What is attention deficit hyperactivity disorder?

Author and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Jose Toledo

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Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a mental health condition that includes a combination of persistent problems, such as restlessness, hyperactivity, impulsive behavior and difficulty concentrating and/or paying attention. 

ADHD can cause poor work or school/college performance, low self-esteem and unstable relationships. People with ADHD also often struggle with depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety or sleep disorders.

It is estimated to affect more than 50 million people around the world. Rates are similar between countries.

Depending on which criteria is used it affects between one percent and seven percent of children. Most cases are diagnosed between the ages of six and 12 years old when problems become apparent at school.

It’s diagnosed twice as frequently in boys. But this could be as it’s not so noticeable in girls due to them having less obvious symptoms.

Between 30 and 50 percent of people with ADHD in childhood will continue to have some symptoms into adulthood. However, hyperactivity often presents instead as an inner restlessness.

History of hyperactivity

Physician and author Alexander Crichton (1763–1856) first described a “mental restlessness” like ADHD. He wrote: “In this disease of attention, if it can with propriety be called so, every impression seems to agitate the person, and gives him or her an unnatural degree of mental restlessness.

“People walking up and down the room, a slight noise in the same, the moving a table, the shutting a door suddenly, a slight excess of heat or of cold, too much light, or too little light, all destroy constant attention in such patients, inasmuch as it is easily excited by every impression.”

During the 20th Century this started to be known as “hyperkinetic reaction of childhood”. By the 1980s it was called attention deficit disorder (ADD).

ADHD’s exact cause remains unknown in most cases. This is even with it being the most diagnosed and studied mental health disorder in children and adolescents.

What are the main symptoms of ADHD?

Main symptoms of ADHD can be placed into two categories: impulsiveness and hyperactivity; and inattentiveness. Most people with ADHD will have problems that fall under both categories.

ADHD in adults can be less obvious than in childhood. For instance, inattentiveness often worsens as the pressures of adult life increase; but at the same time hyperactivity lessens. 

ADHD behaviors can mean difficulties in relationships. This will mostly be with partners, but can also be with family, friends and colleagues.

Signs of impulsiveness and hyperactivity are:

  • Inability to concentrate.
  • Being impulsive.
  • Excessive physical movement.
  • Being unable to stay still, particularly in quiet calm settings.
  • Continually fidgeting.
  • Not having a sense of danger, which can lead to taking risks.
  • Interrupting conversations.
  • Talking more than necessary, normal or desirable.
  • Mood swings and irritability.
  • Being extremely impatient.

Signs of inattentiveness are:

  • Regularly losing and/or misplacing things.
  • Finding it difficult to pay attention to and/or follow instructions.
  • Continually changing tasks. 
  • Being easily distracted.
  • Making careless mistakes.
  • Not being able to complete jobs or duties that take time or that are dull.
  • Being frequently forgetful.

What causes ADHD?

While the precise cause of ADHD remains unknown, the condition has been shown by several studies to possibly be genetic. Other factors that may be connected are:

  • Drinking alcohol, drug abuse or smoking during pregnancy.
  • Being born prematurely (before the 37th week of pregnancy).
  • Being born with a low birthweight.
  • Exposure to certain toxic substances, such as lead or some insecticides.
  • Brain damage that occurred in the womb or following a severe head injury in later life.

Living with ADHD

If you or one of your children is diagnosed with ADHD, contact a local or national support group. These can be a great support as well as offering advice and information.

Other suggestions to make life more manageable include:

  • Eating a balanced healthy diet.
  • Sticking to set routines that if need be are broken down into structured steps. Some people find it helps to stick up reminders and/or make lists.
  • Watching out for warning signs such as frustration, a sense of being about to lose self-control, or overstimulation. If these are noticed, take time out.
  • Keeping social events brief.
  • Finding ways to relax, such as listening to music or reading.
  • Making sure to stay active with regular exercise.
  • Avoiding overstimulating activities for a few hours before bedtime, such as playing computer games or watching TV. 
  • Sticking to a bedtime routine – so that getting into bed is at the same time each night and getting up in the morning too.

ADHD is usually treated with medicine or therapy, but a combination is most frequently used. The medicines prescribed are a form of stimulant.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a talking therapy that has been helpful to many people. It looks to replace negative thinking patterns with positive thoughts that then lead to more beneficial behaviors.

Our professional team has considerable experience of helping people with all types of mental health problems. Find out how we can help you or someone you care about by contacting us today.

David Hurst - Tikvah Lake Recovery

About David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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