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This is becoming an increasingly common statement from adults who are seen in therapy and also just in daily life. While in a lot of ways, it’s a positive thing that people are becoming more aware of ADHD/ADD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder/attention deficit disorder), and they are asking their doctors and mental health professionals about it, there is also a lot of confusion about the difference between being easily distracted or unproductive and meeting the criteria for a diagnosis of ADHD/ADD. 

The fact of the matter is that the majority of people living in 21st century America are easily distracted. With the rise of smartphones, social media, targeted advertising, streaming services, and increasingly blurred lines between work and home life it’s no wonder that we live in an era of being frequently distracted. If I asked you what you did over the past hour a “normal” response might be: “I checked my work email on my phone while listening to my morning podcast. I got overwhelmed by the amount of emails I saw, so I decided to check instagram for a little bit. I then clicked on an ad for a new pair of shoes and went on Amazon to see if I could get them for a lower price. Then, I got a call from my partner that our kid is sick so she needs me to pick up medicine from the pharmacy during my lunch break. During our phone call, I saw I got a text from my boss that I need to prepare notes for our 10 am meeting.” The amount of competing demands for someone’s attention that came up in this simple example is astounding when you stop and think about it. 

Our brains are not designed to be able to function effectively when they’re being pulled in so many different directions at once. The result of trying to keep up this frenetic pace for the majority of humans is that we start to feel distracted, tired, confused, unmotivated, unproductive, etc. Many clients will seek professional help when they start feeling this way because they feel like they are the problem and that there must be something wrong with them mentally, rather than the demands being placed on them being too great. 

Going back to the difference between meeting criteria for an ADHD/ADD diagnosis vs. a normal level of distraction. The way ADHD/ADD is officially diagnosed in adults is through a fairly rigorous test by a psychologist or psychiatrist. Most commonly people with undiagnosed adult ADD fall into the attention deficit category vs. the hyperactivity category because the attention deficit is less outwardly apparent than the hyperactivity. In order to meet criteria for adult ADD you need to display at least 5 of these characteristic for at least 6 months:

  • Often fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes in schoolwork, at work, or with other activities.

  • Often has trouble holding attention on tasks or play activities.

  • Often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly.

  • Often does not follow through on instructions and fails to finish schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace (e.g., loses focus, side-tracked).

  • Often has trouble organizing tasks and activities.

  • Often avoids, dislikes, or is reluctant to do tasks that require mental effort over a long period of time (such as schoolwork or homework).

  • Often loses things necessary for tasks and activities (e.g. school materials, pencils, books, tools, wallets, keys, paperwork, eyeglasses, mobile telephones).

  • Is often easily distracted

  • Is often forgetful in daily activities.

In addition, the following conditions must be met:

  • Several inattentive or hyperactive-impulsive symptoms were present before age 12 years.

  • Several symptoms are present in two or more settings, (such as at home, school or work; with friends or relatives; in other activities).

  • There is clear evidence that the symptoms interfere with, or reduce the quality of, social, school, or work functioning.

  • The symptoms are not better explained by another mental disorder (such as a mood disorder, anxiety disorder, dissociative disorder, or a personality disorder). The symptoms do not happen only during the course of schizophrenia or another psychotic disorder.

Obviously, that’s a lot of information to process but essentially ADHD/ADD is not something that would develop for an adult over the course of a couple days or even a couple weeks at a time. It would be something that would have been present since someone was a preteen and have caused major disruptions in their functioning at school, work and home. Although there are definitely cases of people with undiagnosed adult ADHD/ADD, in general it would be something that would have affected their functioning for most of their life and would have affected their functioning in several areas.

So, you might ask what should I do if I’m worried about maybe having ADHD? I would still encourage you to seek help from a mental health professional, and if you are looking for an official diagnosis you would need to see a psychologist or psychiatrist. However, I have found that many people can significantly reduce their symptoms of distractibility, regardless of whether they have a true diagnosis of ADHD/ADD by reducing the amount of competing demands for their attention. So, if you’re used to doing 5 things at once as soon as you wake up in the morning, try seeing what it feels like to do one thing at a time and giving each activity, no matter how small your full attention. I encourage my clients to try this more focused, attentive approach for at least a few weeks and see what happens before making more drastic changes like trying to get on ADHD medication. A therapist can also help you come up with a plan to reach your goals and manage the level of distractibility you’re dealing with.

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