Episode 017: ADD/ADHD is Trending: Here’s What We Know about Thriving With It

Seems like ADD/ADHD is getting a lot of attention lately. 

Ironic? 

Perhaps.

But, as we round the corner on year two of a global pandemic, maybe there’s an answer in the times we live in. With the persistent disruption to our lifestyles and — for many of us — precious few opportunities to connect with our fellow humans, it’s no surprise that more of us feel like we’re bouncing off the proverbial wall.

 

Does that mean we’ve got a societal case of attention deficit disorder? Probably not.

 

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) writes, “People with ADHD show a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development.” 

Because ADD/ADHD is classified as a neurodevelopment disorder, at least several of the symptoms need to have been present prior to age 12. So if you realize your swivel chair has made skid marks on your floors after seventeen months of forty-hour weeks on Zoom, or you’re off in la-la land while your sweetheart (whom you’ve been quarantining with for God-knows-how-long) is telling you a story over a glass of rosé, that’s probably not ADD. That sounds like #pandemiclife.

 

But rather than dive into the intricacies of diagnosis, let’s consider why you might want to get one. Depending on where you live, there will be different routes, whether through a physician, psychologist or psychiatrist. But unless you need a formal accommodation letter for school, work or social services, the label might not be the solution. Even if you think you might benefit from medication (a conversation to have with the professional treating you), in the words of a former coach of Shift Psych Zac Erickson, “Pills don’t teach skills.”

 

That’s why, if you’re experiencing problematic ADD/ADHD-like symptoms, we recommend looking at how the negative behaviour is manifesting itself in your life — and then figuring out if there’s a way to prevent, redirect, or learn to tolerate it.

If you know you’re the kind of person who goes stir-crazy when you feel confined, make sure you’ve got an escape plan. Maybe your family wants to lie on the beach for eight hours, but you know you’re going to need to scale a cliff instead. Or, if you’ve got to spend the day on the beach (poor baby), pack a book or line up a new podcast (we know some good ones if you’re looking). 

 

Then there will be the uncomfortable situations you can’t avoid. You’re not going to be able to be hyper-stimulated by every single thing in your life. You still have to clean toilets, pay taxes and wait at a bus stop. Inevitably, there are tasks you won’t find interesting. We want to minimize them but also increase our ability to tolerate them, through activities that instill mindfulness, such as yoga, martial arts, meditation, or running — any activity that requires a certain amount of extended focus and skill. 

 

Eventually, you’ll be able to access the distress tolerance you cultivate during those activities in other areas of your life, so that your deep breathing kicks in whenever you’re faced with something uncomfortable or unpleasant (maybe not while cleaning the toilet).

 

Not only do we want to mitigate or tolerate the things that make you go “ugh,” we also want to maximize the things that make you go “oooh,” in other words, your superpower, whether its an ability to hyper-focus on an area of interest or to envision the big picture. It’s going to be easier to sit through that Zoom call if you’ve gone on a nature walk, connected with your neighbour and dreamed about the future of your business. 

Once you’ve identified the behaviours you want to minimize and those you want to highlight, and you’ve found some potential strategies, the question becomes: Can you implement them?

 

More often than not, the answer is no. We know we need physical exercise to avoid going nuclear on our kids, but it’s hard to find parking at the yoga studio. We know we need to chat with our fellow humans to avoid eating the third slice of cheesecake, but the party will probably not be very much fun. We know we would be much calmer on the family vacation with a podcast, but there are just too many to choose from (really, we have some recommendations). 

But where most people stop is the best place to start: When we have those conversations with ourselves and we notice that the voice in our head is not dispensing the logical advice that would get us where we want to go — or is not advising us the way we would talk to a good friend — that’s when our instinctual, walnut brain is getting the upper hand. 

 

The walnut’s job is to keep us from feeling bad in the short-term — he doesn’t want us to feel that hamstring burn that’s gonna come the first time we round the corner of our block or to feel bored when we set down our fork after slice number two of cheesecake has been ingested. But because he’s got no long-term vision, we have to rely on the cognitive mind to tell him it’s gonna be worth it when we build up our stamina and also stop jumping down our partner’s throat.

When we listen to the walnut and understand where he’s coming from, we can get him on board. He’s probably telling us not to run because he fears we aren’t good at it, or not to go to the party because he worries everyone else there is better than us. When we catch a snippet of that internal dialogue, we get insight into our limiting beliefs. That gives us something we can tackle — often with the help of a therapist.

 

Now you might have noticed we haven’t mentioned ADD/ADHD in several paragraphs. That’s because everything we’re saying here goes for humans, full stop. The traits associated with ADD/ADHD lend themselves to certain strategies: Having opportunities for regular movement, getting good sleep, creating a distraction-free environment, communicating with family and colleagues about strengths and weaknesses — but all of these strategies hold for people in general.  

 

Whether you get insight into yourself by conducting a psychiatric assessment, talking with a therapist, chatting with your friend or some good old fashioned introspection, when you know yourself, you can start making the kinds of decisions about how to live our life. 

 

If you have a Chihuahua, you’re probably not going to ask her to be really good at herding cattle. And if you have a Collie, she’s probably not going to excel at sitting alone in an apartment and cuddling on your lap all day. Their energy levels are different, their needs are different, their instincts are different. So if we think of ourselves as dog breeds, you want to know which one breed you are and then build your life around that. Are you the Chihuahua trying to herd cattle?