What does it feel like to have ADHD?
"It feels like your brain is understeering."
I came upon this description while doing some research on Quora and thought it perfectly described what having ADHD feels like.
I wanted to find out exactly how a person with ADHD thinks and feels, and there were so many wonderful answers, from real people, describing their world in stunning detail.
I collected some of the best answers to help shed more light on what it feels like to have ADHD, and also to give everybody options for how to describe ADHD to someone who doesn't have it. Let’s dive in!
What Does It Feel Like To Have ADHD?
The Understeering Analogy
This analogy comes from Colin and is absolutely fantastic. It explains what mornings feel like with ADHD.
Have you ever driven a car without power-steering? It's a practical example of what the understeering effect is really like.
You have to work extra hard on something that normally shouldn't take much effort, just to avoid going off the road.
A bad ADHD day can feel like this. It's frustrating when you have to work harder than usual to complete a simple task.
Here's a visual of what understeering looks like:
The Low RAM Analogy
The next ADHD analogy was posted anonymously on Quora, but it's the one I probably identify with most.
Ever used an old Macbook with an outdated operating system and tried opening more than one application at a time? what happens?
The dreaded spinning beach ball.
For me, having ADHD feels like my brain is a spinning beach ball.
The Open Tabs Analogy
Our next insight into what ADHD feels like comes from Pat Noue with another ADHD analogy involving computers.
The Constant Buzzing
Having ADHD can feel like an itch that needs scratching, only it's in your mind. Spencer Reed describes more in his Quora answer:
ADHD and Task Anxiety
Sometimes having ADHD can make you feel anxious about mundane tasks.
Anne K. Halsall elaborates on how ADHD and anxiety can play off one another in her Quora post:
Paying Attention To The Wrong Things
ADD/ADHD isn't so much about a lack of attention as it is about attention regulation.
In his Quora answer, Peter Herring talks about the ability to regulate attention when you have ADHD, and also about losing things:
The Steam Roller Effect
Sometimes, when you're caught in the symptoms of ADHD, and you feel stuck, life still doesn't stop for us to catch up.
Lisa Perry uses some humor to describe what can happen next.
The Roller Coaster
ADHD can come with some ups-and-downs for sure. Curtis Dickinson talks about the roller coaster ride ADHD can feel like...and also what helps smooth it out.
Where Are My Keys!?
Valerie Fletcher gives our next account, and it teeters between frustration and hilarity. She uses the example of how misplacing your keys can turn into a downward spiral.
Valerie Fletcher on What It's Like Having ADHD :
"I have time gaps, thought gaps. You know when you lose something, and they tell you to retrace your steps? 98% of the time, I can't.
It goes something like this, "Okay, I grabbed my keys as I was heading out the door, now I'm at my car and I'm holding my dog's leash. Holding my keys, by the door... at the car. F***! I JUST HAD THEM!!! Why does this always happen to me? I'm such a mess, God I forgot to get that stain off my pants. AGH, my keys, WHERE ARE MY KEYS?!?!"
Valerie Fletcher (continued)
This is a big part of the ADD for me. I spend a few precious minutes just thinking about how horrible I am for being in my thirties and not having "fixed" this yet, and how I really need to go back to the psychiatrist to get started on medication again (but it makes my mouth dry at 4:30 every day,) when I could be actually looking for the keys.
Then I empty out my purse on the ground, go through all the pockets, lament the fact that I got a purse with so many pockets, when I realize I was supposed to be at work 10 minutes ago. Thank god my work has somewhat flexible hours. So, this particular dance, or a version of it, happens almost every day.
I have just recently (at like, twenty-eight) figured out that if I AM holding a completely different item, which is often the case, that the thing I need is probably in the spot that the item I am holding used to be. Just last week my husband found my glasses in the medicine cabinet. I am blind without them, so there is no logical reason whatsoever they should be anywhere other than by my bed. My husband often checks the refrigerator for things I 'was holding just a second ago.' "
She describes the ADHD brain with an analogy I thought was pretty great (seriously, those with ADHD can come up with the most amazing analogies for the ADHD experience).
Valerie also highlight the fact that although ADHD can be frustrating, it also feels tied to her personality, and perhaps if she was given the choice to, she wouldn’t give it up.
Valerie Fletcher - ADHD Metaphor :
Say you have a filing cabinet, and all the information is inside, but instead of alphabetical order, everything has been arranged every hour by a different person who did what made sense to them at the time. That's about how I feel my brain works.
Which, really, can be great. What some call random associations, others call creativity. And, yeah, "being in the zone" aka hyper-focusing, is amazing, when it happens. Unless you're hyper focused on how best to answer a quora query.
The weird thing is, some of the aspects that others would call my "personality" are tied to ADD. They are a part of me that I wouldn't want to give up.
Fascinated By Nearly Everything
This first excerpt comes from Kyle Pennell, who earned a Quora Top Writer 13' Award, and who's profile bio reads, "Fascinated by nearly everything".
His example reflects the curiosity that often consumes those with ADHD:
Kyle Pennell on What It's Like Having ADHD :
"First and foremost, I approach life with intense energy and curiosity. I’m always planning something, always coordinating something, always doing something. My life has always been filled with projects.
In high school, it was mountain bike trails and extreme sports videos, then it was trips abroad, college student clubs, and dance parties. Now I’m slowly learning code and becoming a better writer. I’m always scheming something and chewing on something (mentally).
I’m extremely curious. The world absolutely fascinates me and I can’t stop trying to learn more about it.Kyle PennellI’m extremely curious. The world absolutely fascinates me and I can’t stop trying to learn more about it. The internet enables this to get to extreme levels. Amazon one-click allows me to impulse buy on books that I don’t have time to read (my roommates are tired of all the packages).
I read too much online: I tear through comment sections and forums. Reddit, Hacker News, Quora, NYT reader comments—I gorge my mind on them. So much depth, so much character, it’s all so damn fascinating.
People tell me I have amazing insights and ideas but what do I have to show for them?Kyle PennellI’m still in the process of improving my brain. I want it to be strong and flexible, capable of creating great things. It’s taking practice, but I’m learning the art the working in bursts: going hyper focus on things for a short while and taking a break.
Reddit, Hacker News, Stumble, Quora—these are all great but I’ve started to seriously cut down my info intake. There’s always one more article, there’s always one more comment thread. There’s always something I can tear into and dwell on for hours--but what is it all that intense contemplation really worth?
What about actually making something great? What about getting shit done and creating something? People tell me I have amazing insights and ideas but what do I have to show for them? If I can learn to channel my energy and curiosity into real productivity, I will be a force."
Kyle goes on to describe how he has to balance out his curiosity, and finishes with an incredibly insightful metaphor for what having ADHD feels like:
Kyle Pennell - ADHD Metaphor :
Here’s a metaphor: having ADHD/ADD is like having an iPhone loaded with apps and enabling notifications for all of them.
If you did this on an iPhone, you’d get overwhelmed with “someone tagged you in X” “So and so checked in at X” “You’ve received a coupon for nearby y” notifications every couple minutes. Only through practice and discipline are you actually able to turn those notifications off and actually get some function out of your tool. In this case it’s my mind."
The Juggling Act
This third excerpt is from Rachel Binfield. She describes her experience with ADHD using an analogy that I thought was fantastic:
Rachel Binfold's Answer on Quora
Not only are you trying to juggle, but you also don't have a firm surface under your feet. It takes LOTS more concentration just to keep juggling because you've got the mental overhead of staying upright.Rachel Binfold"Every few years, I go to the local Renaissance festival. There's a guy there who juggles all kinds of random things - balls, swords, hats, fire, you name it. Then, he gets on a unicycle. Someone throws him each of the objects in turn and he starts juggling again.
I'm sure he's practiced for years to do this, but when you watch him, he's shaking back and forth on the unicycle with an intense amount of concentration. In just a few minutes, you can see the sweat start to bead on his brow from the effort. Even as a professional, he does actually drop things occasionally. It's not too long after that when the show ends and he gets to stop. Unfortunately, life never lets you stop juggling - there's work projects, home projects, kids activities, household chores, personal life... Without ADHD (or any mental disorder, for that matter), you're standing on the stage juggling.
With adult ADHD, you're on the unicycle. Not only are you trying to juggle, but you also don't have a firm surface under your feet. It takes LOTS more concentration just to keep juggling because you've got the mental overhead of staying upright. PLUS you have way more balls, because your projects are broken up into smaller pieces. Plus the balls are painted with super shiny colors. Your attention flits between the many balls because they're all coming at you at the same time and you can't just focus on one of them. If you happen to have a passion for red and deeply focus on those, you're going to drop something else."
Rachel finishes by highlighting something those with ADHD know all too well: the fact that most people don’t know the balancing act is taking place. She also chimes in with an analogy about what medication is like for ADHD.
Rachel Binfold's Answer on Quora (continued)
Medication is like putting training wheels on the unicycle. It takes the edge off the juggling act so that you can slow down and focus on each ball a little betterRachel Binfold"The most unfortunate thing is that the unicycle is invisible. No one gives you credit for the difficulty level of the juggling act. All they see are the number of dropped balls, not the effort it takes to keep them in the air. Because what matters in the adult world is the answer to the equation. You don't get partial credit for showing your work.
Medication is like putting training wheels on the unicycle. It takes the edge off the juggling act so that you can slow down and focus on each ball a little better."
Randall Munroe's creates comics for the web on his website www.xkcd.com. One Quora user simply posted one of Randall's cartoons as her response. It comes from his website, and it's labeled, "ADD".
It captures the ADD/ADHD experience well:
Doing Things Differently
Ben Mordecai is an Automation Controls Engineer, and has earned a Top Writers Award on Quora for three years running: 2013, 2014, and 2015.
In his response he talks about how, with his ADHD, he resolved to simply doing things a little different, and lists a few examples.
Ben Mordecai's Brief Snapshot on What It's Like Having ADHD :
- I must have plenty of coffee to function. Before I drank coffee in college, certain professors induced a Pavlovian response of yawning and exhaustion. Post coffee, my comprehension sky-rocketed, and now I am pretty productive at work
- Minor, non-distractions help a lot. A drink to sip and background music consume just enough of the spare mental overhead to prevent myself from trying to think about something else at the same time as I work on something.
- I have to be extremely organized. Calendars, spreadsheets, notes, reminders, and self-written tutorials all help me focus my attention at solving the problem.
- I have to accept that it's just going to take me longer to do something and be willing to persist through it.
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What Does Your ADHD Feel Like?
If you’re reading this and have ADHD yourself, maybe some of these stories hit home. I would love to hear more examples.
What is your experience with ADHD like? Tell us your story in the comments below. I look forward to hearing it, and saying hello.