What is ADHD?

Posted on: September 26, 2011

Just about everyone has heard about ADHD or knows someone with the diagnosis. Perhaps you even have it yourself.  But how much do you really know about it? These days, when everyone from Dr. Phil to Tom Cruise has something to say about ADHD, it can hard to separate the facts from the uninformed opinions. Therefore, I thought I’d devote this blog post to explaining what ADHD actually is.

ADHD is a neurological disability. Psychiatrists believe that it is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain.  Personally, I find the term “chemical imbalance” to be confusing. When I first heard the term as a teenager, I pictured something similiar to this image.  This puzzled me, as I knew there was not a scale inside my head!

Several years later, when I was a college student studying psychology, I finally learned what “chemical imbalance” meant.  Our brains produce several chemicals known as neurotransmitters that help us to function.  When the brain doesn’t make enough of a particular neurotransmitter, you have a chemical imbalance. If you have ADHD, your brain doesn’t make enough of the neurotransmitter known as dopamine. As a result, you will have trouble paying attention, staying alert, and being organized. You may also have trouble sitting still, and find that you always need to be moving or fidgeting.

ADHD is commonly treated with prescription medications. These medications include stimulants such as Ritalin, Concerta, and Adderall.  The active ingredient in the stimulants cause your brain to produce more dopamine, which corrects the chemical imbalance, and it is easier for you to pay attention and stay focused.

Some people, particularly parents of children with ADHD-Predominately Hyperactive Type, are reluctant to treat ADHD with a stimulant. They argue that the last thing their children need is to be more “wound up” or stimulated, and fear that it will make them even more hyperactive and fidgety.  However, recent studies have discovered the surprising reason why people with ADHD are hyperactive. It’s  not because they are overstimulated; but rather because they are understimulated!  When they move, get up and walk around, fidget, or tap their feet, it stimulates the brain to produce more dopamine.  Somehow, children with ADHD must instinctively know this, as they are unable to control the urge to move and fidget even when they know they should be sitting still and listening to their teacher.  Once they are medicated, their brains are able to produce enough dopamine and so they no longer have the urge to get up and move around.  Fascinating, huh?

ADHD has also been described as “the lack of a filter.”  When people who don’t have ADHD are in school, they can focus on the lesson because they filter everything else out- what the other kids are doing, the birds flying past the classroom window, the noises from the classroom next door, what they’re going to be doing after school, the book in their desk or their bag that is so much more interesting than whatever they’re studying- and devote all of their attention to what the teacher is saying. People with ADHD, on the other hand, don’t have a filter, so they are paying attention to everything else around them and are unable to completely focus on the lesson.  For this reason, some people have suggested that the disorder is misnamed and that it ought to be called “Attention Surplus Disorder.” Ironically, people with ADHD often have a tendency to hyperfocus on a topic or issue that particularly interests them, to the point that they tune everything else out and they become very distressed if they are forced to focus their attention elsewhere. This is the reason why I ask my husband to please not interrupt me when I am writing or blogging.  Even if he only comes into the room for a few seconds,  it still bothers me as my concentration has already been broken and it’s hard for me to pick up where I left off. 

My lack of a filter often causes me to be overstimulated in crowded noisy places such as malls,  train stations at rush hour, museums during school vacation, or cocktail parties.  I am unable to filter out the constant noise and crowd around me, and I become so overwhelmed that I can’t process anything that’s going around me. I’ll say to my husband, “I need to make a phone call,” which he knows is code for “I’m getting overstimulated.”  I’ll step outside, take out my cell phone, and pretend that I’m making a call until I’ve calmed down enough to return.

Often, people with ADHD tend to blurt out whatever comes to their minds, even if it’s not always appropriate.  In addition, they have trouble realizing that what is appropriate in one situation may not be appropriate in others. This is known as impulsive behavior, and it is also due to the lack of a filter. This used to be a bigger problem for me when I was younger, but over the years I have learned ways of controlling my impulses and it is not a major issue for me now.

ADHD still affects my life in many ways. Contrary to a popular belief, ADHD does not go away as we get older. I will discuss this and other common ADHD myths in a future blog post.

Have a good night/day, everyone!


3 Responses to "What is ADHD?"

Even though I feel like I know a lot about ADHD, I was surprised at how much new information was in your blog post.

Becky, having a thoughtful adult perspective on living with ADHD is incredibly valuable. Thank you for taking us on this journey.

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