Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common disorder, especially among children, but it’s also a common cause of poor attention and focus in adults. Because ADHD makes it difficult to concentrate and master executive functioning, people with the disorder struggle to succeed in their careers or classes, and may experience difficulty fitting in with others or demonstrating good behavior.
There are many ADHD treatments that can improve or mitigate the symptoms. The trouble is, many people exhibit a lack of focus, a lack of concentration and/or problematic behavior at times. So how can you tell the difference between these normal aberrations and “real” symptoms of ADHD?
Signs of ADHD
Let’s start by explaining some of the most common signs and symptoms of ADHD:
1. Impulsiveness. ADHD is associated with impulsiveness. The disorder makes it difficult to control the “executive functions” of the brain, which usually keep our urges in check. You may find yourself speaking without an internal filter, or act in a way you know is inappropriate without really thinking about it. You may also be highly reactive to their surroundings, with knee-jerk responses to external stimuli. All of us experience issues like these from time to time, but in ADHD, they are frequent.
2. Inability to focus on tasks. One of the hallmark symptoms of ADHD is an inability to focus on a task. This could mean struggling to pay attention in a meeting, finding it difficult to pay full attention to a TV show, or being unable to complete an activity like a word search or puzzle.
3. Inability to multitask. Most of us can’t “truly” multitask; the human mind is wired to focus on one task at a time. However, most of us can loosely focus on multiple things simultaneously, and switch our attention at will. For example, we might be able to carry on a conversation even with a TV show playing in the background. People with ADHD find this kind of task juggling nearly impossible.
4. Excessive energy, activity, or restlessness. ADHD also makes people especially energetic, with no appropriate outlet for this energy. Kids with ADHD frequently display excessive levels of energy and a persistent urge to move, which is notoriously difficult to control. As an adult, you may see this manifest as a perpetual feeling of restlessness.
5. Poor planning or prioritizing. Again, because ADHD interferes with executive functions, people with show signs of poor planning and prioritizing. They may make decisions without thinking too far ahead, or may have trouble prioritizing the tasks in front of them.
6. Mood swings. ADHD is commonly associated with mood swings as well. The people have trouble acknowledging, processing, and controlling their emotions. Accordingly, their emotions can change quickly and without warning. One moment, they may seem content and perfectly in control of their feelings. The next, they may be sad, frustrated, and irritable. Again, many of us experience this at least occasionally, but it must happen frequently to be categorized as a true disorder.
7. Anger issues. Though mood swings can rapidly change their emotions, people with ADHD often struggle especially with irritability and anger. They may be prone to temper tantrums, or may respond inappropriately to an innocent situation, like feeling attacked or offended by an innocuous comment in a meeting.
8. Difficulty completing tasks or conversations. ADHD makes it hard to focus your attention in one area, so people with ADHD usually struggle to complete given tasks or conversations. For example, if given a project to work on, their attention will likely wander before they can complete it. This could be described as “shiny object syndrome,” with new stimuli automatically taking priority as they enter the scene.
9. Difficulty handling stress. ADHD also makes it difficult for people to handle stress appropriately. They may become inappropriately stressed from small or insignificant events, and may not address or vent that stress in a healthy way. For example, they may grow anxious or worried at inopportune times, and release that stress with inappropriate behaviors.
As you can see, most people experience at least some of these symptoms at some point in their lives, regardless of whether they truly have ADHD. So how can you distinguish between a normal aberration in focus and ADHD?
The best approach is to determine whether the behavioral problem is significantly interfering with your career or your life in general. For example, is your inability to focus on tasks resulting in frequent writeups, meeting disruptions, or harsh conversations with your boss? Is your anger or unstable mood preventing you from making and keeping friends?
It’s also important to recognize that ADHD may manifest very differently in different individuals. Some people may exhibit only one or two symptoms, while others may display a full suite. What looks like ADHD in one person may simply be categorized as ordinary behavior in another.
Accordingly, it’s a good idea to consult with a professional if you believe you or your child are showing symptoms of ADHD. Experienced pediatricians, doctors, and psychologists will be much better able to provide a diagnosis than any inexperienced person. They will also be able to recommend a plan for treatment, so you can live a normal, healthy, and happy life.
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