Here’s What ADHD Actually Is (and Isn’t)There’s a lot more to it than what you’ve seen on your FYP.
If a few hours on TikTok (no judgment) has led you to believe that you definitely have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), you’re in good company.
Despite the barrage of alleged symptoms and signs of ADHD documented on social media, there’s so much more to the diagnosis than getting distracted easily and other incredibly relatable behaviors. ADHD is an actual mental health condition that can impact people’s relationships, how they see themselves, money management, and, of course, things like work and school, says Michelle Frank, PsyD, clinical psychologist and author of A Radical Guide for Women with ADHD.
On top of those social media myths, referring to distracted or impulsive behavior as “so ADHD,” can make people with a diagnosis feel invalidated or make those without one too embarrassed to seek out help in the first place. To set the record straight, we asked experts to break down what is ADHD, how to get an accurate diagnosis, what the best forms of treatment are, and more.
One quick thing before we dive into the details: Mental health is complex and everyone has a unique experience, so don’t go diagnosing yourself just because you read a few articles on the internet (though, we do appreciate you stopping by to learn a few things). If this resonates with you, consider it a jumping-off point in your journey to getting care. OK, let’s get into it…
What Is ADHD?
ADHD is “a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development,” according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR). Basically, this means that people with ADHD have trouble with things like staying on task, feeling restless, or thinking through a decision before acting, and it can be severe enough that it messes with their school, work, or social life.
Within ADHD, there are actually three subtypes: predominantly inattentive presentation, predominantly hyperactive-impulsive presentation, and combined presentation, says Dr. Frank. People with predominantly inattentive presentation typically struggle with concentrating on things like lectures, conversations, or reading; staying organized; and following instructions. On the other hand, people with predominantly hyperactive-impulsive presentation tend to have issues with feeling restless, interrupting others, and sitting still for long periods of time. Combined presentation is exactly what it sounds like—it means you have an equal amount of inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive symptoms, per the DSM-5-TR.
Though it varies a lot, if you have predominantly inattentive symptoms, you might feel like you’re constantly daydreaming and getting lost in your thoughts, so it’s super hard to concentrate. Those with predominantly hyperactive-impulsive symptoms might find themselves making hurried decisions often or feeling restless during long work meetings, says clinical psychologist, J. Faye Dixon, PhD, professor and researcher at the UC Davis MIND Institute. And if you have combined presentation, you could experience all of the above.
It’s also worth mentioning that ADHD can vary in severity from mild (aka few if any of the symptoms cause minor impairment in social or work settings) to severe (you have many of the symptoms or ones that really get in the way of normal functioning in those scenarios), according to the DSM-5-TR.
There are also some common emotional experiences that people living with ADHD have, says Dr. Frank. Oftentimes she hears statements like “I feel like a failure,” or “I’m too much, but I’m not enough” from her clients. “There's a lot of shame that comes with living with ADHD because you feel like you're never able to actualize who you are and what you're capable of in the world. And that is really painful for folks—on top of the judgment and stigma,” Dr. Frank explains.
How is ADHD diagnosed?
Though ADHD is one of the most frequently diagnosed neurodevelopmental disorders in kids, according to the Centers for Disease Control, more adults are being diagnosed with this disorder than ever before. In 2016, research suggested that roughly 9.8% of kids in the U.S. between ages 2 and 17 had received an ADHD diagnosis at some point in their life, according to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology. As for U.S. adults, the prevalence as of 2016 was just shy of 1%, per a study published in JAMA Network Open. A more recent study found the global prevalence of adult ADHD was 2.58%, when looking at people who had symptoms since childhood, and 6.76% when looking at adults who didn’t report having symptoms when they were a kid. (That said, in order to get an official diagnosis as a grown, you’ll need to have experienced ADHD symptoms before the age of 12, according to the DSM-5-TR.)
There are a couple of ways you can go about getting a diagnosis. The best option is to seek out a therapist, psychologist, psychiatric nurse practitioner, or psychiatrist who specializes in ADHD, says Dr. Frank. That could be as simple as Googling “ADHD treatment + your area,” but if you’re having trouble finding someone, it could be worth asking your primary care doctor for a referral. Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD), an ADHD-focused nonprofit, also has a professional directory that might be helpful.
In order to be diagnosed with adult ADHD, your doctor will have to determine if you have at least five symptoms that fall into one of those three ADHD categories, says Dr. Dixon.
JSYK, it’s not as simple as saying that you sometimes have trouble focusing at work or that you lose your keys a lot. In order to meet the diagnostic criteria, you’ll have to show that these symptoms are negatively impacting your daily life in multiple areas, adds Dr. Frank. Also, as we mentioned above, to be diagnosed with adult ADHD, you have to have experienced symptoms before the age of 12, so health care providers will often consult one of your loved ones to see if you’ve been experiencing these challenges since childhood.
Doctors may also ask you about your family history. If one of your parents has ADHD, you have a higher chance of being diagnosed than someone who doesn’t, says Dr. Frank.
How is ADHD treated?
Once you’ve been diagnosed with ADHD, treatment typically involves a combination of skills training, therapy, and medication. Skills training is all about learning strategies to help you work around whatever challenges the condition creates for you—like how to manage distractions or feel a little more organized. Sometimes it’s done within talk therapy, but it can also be done with an ADHD coach or in a skills group, says Dr. Frank.
About talk therapy: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be very helpful for adults with ADHD, says Dr. Dixon. The popular form of therapy has been shown to help with core ADHD symptoms, emotion regulation, self-esteem, and time management strategies in multiple studies. Beyond finding a therapist who provides CBT, you should also make sure you’re choosing someone who’s worked with clients with ADHD in the past because CBT expertise alone isn’t necessarily enough, says Dr. Frank.
People with ADHD can also benefit from medication, which is another common part of the treatment plan, Dr. Frank explains. Prescription stimulants like Ritalin or Adderall can help by increasing the brain chemicals that play a big role in thinking and paying attention, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). The other prescription option is non-stimulant medications like Intuniv or Clonidine. Non-stimulants can also help to relieve symptoms, but they take longer to start improving focus and attention and reducing impulsivity, per the NIMH.
Over time, you might also notice that challenges like starting a difficult work assignment or following through with tasks become easier. You might also better navigate the issues that ADHD creates for you, improve your emotional regulation, and learn how to ask for help when you need it, Dr. Frank says.
The bottom line: There’s so much more to ADHD than what you’ve seen on TikTok. But if reading this made you suspect that you might have the real deal, it’s worth reaching out to a mental health professional to talk through your symptoms so you can get the care that you need.
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.