Most people have heard of ADHD, but it’s common to have questions about ADHD symptoms and signs of the condition. In this blog, we dig into some facts about ADHD and chat to Beth, a 27 year old woman with ADHD, about her experience.
As with any mental health or neurodevelopmental condition, everyone with ADHD has their own subjective experience. Lots of things affect what someone’s experience of ADHD symptoms is like for them, including how old they are, their gender, and other things in their life like their home situation and the support they have around them.
ADHD stands for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It’s a condition that can affect someone’s cognition (the way they think and understand things) and their ability to control their actions and behaviours. People with ADHD have trouble concentrating and focusing, as well as being hyperactive or impulsive (acting without thinking it through first).
For Beth, ADHD is ‘like being in a constant fight with myself’. Like between half and three-quarters of people with ADHD, her ADHD symptoms include finding it difficult to concentrate and focus as well as sometimes being hyperactive and impulsive.
ADHD makes it difficult to focus and get things done
‘There are lots of things that I want to do – from things someone without ADHD might “want” to do like hobbies or going out to see friends, to things that people who don’t have ADHD just do without thinking about much, like things to do with personal hygiene or going to work,’ Beth explains.
‘For all these things, I want to do them, but it isn’t always easy. There’s often a really big struggle in my head. That’s the attention deficit, the not being able to concentrate and focus bit.’
Beth’s ADHD symptoms don’t always feel the same. ‘When I’m having a really bad ADHD day, I describe it as like moving through treacle. I can’t concentrate. It’s hard to keep track of what I’ve done and what I need to do, and I can’t prioritise tasks. I feel like I’m moving in slow motion, and everything becomes extremely overwhelming.’
Beth knows that procrastination is something that people without ADHD struggle with too, but says that for her, it’s a much bigger issue. She can spend hours looking at her phone: ‘In my head, I’ll be screaming at myself to get up and do the thing that I need to do – but I can’t move and do it.’
Unfortunately, stigma can make it difficult for people to talk about some aspects of having ADHD. Beth is fighting back against this by being open about how it has affected her habits, including things people don’t always talk about: ‘Like hygiene habits – brushing my teeth or keeping my room tidy.’
Beth finds it easier now she has medication and support to manage her ADHD, but she says: ‘When I was younger, it wasn’t that I wanted to live in a filthy room or not shower very often, for example. I just couldn’t manage to keep myself and my space clean.
‘All these things I’ve always experienced, they’re not deficits of my personality. It’s not that I’m lazy – I have a condition, a disorder, that affects my life.’
ADHD symptoms and school
Beth is clear that, looking back, she can see how her ADHD affected her while she was at school.
Stereotypes of ADHD might mean you imagine people getting in trouble for ‘bad behaviour’ or getting low grades – but that isn’t the case for everyone.
‘I always had good enough grades,’ Beth explains, ‘and my school reports were full of teachers saying I was smart – and that I engaged in class (in most lessons, anyway).
‘But alongside all of that praise, my reports said I needed to apply myself and work harder. I never did any revision. I was always getting in trouble for not doing homework – or copying my friends’ before school.’
For Beth, and other people with ADHD, it’s not that they don’t want to do their work – and it’s not a case of being lazy.
‘As I moved through school and sixth form, I really tried to study – but I couldn’t do it,’ explains Beth. ‘I think it’s a massive shame, because, knowing my abilities, I think if I’d had the right support, I would’ve got the top grades I needed to go on to the careers I dreamed of. Things like being a vet would’ve been so much more available to me.’
Being hyperactive because of ADHD
‘I definitely notice the hyperactive part in myself too,’ says Beth. ‘I have spurts of extreme energy where I’m just talking really fast and talking about really random stupid stuff.
‘I find myself in conversations, and sometimes I will just be talking and talking and talking. And I will be in my head going: “Shut up, shut up, shut up! Let them get a word in!” But I just can’t stop myself from just going on and on.’
Beth finds that her hyperactive ADHD symptoms affect parts of her life that people don’t always associate with being hyperactive. Sometimes she finds that she can do certain activities with more energy, for example – but this energy doesn’t always last, and it isn’t consistent. ‘I’ll have a sudden burst of extreme cleaning or going through my money, after I’ve let it pile up,’ she explains. ‘But it’s hard to maintain a level of control over a long period.’
ADHD and impulsivity
When people talk about impulsive behaviour, they mean doing (or saying) something without thinking it through first. Like a lot of people with ADHD, Beth has experience of impulse spending.
‘I would just spend money and not think about the consequences,’ she says. ‘Of course, I knew there were consequences – I knew they were there in the back of my mind. But I felt like I had no control. I felt like I had to go out and spend money and buy stuff.’
Beth also found that her ADHD made her very sensitive to rejection – and she knows that her initial response to conflict can be impulsive.
‘I react very negatively to even perceived rejection,’ she explains. ‘On a bad day, it can be something as small as someone using a tone that’s slightly off when they’re talking to me – and my brain will just spiral into complete chaos. I feel like I need to quit my job, drive off and never come back, just press self-destruct basically. In the moment, I can even feel like I want to hurt myself, or I can feel suicidal.’
ADHD and communication
ADHD can make it difficult to communicate with other people.
Beth finds that her difficulties focusing and her hyperactivity affect how she talks and listens to others.
‘If I’m having a conversation and someone’s talking,’ she explains, ‘quite often, my brain won’t really be processing what they’re saying – I’ll be focusing on something else entirely.
‘If something has caught my eye, I have to say: “I’m really sorry, I just need to point this out because it’s eating a hole in my brain, OK, now you can go back to what you were saying and I can try again to listen”
‘I spend a lot of conversations thinking about what I’m going to say next, or whether I’m pulling the right facial expressions, or whether I’m reacting properly, or whether the other person is feeling listened to… but it means I’m not actually listening! I’m focusing on whether I’m having the right reaction.’
In terms of inattention and getting distracted, Beth says: ‘I have so many little, different things going on in my head at one time. I have so many thoughts and tangents, and I’m always thinking that I need to make sure the things I say are put in the context they’re in in my head so others can understand my point. It becomes very difficult to convey things clearly because I’m also getting very mixed up.
‘In my head, I’m going on a whole mind journey! On the way to where I want to go, I need to explain the scenery and the context. It becomes really difficult to separate what I want to say from what I need to say – and other people can find it difficult to follow.’
ADHD and mental health
ADHD is called a ‘neurodevelopmental condition’ or ‘mental health disorder’, but it isn’t a mental health problem in the same way as conditions like anxiety and depression.
To be diagnosed with ADHD, someone’s symptoms need to be so significant that they’re affecting their day-to-day life, for example, going to school or work or important relationships.
It’s possible for people with ADHD to have ‘good’ mental health, but unfortunately we know that people with ADHD are more likely to experience mental health problems like depression and anxiety.
‘I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety since I was 11 or 12,’ Beth explains. ‘Antidepressants helped, but I always found it difficult.
‘But since I’ve been treating and managing my ADHD, I don’t experience depression. I have days where I feel low, but it’s not the same feeling of being depressed and not wanting to do anything at all.’
Beth found that having a diagnosis – an explanation that helped her understand her experiences – was really helpful for her mental health.
But she also knows that an explanation doesn’t ‘fix’ anything; it’s not uncommon for people with ADHD to experience low mood because of everything it takes to manage their condition.
Beth says that for a long time, she was unaware that she found everyday things like homework and showering difficult because she had ADHD. She explains: ‘I spent my whole life believing that I was lazy and unreliable and just incapable of doing things and living in the way that other people do.
‘So for somebody to say “yes, there is another explanation, it’s a diagnosis…”, to be told it’s not just a deficit in my personality but a condition that is for me an actual disability – it was a complete relief. Knowing that – and knowing there are ways to treat and manage ADHD – really helped.
‘A diagnosis of ADHD is a way of validating, to myself and to others, that I’m not bad or lazy. It helps me to be more understanding to myself.’
A condition like ADHD doesn’t need to be a disability for you to treat yourself with kindness and understanding, to access support, and to try techniques that make life work for you.
In the UK, legal definitions of disability are usually used to try to prevent discrimination, or to make decisions about the benefits (payments) and other support someone might get to help reduce the negative impact their condition has on their day-to-day life.
You can find more information about how disabled adults are protected under the Equality Act on the Mind website. The government website has information about benefits for children who need extra looking after or walking difficulties.
If you’re struggling with paying attention, focusing, hyperactivity, or impulsive behaviour
Struggling with these things doesn’t necessarily mean you have ADHD.
A clinician would need to consider lots of other things before they give someone an ADHD diagnosis, like whether they might be struggling with any other mental or physical health condition or ‘disorder’, or whether something going on in their life might be making things difficult.
If you struggle to focus, or if being hyperactive or impulsive is getting in the way of things in your life like school, college, or friendships, it’s a good idea to speak to an adult you trust (like a parent, carer, or teacher) about what’s going on. They can help you think about what you’re experiencing and decide what to do next – for example, talking to teachers about trying new strategies during lessons or speaking to a GP.
And remember, if you need to chat, you can always text NATTER to 85258 to message with a trained volunteer. The NATTER service is free, anonymous, and confidential.
For more urgent support, check out the get help now page.