We are going back to the basics and diving into explaining ADHD. We know that it can be a challenge, so today we’re going to discuss how to talk about ADHD without getting lost in the weeds.
We have all been in that situation where we tell someone that we have ADHD, and they stare at us like, what is that? Then, we stand there awkwardly trying to explain it.
Most people think ADHD is just an attention deficit disorder, but there is so much more to it.
By the end of this blog, you’ll have a deeper understanding and a more robust explanation for ADHD and what it means to be diagnosed with ADHD.
What is ADHD?
ADHD stands for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but unfortunately, that name is a terrible name because ADHD is not really a deficit in attention. ADHD is actually a neurodevelopmental disorder that impairs our ability to regulate our attention and our emotions — meaning that it’s a condition that affects the way our brains work.
But of course, no one wants to walk around telling people they have a neurodevelopmental disorder, even if it’s accurate, because it doesn’t easily roll off the tongue. No one wants to tell their grandma that they have a disorder, and then use a fancy word like ‘neurodevelopmental.’
So what are our options when it comes to explaining ADHD?
Explaining ADHD #1
Another way to explain the same concept is that ADHD is a brain difference or a different way of functioning — medically and scientifically speaking — from people who don’t have ADHD.
Our brains simply work differently. That’s it.
So if ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder or a brain difference that impairs our ability to regulate our attention and our emotions, what does that mean exactly? How do we explain that to people?
Essentially, there are cognitive processes called executive functions, which help all humans regulate themselves within time and space. So within a moment in time, human beings without ADHD generally know how to control themselves within time and space — like they know what to do no matter WHEN and WHERE they are. Executive functions are skills that allow humans to self-direct and make conscious choices towards our goals.
So if you have ADHD, executive functioning or the ability to self-direct within time and space is impaired — meaning doing things in life and reaching our goals gets a lot harder for us.
Things like controlling our impulses and emotions, thinking flexibly, remembering things, knowing what time it is, and planning our day become a lot harder for ADHD brains because those tasks all take executive functioning skills that our brains simply don’t have the mechanics for.
Of course, ADHD is a spectrum disorder meaning that no two people will have the same symptoms, but generally, people who have ADHD struggle with executive functioning skills.
So a great way to explain that to someone is to say…
Explaining ADHD #2:
ADHD is a brain difference that makes doing things to reach my goals a little bit harder — like I have a hard time knowing what time it is, or organizing my day, and staying on task.
Whatever symptoms you have that you feel like sharing, you can place them in that sentence to simply explain to someone what ADHD is and how it affects you.
So to circle back, there are many ways to explain what ADHD is, but it really is a personal choice as to what words you feel comfortable sharing.
You can say that ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that makes it hard to regulate your attention, productivity, and emotional responses OR you can say that ADHD is a brain difference or a different way of functioning that causes specific tasks [enter your symptoms] a lot hard to accomplish.
Explaining ADHD #3:
Really, it’s up to you how you want to explain it, but this analogy can also be helpful:
Think about the brain’s frontal lobe (where executive functioning takes place) as an office building with eight different departments: 1) impulse control, 2) emotional control, 3) flexible thinking, 4) working memory, 5) self-monitoring, 6) planning, 7) prioritizing tasks, and 8) organizing tasks.
All eight departments need to work together to be able to self-direct within time and space and do the things you want to do, but the crazy thing is, you have a wild CEO boss named ADHD who makes things really hard. And this ADHD CEO interrupts what you’re doing all the time, and makes it impossible to be able to work at your full capacity.
So the key here is to remember that ADHD is not about being able to pay attention, it’s a neurodevelopmental disorder that impairs your ability to regulate your emotions and actions. It affects all 8 executive functioning skills to varying degrees, and it means that even though each of us can be extremely successful, it’s not going to come without some extreme challenges.
And the last thing to note is that ADHD also causes lower levels of dopamine, which is the feel-good hormone. It’s basically the chemical that gets our brains and bodies to feel great.
So for people with ADHD, we have a harder time feeling good chemically. So doing a task like laundry, even if it ‘shouldn’t’ be a big deal, feels like a big deal. The dopamine ‘feel-good’ reward that brains get when we finish a task, isn’t there for ADHD brains. So we end up struggling to get mundane and boring tasks done because we don’t have the chemicals to help us feel good about it.
Our brains tell us doing these things are worthless, and pointless, and it can actually feel like death to get ourselves to do these things.
To summarize, let’s run through the 4 key takeaways here when it comes to explaining ADHD:
#1: ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder
#2: ADHD impairs our ability to self-regulate our emotions and other executive functioning skills
#3: The 8 executive functioning skills are 1) impulse control, 2) emotional control, 3) flexible thinking, 4) working memory, 5) self-monitoring, 6) planning, 7) prioritizing tasks, and 8) organizing tasks.
#4: ADHD causes lower levels of dopamine making simple tasks feel like death.