The prefrontal cortex , located right behind your forehead, does not function well when you have ADHD. You can think of it as your filter. It filters out stimulus in your environment so that you can focus on one thing at time. For people that don’t have ADHD this part of the brain filters out background noise so that they can focus on the most important task at hand. The “background noise” it filters could be actual noises but could also be things that cross their line of vision or even their own thoughts. It basically helps filter out distractions.
How is the ADHD Attention Span Different?
However the prefrontal cortex does not work well in people with ADHD. This leaves them incapable of CONSISTENTLY filtering out background noise. They are able to focus on one thing at a time IF interesting and grabs their attention. When that is the case their focus becomes impenetrable and they enter into a state called hyper-focusing. They can spend extended periods of time “in the zone” and hours pass and it feels like minutes. When in this state they filter out background noise so well they will not hear their name being called or notice obvious changes in their environment.
When do People with ADHD Find it Hard to Focus?
The ADHD attention span is like a light switch. When something grabs the attention of a person with ADHD then the switch is on and they can hyper focus. However it is the exact opposite of this when they are trying to focus on a boring or mundane task. In that case the switch is off. It is like pulling teeth to pay attention. Their brains are running rapid and are unable to filter out the background noise. So while they are trying to focus on reading a paragraph of a boring book they pick up on the noises around them, shiny objects and their own random thoughts serve as an additional source of distraction.
Why do People with ADHD Find it Hard to Listen Well?
People with ADHD struggle to absorb boring and mundane things that people say. If information is not presented in a way that GRABS their attention then their prefrontal cortex won’t be able to filter out the background noise. The example I give patients in my office is to pretend that I am very boring. (This takes some pretending because I have such a dynamic and captivating personality.) I ask them if they have struggled to filter out the “background noise” during our conversation. They aren’t always sure so I ask them if any of the following distracted them: the cars driving by, the pictures of my two beautiful kids, the noise of the A/C unit, their own random thoughts, the shiny lamp in the corner, etc. Their eyes get big and they all say “YES!!”
Why do People with ADHD Find it Hard to Sustain Attention for a Decent Period of Time?
Take my patient who was trying to listen to me. In that short period of time she had to try to push out many intruders that comprised her attention span. There was the noise of the A/C unit, the visual stimulus of cars driving by, pictures, shiny objects, and of course her own random thoughts. Anyone that has to actively try to ignore that much stimulus is going to miss the details of the task at hand. When trying to read a book she will find herself re-reading the same paragraph many times. Consider her conversations with her loved ones and how her wandering mind means she leaves the conversation without really remembering what was said. Imagine the difficulty she will have paying attention in a boring meeting or a classroom lecture. In all of these situations she will feel frustrated and mentally exhausted as she tries to filter out the background noise to focus on what is being said.
Why do People with ADHD Procrastinate?
People with ADHD tend to avoid mundane tasks. The extra mental effort it takes to filter out background noise is exhausting, frustrating, and utterly uncomfortable. The longer they put off the task the more stressed they become and then reach a magical place called “crunch time”. Crunch time is the one of the few ways a person with ADHD can focus on a mundane task. The heat of a looming deadline flips the switch on their filter. In a short period of time they churn out a tremendous amount of work. They can whip out a paper, cram for a test, or finish a project with results that are nothing short of amazing. However, the emotional toll of the anxiety this produces is destructive for both the patient and the people around them.
I hope this article helps you better understand the neurological cause behind the symptoms of ADHD. Stay tuned for more articles on ADHD including the treatment options and the many advantages of ADHD. If you would like to learn more I highly recommend you visit ADDitude Magazine and CHADD. I also recommend the book below.
Learning how to cope with stress is a very important part of your recovery from depression and anxiety. In fact, people who do not suffer from depression and anxiety will have better physical health if they cope with stress well. Stress is known to play a role in worsening your health. Therapy teaches you skills that allow you to more effectively cope with stress.
When you feel stressed the cells in your body are breaking down more easily. Your immune system is responsible for cleaning up the toxins that are released when cells die. Normally your immune system can keep up with cleaning out these toxins. However, when stress causes more cells to break down than usual your immune system becomes overloaded. As a result, your body’s tissues become inflamed as toxins float around in your blood stream and body tissues.
Stress and Your Genetics
As inflammation increases in your body you become less healthy. This could mean that you get the bug that is spreading through the community. It also could mean that your body is more likely to start to break down in your genetic problem areas. If high blood pressure runs in the family then you might start to see your blood pressure rising. Perhaps your family tree is dominated by diabetes . In that case, your insulin might become less effective and your blood sugar would start to rise. What if members in your family are known to struggle with depression and anxiety? If so, you may find yourself depressed and anxious when you are overwhelmed by stress. Regardless of your genetics, it is important for your health to learn to cope with stress. The good news is that you have many options when it comes to therapy.
Why is Good Emotional Health Important?
In order to live a happy life, you want to become as emotionally healthy as possible. People who are emotionally healthy do not react as much to the stress and chaos that is part of our everyday life. They are equipped to tolerate negative and distressing emotions. Emotionally healthy people recognize the importance of negative emotions and how they are vital in allowing you to fully appreciate positive emotions. They understand that they must be able to sit through bad emotions like misery and sadness in order to be able to fully connect to true happiness .
How Does Therapy Help?
Most people need the help of an expert in order to improve their emotional health. Therapy gives you the tools you need to cope with stress. It also helps you identify if your reactions to stress and conflict are helpful or hurtful to your emotional health. A good therapist will use many different modalities to help you learn about yourself and how you react to the world around.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
You may also want to consider cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps you recognize unhealthy thought patterns. When you struggle with depression and anxiety you often times do not recognize how distorted your thoughts have become. Unhealthy patterns like catastrophizing, self shaming, and predicting the worst outcome can become a bad habit. Recognizing and fixing these distorted thoughts will help you more effectively cope with stress and conflicts. Identifying your triggers and problem areas will be helpful as well.
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy
Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) teaches you how to cope with uncomfortable emotions. You learn how to identify stressful triggers and you learn to label your emotions. You also learn about the importance of mindfulness and how to tolerate negative emotions without becoming distressed.
A Tailor Made Treatment Plan
For these reasons and many others, I highly recommend that my patients invest an hour a week in therapy with a counselor and spend at least 10-15 minutes each day devoted to improving their emotional health. I like to take the time to discuss the different therapy options. Together we create a treatment plan that fits both their medical needs and their lifestyle.
A Combination of Treatment Modalities That Stimulate the Brain in Different Ways
It is my opinion that a combination of different types of therapy is most helpful. The variety allows patients to stay engaged, but also stimulates different parts of the brain. Furthermore, exploring different types of therapy allows patients to better determine their learning style.
Working with a counselor one on one will help you identify areas of your life where you need help and guidance. A good therapist helps you decrease negative feelings by teaching you how to cope. However a good therapist will also push you out of your comfort zone so that you can heal from some of the traumas of your past. They should also assign work for you to do on your own.
Group therapy can be very helpful. You will learn coping skills and also find social support and acceptance from other people who are also struggling. Groups can be geared towards DBT, addictions, social skills, parenting skills, grief, recovering from trauma, etc. To find a group that can fit your needs I recommend searching Psychology Today.
Daily self help workbooks:
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I hope you are able to find a path to good emotional health and remember this journey is not one you have to take alone. Utilize the trained professionals that can help you navigate the confusing mental health system. Take pride in making your emotional health a priority by seeking guidance from an expert. But please do not forget that stress does lead to medical illnesses and you may need to see a psychiatrist or psychiatric PA. Read my article titled: I See a Psychiatrist, Why do I Need a Therapist? to find out more.