Can't focus? The concept of “distractibility” in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD) usually means that people are unable to block out unimportant distractions or visual distractions in order to focus on matters at hand. Many children, adolescents, and adults with ADD/ADHD absolutely cannot work or pay attention at school if there is the slightest noise — the graphite of the pencil used by the person at the next desk, the footsteps on the stairs or the telephone ringing down the hall.
Others get distracted when something in their visual environment changes. They go upstairs to get a book but discover more distractions. They walk into a room and find themselves exploring all its contents.
Simply put, many people with ADD/ADHD lack the “filters” that most people have to block out environmental distractions. Too many sounds and sights come through and compete for their attention.
Many with ADD/ADHD have strategies and skills to block out these distractions, only to be snagged by a third type of distraction: their own thoughts. Specialists refer to this syndrome as “internal distractibility.” Too many thoughts compete for the person’s attention. They appear to jump from one topic or activity to a totally unrelated one.
Acquaintances may consider the silent “jumper” to be inattentive, drifting, or spacey. But the internally distracted people that jump from one thought to another OUT LOUD meet with an often shocked response: “Where did that come from?” or “Why are you mentioning that now?” There are also those people who jump from one activity to the next and never finish anything.
People who live with internal distractibility often do not understand it or don’t know how to explain it. They are often seen as airheads, flakes, or space cadets. Often I find that when I ask a patient if they have multiple thoughts, or if they jump and drift, or jump and speak, or jump and act, they are amazed that I know to ask. They’d thought for years that they were merely scatterbrained or disorganized, not suffering from the symptom of a disorder.
Don’t forget to consider internal distractibility in your treatment plan for ADD/ADHD. If left unaddressed, it can be overwhelming to you and to those with whom you live, play and work. Just like external distractions, internal distractibility is treatable and responds to a combination of medication, education, and behavioral techniques.
How to Defeat Distractions
It is not easy to function successfully when you are internally distractible. Here are some simple coping strategies.
- Understand that the problem is related to your ADHD. You are not crazy or incompetent. There are reasons for your internal distractibility.
- Medication can help your internal “filters” function more efficiently and decrease your flow of irrelevant thoughts.
- When speaking with other people, remain aware of your problems. Sometimes you can catch yourself before you inadvertently change the subject.
- Maintaining eye contact in conversation helps you better focus on the other person’s thoughts.
- When at a meeting or lecture, try to sit close to the front.
- Keep a notepad with you and write down your distracting thoughts instead of blurting them out. Many people verbalize whatever is on their mind because they’re afraid they’ll lose the thought if they save it for later.
- Explain the problem to people whom you know and trust — friend, partner, spouse. Ask them to signal you privately when they notice you “jumping” and to help you refocus your attention to the matter at hand.