Typical ADHD Behaviors

Uncomfortable Truths About the ADHD Nervous System

Easily bored, sensitive to distractions, creative and intense. If you grew up with ADHD, chances are you always felt “different.” Now here’s a scientific explanation, finally, of why we act the way we do.

Discovering truths about ADHD

What I have come to understand — something that people with ADHD know from an early age — is that, if you have an ADHD nervous system, you might as well have been born on a different planet.

Most people with ADHD have always known they are different. They were told by parents, teachers, employers, spouses, and friends that they did not fit the common mold and that they had better shape up in a hurry if they wanted to make something of themselves.

As if they were immigrants, they were told to assimilate into the dominant culture and become like everyone else. Unfortunately, no one told them how to do this. No one revealed the bigger secret: It couldn’t be done, no matter how hard they tried. The only outcome would be failure, made worse by the accusation that they will never succeed because ADHD in adults means they don’t try hard enough or long enough.

[Self-Test: Could You Have ADHD?]

It seems odd to call a condition a disorder when the condition comes with so many positive features. People with an ADHD-style nervous system tend to be great problem-solvers. They wade into problems that have stumped everyone else and jump to the answer. They are affable, likable people with a sense of humor. They have what Paul Wender called “relentless determination.” When they get hooked on a challenge, they tackle it with one approach after another until they master the problem — and they may lose interest entirely when it is no longer a challenge.

If I could name the qualities that would assure a person’s success in life, I would say being bright, being creative with that intelligence, and being well-liked. I would also choose hardworking and diligent. I would want many of the traits that people with ADHD possess.

The main obstacle to understanding and managing ADHD has been the unstated and incorrect assumption that individuals with ADHD could and should be like the rest of us. For neurotypicals and adults with ADHD alike, here is a detailed portrait of why those with attention deficit do what they do.

Why We Don’t Function Well in a Linear World

The ADHD world is curvilinear. Past, present, and future are never separate and distinct. Everything is now. People with ADHD live in a permanent present and have a hard time learning from the past or looking into the future to see the inescapable consequences of their actions. “Acting without thinking” is the definition of impulsivity, and one of the reasons that individuals with ADHD have trouble learning from experience.

[Free Download: Secrets of the ADHD Brain]

It also means that people with ADHD aren’t good at ordination — planning and doing parts of a task in order. Tasks in the neurotypical world have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Individuals with ADHD don’t know where and how to start, since they can’t find the beginning. They jump into the middle of a task and work in all directions at once. Organization becomes an unsustainable task because organizational systems work on linearity, importance, and time.

Why We Are Overwhelmed

People in the ADHD world experience life more intensely, more passionately than neurotypicals. They have a low threshold for outside sensory experience because the day-to-day experience of their five senses and their thoughts is always on high volume. The ADHD nervous system is overwhelmed by life experiences because its intensity is so high.

The ADHD nervous system is rarely at rest. It wants to be engaged in something interesting and challenging. Attention is never “deficit.” It is always excessive, constantly occupied with internal reveries and engagements. When people with ADHD are not in The Zone, in hyperfocus, they have four or five things rattling around in their minds, all at once and for no obvious reason, like five people talking to you simultaneously. Nothing gets sustained, undivided attention. Nothing gets done well.

Many people with ADHD can’t screen out sensory input. Sometimes this is related to only one sensory realm, such as hearing. In fact, the phenomenon is called hyperacusis (amplified hearing), even when the disruption comes from another of the five senses. Here are some examples:

  • The slightest sound in the house prevents falling asleep and overwhelms the ability to disregard it.
  • Any movement, no matter how small, is distracting.
  • Certain smells, which others barely notice, cause people with ADHD to leave the room.

Individuals with ADHD have their worlds constantly disrupted by experiences of which the neurotypical is unaware. This disruption enforces the perception of the ADHD person as being odd, prickly, demanding, and high-maintenance. But this is all that people with ADHD have ever known. It is their normal. The notion of being different, and that difference being perceived as unacceptable by others, is made a part of how they are regarded. It is a part of their identity.

[Recommended: Why You Do What You Do and Feel How You Feel]

Sometimes, a person with ADHD can hit the do-or-die deadline and produce lots of high-quality work in a short time. A whole semester of study is crammed into a single night of hyperfocused perfection. Some people with ADHD create crises to generate the adrenaline to get them engaged and functional. The “masters of disasters” handle high-intensity crises with ease, only to fall apart when things become routine again.

Lurching from crisis to crisis, however, is a tough way to live life. Occasionally, I run across people who use anger to get the adrenaline rush they need to get engaged and be productive. They resurrect resentments or slights, from years before, to motivate themselves. The price they pay for their productivity is so high that they may be seen as having personality disorders.

Why We Don’t Always Get Things Done

People with ADHD are both mystified and frustrated by the intermittent ability to be super-human when interested, and challenged and unable to start and sustain projects that are boring to them. It is not that they don’t want to accomplish things or are unable to do the task. They know they are bright and capable because they’ve proved it many times. The lifelong frustration is never to be certain that they will be able to engage when needed, when they are expected to, when others depend on them to. When people with ADHD see themselves as undependable, they begin to doubt their talents and feel the shame of being unreliable.

Mood and energy level also swing with variations of interest and challenge. When bored, unengaged, or trapped by a task, the person with ADHD is lethargic, quarrelsome, and filled with dissatisfaction.

Why Our Motors Always Run

By the time most people with ADHD are adolescents, their physical hyperactivity has been pushed inward and hidden. But it is there and it still impairs the ability to engage in the moment, listen to other people, to relax enough to fall asleep at night, and to have periods of peace.

So when the distractibility and impulsivity are brought back to normal levels by stimulant medication, a person with ADHD may not be able to make use of his becalmed state. He is still driven forward as if by a motor on the inside, hidden from the rest of the world. By adolescence, most people with ADHD-style nervous systems have acquired the social skills necessary to cover up that they are not present.

But they rarely get away with it entirely. When they tune back into what has gone on while they were lost in their thoughts, the world has moved on without them. Uh-oh. They are lost and do not know what is going on, what they missed, and what is now expected of them. Their reentry into the neurotypical world is unpleasant and disorienting. To individuals with ADHD, the external world is not as bright as the fantastic ideas they had while lost in their own thoughts.

Why Organization Eludes Us

The ADHD mind is a vast and unorganized library. It contains masses of information in snippets, but not whole books. The information exists in many forms — as articles, videos, audio clips, Internet pages — and also in forms and thoughts that no one has ever had before. But there is no card catalog, and the “books” are not organized by subject or even alphabetized.

Each person with ADHD has his or her own brain library and own way of storing that huge amount of material. No wonder the average person with ADHD cannot access the right piece of information at the moment it is needed — there is no reliable mechanism for locating it. Important items (God help us, important to someone else) have no fixed place, and might as well be invisible or missing entirely. For example:

The child with ADHD comes home and tells Mom that he has no homework to do. He watches TV or plays video games until his bedtime. Then he recalls that he has a major report due in the morning. Was the child consciously lying to the parent, or was he truly unaware of the important task?

For a person with ADHD, information and memories that are out of sight are out of mind. Her mind is a computer in RAM, with no reliable access to information on the hard drive.

Working memory is the ability to have data available in one’s mind, and to be able to manipulate that data to come up with an answer or a plan of action. The  mind of a person with ADHD is full of the minutiae of life (“Where are my keys?” “Where did I park the car?”), so there is little room left for new thoughts and memories. Something has to be discarded or forgotten to make room for new information. Often the information individuals with ADHD need is in their memory…somewhere. It is just not available on demand.

Why We Don’t See Ourselves Clearly

People from the ADHD world have little self-awareness. While they can often read other people well, it is hard for the average person with ADHD to know, from moment to moment, how they themselves are doing, the effect they are having on others, and how they feel about it all. Neurotypicals misinterpret this as being callous, narcissistic, uncaring, or socially inept. Taken together, the vulnerability of a person with ADHD to the negative feedback of others, and the lack of ability to observe oneself in the moment, make a witch’s brew.

If a person cannot see what is going on in the moment, the feedback loop by which he learns is broken. If a person does not know what is wrong or in what particular way it is wrong, she doesn’t know how to fix it. If people with ADHD don’t know what they’re doing right, they don’t do more of it. They don’t learn from experience.

The inability of the ADHD mind to discern how things are going has many implications:

> Many people with ADHD find that the feedback they get from other people is different from what they perceive. They find out, many times (and often too late), that the other people were right all along. It isn’t until something goes wrong that they are able to see and understand what was obvious to everybody else. Then, they come to believe that they can’t trust their own perceptions of what is going on. They lose self-confidence. Even if they argue it, many people with ADHD are never sure that they are right about anything.

> People with ADHD may not be able to recognize the benefits of medication, even when those benefits are obvious. If a patient sees neither the problems of ADHD nor the benefits of treatment, he finds no reason to continue treatment.

> Individuals with ADHD often see themselves as misunderstood, unappreciated, and attacked for no reason. Alienation is a common theme. Many think that only another person with ADHD could possibly “get” them.

Why We’re Time Challenged

Because people with ADHD don’t have a reliable sense of time, everything happens right now or not at all. Along with the concept of ordination (what must be done first; what must come second) there must also be the concept of time. The thing at the top of the list must be done first, and there must be time left to do the entire task.

I made the observation that 85 percent of my ADHD patients do not wear or own a watch. More than half of those who wore a watch did not use it, but wore it as jewelry or to not hurt the feelings of the person who gave it to them. For individuals with ADHD, time is a meaningless abstraction. It seems important to other people, but people with ADHD have never gotten the hang of it.

22 reviews

  1. Wow!
    God I love it when people can eloquently and precisely put how I feel, how I am, how I behave etc into words that make sense.
    The more I read on this website, the more I realize how it has affected me my entire life.
    I can never explain myself to other people, and before I was aware it was ADHD I used to just either laugh or say sorry or never mind because I couldn’t articulate the 101 words, thoughts and feelings that were rushing through me.
    I know there are many positives to this, and a lot of them I’d hate to lose, but being an adult who needs ‘adult supervision’ for the most basic things is gut wrenching, torture! And I hate being me.

  2. I can certainly relate to a lot of what is in this article. Although I still struggle as an adult, the impulsiveness was what made my childhood difficult in many ways. I constantly (and still do) compared myself to others, and felt inadequate. Heck, adults were constantly comparing me, and I often came up short.

    School was dismal. I was horrible at math because I couldn’t memorize the multiplication tables. I remember having to stay in during recess so the kindergarten teacher could work with me! I was probably in 5th grade at that time! When we started high school, my classmates were in algebra and I was having to take a basic math class. I felt so stupid and embarrassed.

    And my parents didn’t seem to have a clue. My dad had ADHD (never diagnosed, but very obvious in hindsight.) They were never unkind, and they tried to be supportive, but they just weren’t very involved or didn’t know how to be.

    Things have gotten better for me in many regards. I can recognize that I have talents, and my math skills are pretty good (although I still have to think when it comes to multiplication). But, I’m still very self judge mental, and often distressed because it can be very difficult to get and/or stay motivated. Yesterday I started to clean the garage, but I had to go out to the barn first. That needs a good cleaning, but where to start? So, I end up pulling things out to hose them off, then I get distracted or even tired, and soon I find myself walking back to the house with all these buckets and tools lying in the grass. It’s boring and I don’t know what to do with everything, and it feels like there are so many things that need to get done that I don’t know where to start or how to proceed.

    I also compare myself a lot. I have a girlfriend who is everything I’m not. She is organized, has goals she completes, and she will organize and clean her basement and barn in half a day. She will have an interest in something and keep practicing until she’s good at it. Then she will continue doing it, and enjoy the process over and over again. If it’s something that interests me, I’ll work hard to get just to the point where I can do something, then I have trouble continuing. Time for something else. Arghh!

    1. “…I end up pulling things out to hose them off, then I get distracted or even tired, and soon I find myself walking back to the house with all these buckets and tools lying in the grass.” Wow! Anne, I thought I was the only one in the world who did that! I bought a power washer, thinking it would help. Now the power washer gets left outside in the grass, along with everything else. My DH has finally given up berating me. He’s learned to go outside at sunset and bring in whatever’s strewn about from my daily projects.

      1. I have to admit I’ve gotten better since I started medication (10ml Adderall 2x/day). I started on 5, and it didn’t do much so I think I gave up for awhile. Anyway, life is easier, but I’m still limited!!! I did finally get things put away (haha) from the barn, but I just wasn’t into it this year so much. The garage is always a challenge, although I do try to make sure we keep things down to a minimum. It’s too easy to have too much! We actually put an entire wall of closets on one side of the basement, which I’ve pretty much filled up, and there’s still crap sitting on the floor. It’s the stuff I can’t figure out what to do with, and probably things I just need to get rid of, but too nice to just throw away (although I’m reaching that point).

        That’s the other thing I do. I reach a point where I’m overwhelmed by “stuff,” and I start throwing things away. (I’ve rented large dumpsters at least 3 times now and filled them!!) Then there’s a day when I’m looking for something I can’t find and wondering if I threw it out?? I’ve also had to dig through the trash on more than one occasion after a throwing out frenzy! Too much clutter really overwhelms me!

        1. I have read this article few months back, it is like a timeline of my life..all are spot on,,funny though i found the not wearing a watch spot on my husband and mum gave me as presents, i never felt the need to wear them up to this day. I also think I am slow sometimes in retention processing conversations i realise few days after. I am about to start this new job, I am terrified, I can’t last long again and again over and over just the social and remembering stuff terrifies me though I know I am capable to adapt to new things.

  3. Wow.. Just wow.. I’ve visited tons of psychologists and psychiatrists, and whenever I tried to tell them that “I don’t know why, I just can’t get stuff done” it felt like I was talking to a wall, and they didn’t believe me.

    And now I find (via FB) an article that perfectly sums up what I actually meant. I mean.. I’m not alone in this?! Wait WHAT?!

    For the past few years I’ve been feeling more and more depressed and convinced the world doesn’t want me because I just can’t see how I fit in the whole picture.
    This article has given me hope again that maybe, there is a way for me to go.

    All I need to go now is find out how.. Luckily I see it as a challenge now, let’s see how long that lasts..

  4. I wish my wife could read this so she’d understand I’m not blowing smoke out my back side when I tell her what’s going on with me. I’m not stupid, I’m not dumb, in fact I’m quite bright….I just wired differently.

  5. So are you saying sensory processing issues are due to the ADHD? I once asked a psychologist and she had said it was stress related. It was at some point extremely painful. I agree with what she said. However it’s not at a constant and concurrent with trying to focus. My kids talking to me, someone interrupting makes me say the typical, “I’m trying to focus” that my family knows all too well. Wish they could understand 🙁

  6. This article is a prime example of the problem I have with articles on Additude in general. Lots of great information on what ADHD is and what it looks and feels like, not one iota of information on what to do about it or how to manage a person with ADHD. I know what ADHD feels like, I’ve been diagnosed, now help me live and thrive in a neurological world!

  7. Really impressive statement of what ADD feels like, thank you for the eloquence and the breadth of this description, and the positive note too – gives me courage to keep going and find a solution (solutions).

  8. I was diagnosed with ADHD inattentive type at the age of 36. Struggling with the notion that I live inside my head has been pure torture. There’s got to be some way to live with the tornado that constantly ransacks my brain on a 24-hour basis. Most people would be able to seem that they can Comfort themselves but since I rely on other people to comfort me is sometimes the hardest to deal with I just wish I could know what peace is for at least one whole day

  9. Lots of good information, but I feel unfulfilled by this article. It gives some good examples of why we are the way we are, but I missed the promised “scientific” explanation, or perhaps we differ on the definition of “scientific”. Like the comment from abrannan mentions, I am looking for help with dealing with my problem, not necessarily another way to describe what’s wrong with my brain. I, like many others on this site, have felt that wave of relief when hearing my problems, my symptoms, and my frustrations described in a highly relatable way. Yes! That’s me! But that “alignment” happened years ago for me, and my inability to plan and execute, my weak executive function skills, and my 58 years of suffering through job and personal failures combine to make me depressed and convinced that I will fail at the next project. The job hunt at this age is difficult, but worse when you aren’t motivated to land something and know you’ll eventually let your next employer down, too. You’re probably thinking I’m a depressed bum, unkempt and irresponsible. But you’d never know any of this if you met me. I have covered it up for my whole life because I’m not hyperactive, I’m lucky to be smart, I look professional, and I can handle the basic day to day stuff. I try to eat well and stay in shape because that’s supposed to help, and it does make me feel good (as it would for anyone). My suggestion is to provide some “scientific” information on therapy and treatments (ideally in addition to stimulants, which I can’t afford in my jobless state, and weren’t really effective for me), or at least links to other articles on this and other sites. Support is good, but treatment and cure(?) are critical. It’s clear your article has helped some people, and even me to an extent, but I can’t continue to live this way and be happy. Although winning the lottery might help. 😉

    1. I can understand your frustration. I have a couple of suggestions that might be helpful. I found a podcast called ADHD ReWired by Eric Tivers, who also struggles with ADHD. I especially liked the first ones when he was just getting started because he was so open about how much he was struggling. He interviews a lot of people who also have ADHD, and I’ll admit I don’t listen to all of them, but some are quite helpful. He also has a website you can fine by searching for ADHD ReWired, and that has a lot of information that you might find helpful.

      Along with that, I joined his group on Facebook. It’s a closed group so you have to request membership, and it can take awhile. Very nice support group. Once you get into the FB group, you’ll get notifications of when he’s having a call-in podcast, and that’s an opportunity for you to ask some questions and get instant feedback.

      Finally, he has a coaching group (numbers are limited) and I think that works with something like Skype. Lots of great feedback, and a good place to get some help. His latest class has filled up, but there will be more.

      Otherwise, have you talked to a therapist? Not all of them are helpful, and it’s good to find one who specializes in ADHD. And, I really do think coaching is very helpful. I hope you can find what you need because I know you’re struggling.

  10. Wouldn’t you think that a website for people with ADHD would give us a way to edit our comments?! I always find misspellings, the wrong words, etc., after I post. So please forgive my messes!!!

Leave a Reply