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Gifted to Overworked: ADHD in Adults

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is often diagnosed in childhood but many still struggle with attention disorder symptoms well into adulthood. Some individuals may have never been assessed for ADHD, and so they managed as best they could through their academics and work, without fully understanding the reasons behind their struggles. Yet, they still may have sensed that they were different from their peers.

If you’ve had that persistent thought that things seem to be extra difficult for you, or have developed a whole host of habits just to allow you to complete the tasks assigned to you, this blog is for you. We’ll talk today about ADHD in adults and how that might show up in your life.

What is Executive Function and Why Does It Matter?

ADHD is categorized by a persistent delay of self-regulation skills, mainly in regard to executive function. Difficulty with time management and planning, disorganization, impulsivity, remembering important details, and trouble with motivation are some of the hallmark struggles that many with ADHD face. Those with ADHD usually struggle with self-esteem as well, as they know exactly what they should be doing but can’t seem to find a path forward. This often leads to feelings of shame and self-blame as they conclude that there must be a problem with their willpower, and that this is the cause of their shortcomings.

However, executive functioning is characterized not at all by willpower, but by the following traits:

  • Self-Awareness: described as inner reflection about how one thinks, feels, and behaves
  • Inhibition: the ability to practice restraint and refrain from urges
  • Non-Verbal Working Memory: picturing things visually in the mind
  • Verbal Working Memory: internal speech similar to internal dialogue
  • Emotional Self-Regulation: being able to effectively change your emotional state
  • Self Motivation: finding motivation when there are no consequences or urgent pressures
  • Planning and Problem-Solving: choosing a best structure and plan of action

More Than Willpower

Just because those with ADHD struggle with the above executive functions doesn’t mean that they aren’t capable of being motivated. Those with ADHD do experience motivation; it’s just that motivation is inconsistent due to challenges with working memory.

The neurotransmitter, dopamine, is responsible for directing attention toward rewards. The ADHD brain has more dopamine receptors, which essentially means that the dopamine is taken in rather quickly without giving the brain enough time to simmer with it. Therefore, the dangling of the carrot is fleeting, making motivation feel like the gas pedal is being tapped when the foot really needs to be heavy on the gas to get uphill. Where consequences and goals might be easily held in the mind for others, those with ADHD struggle with this same kind of attention because rewards are not held long in their working memory.

The Super-Human Trait, Hyperfocus

While people with ADHD struggle with regulating their attention, most will tell you that they are able to direct their attention towards areas they find interesting. This is often described as a kind of tunnel vision where they are so enmeshed in the activity that they lose all sense of time, and may even become agitated if they are interrupted from the task.

On the surface, this may be seen as diligent and studious. It’s no wonder that ADHD may have slid under the radar. This may be especially true for girls and women, who have been socialized to be agreeable and do well in school. The ability to sustain attention for hours on end could produce exceptional results, even cultivating a skill or ability so much so that it becomes brilliant.
This trait, hyperfocus, may have easily been rewarded by teachers, parents, or employers, reinforcing their giftedness yet also setting the stage for burnout.

ADHD and Burnout

With a brain that struggles with organizing and directing its attention, tasks can easily be forgotten about and soon the feeling of falling behind becomes overwhelming. Those with ADHD know this cycle well, and so they will either succumb to these patterns, or they will try their best to compensate for them. However, their attempts to stay ahead all too often feel like running a race in a hamster wheel.

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with ADHD, you know that those with ADHD are very aware of the expectations others have of them, and they are aware that they often struggle with implementing structure to meet these demands. This frustration causes significant pressure, leaving many to feel burnt out or suffer low self-esteem.

ADHD in adults can lead to extreme productivity and burnout

Treating ADHD

Working with a cognitive-behavioral (CBT) therapist, along with medication, have been shown to be standard treatments for managing executive dysfunction. Practicing skills that help with executive function have been shown to improve procrastination, help limit distractions, and provide strategies for time management and planning. Medication may also be helpful for many, but it’s important to talk to your doctor about which medication is right for you.

If you struggle with self-esteem and issues discussed in this article, don’t hesitate to reach out to our care team to get started with cognitive behavioral therapy.