ADHD who also have a mood disorder are at a higher risk for developing RSD.
RSD causes us to be extremely sensitive to even the most gentle criticism and negative feedback. It’s really easy to become defensive and upset when someone brings up something they think we need to work on.
Rejection sensitivity often causes people with ADHD to have problems in relationships, particularly romantic relationships. It’s normal to feel angry when someone misunderstands you or rejects you, but it’s how you react to these situations that matters. For example, if you have RSD, you might react by feeling more upset than others do when something goes wrong. It’s important to learn self-regulation and how to respond to rejection in a healthier way, rather than lashing out or feeling self-loathing, total loneliness or depression.
This one is especially challenging for me. I get into a loop of negative self-talk and thinking that everyone hates me and I am a terrible human. But that’s just the RSD talking. It’s not true.
Something that can help when working with a neurodiverse person is to be sure and give them lots of positive feedback. That helps boost their self-esteem and confidence and helps balance the RSD they may feel when given necessary constructive feedback about things to improve.
What’s funny to me is that not only do I struggle to not pay attention, but sometimes I become so hyperfocused on something that I forget everything else. I’ve spent hours hyperfocusing on a paper cutting project. I forgot to eat. I forgot to use the restroom. I forgot anything existed outside of my paper, cutting tool, and cutting mat.
When people with ADHD become hyperfocused, they become so intensely interested in something and are able to block out all other distractions. Hyperfocus can be a good thing, but it can also cause problems if you don’t have the self-awareness to recognize that you’re doing it. You may not realize that you’re supposed to be doing something else, like studying or finishing a project for work.
Or you know. Eating. Basic life functions just cease to exist when I’m hyper focused on something. I’m always shocked to see what time it is, hear my stomach rumbling, and run to the restroom when I finally come out of a hyperfocus session.
Hyperfocus can also lead to problems if you’re not interested in what you’re doing or if it interferes with your relationships or your daily life. If I’m hyperfocused on a craft project all day, then I forgot to do the other daily tasks I was supposed to accomplish like laundry, dishes, and making food.
While not all people with ADHD experience hyperactivity, it can be a prominent symptom in many cases. I think it’s also helpful to note that it’s possible to have a hyperactive mind even if you don’t experience a hyperactive body. I often experience my mind racing like a train breaking speed barriers as it zooms away. It’s hard to focus on anything at once when my brain is trying to think about a million things all at once and remember them all.
Hyperactivity in your body can cause you to move around a lot and have trouble sitting still for long periods of time. It also ties into having a shorter attention span like we talked about earlier. I am typically able to sit for a while, however, I adjust how I’m sitting, and am always curling my toes under and shifting my back, shoulders, and neck.
My eyes also never stay still (unless hyperfocused) which caused many issues in my highschool drama class (because you’re supposed to focus on one spot in the audience when delivering your lines and not have your eyes bounce around like ping pong balls all over the audience).
Speaking of not being able to hold still or get racing minds to slow down, another common symptom of ADHD is sleep issues. Because our minds and/or bodies struggle with hyperactivity, calming the down enough to be able to actually fall asleep is hard. Sometimes I get so jittery that it’s almost impossible to lie in bed and hold still.
There have been many occasions where my husband told me to go run a lap around the house and come back to bed because I just cannot get my zoomies out.
My brain also wants to think about everything, and I mean EVERYTHING when I get into bed. If I was studying something new before bed, then I will especially struggle. My brain wants to come up with all of the ideas, think through every single possible interaction coming up in the next day or week, and re-live my entire day of events and conversations with people at work or at home.
What does this mean for you?
People with ADHD often have trouble with impulsiveness, paying attention, and remembering things. They may also have trouble controlling their emotions and find it difficult to get things done. These symptoms can cause a lot of stress, frustration, and communication issues with others which can lead to anxiety and depression.
But understanding these symptoms and finding ways to work with our brains is one of the most rewarding and interesting things to do! We aren’t broken. Our brains just process and organize information differently. It can be used to our advantage too. We are amazing at coming up with ideas, connecting things, thinking outside of the box, and being sensitive to others.
If you suspect you (or a loved one) has ADHD, come along with me as we discover ways to help ourselves (and others) grow, learn, and thrive! There’s a marvelous world waiting for us and our unique brains. I can’t wait to discover it with you!