In March 2020, when all of our lives were turned upside down, we were forced to adapt and create a new routine. We had to navigate attending school or work online while feeling trapped within our homes. Our level of movement and motivation decreased while our distractions and inability to focus increased.
Social media apps became the main source of dopamine, a chemical in our brain that heavily influences our responses to rewards and levels of motivation. Social media also became the main source of interaction, and for some, a place to feel understood amid the chaos.
How TikTok raised awareness for ADHD (and led to some misguided self-diagnoses)
Cue the discovery of TikTok therapists.
“Do you have difficulty making decisions and staying focused? Have you noticed that you are shopping online and eating more, feel like you cannot sit still, and can’t find interest in activities you used to?”
YES! YES! YES!
According to these TikTok accounts, these symptoms are a result of ADHD. During a pandemic, where nothing made sense and no one felt understood for months on end, many people finally felt seen…but also confused. Growing up we were led to believe ADHD presents as mostly hyperactive behavior – the kid who couldn’t sit still in class. However, after watching these TikToks, plenty of people found themselves identifying with the more inattentive symptoms discussed, wondering “Have I had ADHD my entire life and never knew it?”
Or was it anxiety?
No, wait, maybe it was depression?
Or is it simply that we had to quickly and blindly navigate a new way of living that was constantly shifting?
The truth is, it could be one of those things, all of them, or none of them.
Yes, it’s great that TikTok therapists and mental health experts brought awareness to the lesser-known yet common symptoms of ADHD. That said, online quizzes and social media can’t provide a true diagnosis or a treatment plan. Because of the influx of individuals seeking answers during this time, psychologists were tasked with the responsibility of differentiating ADHD from ADHD-like symptoms that were exacerbated by the pandemic.
So, what is ADHD?
According to the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, ADHD, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, is a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity/impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development.
ADHD is broken down into three subtypes:
- Predominantly hyperactive/impulsive presentation - Those who experience symptomology of both impulsivity and hyperactivity. Examples of impulsivity include acting without thinking about the consequences and the desire for immediate rewards/outcomes. Examples of hyperactivity include difficulty sitting still, fidgeting, and excessive talking.
- Predominantly inattentive presentation - Those who have trouble paying attention and are easily distracted. Examples of inattentiveness include forgetting or misplacing things and having difficulty with time-consuming tasks.
- Combined presentation - Those who experience a combination of impulsivity, hyperactivity, and inattentiveness. This is the most common subtype of ADHD.
However, experiencing one or more of these symptoms doesn't necessarily mean you or your child has ADHD. Most children naturally have more energy and experience difficulty sitting still. Most adults can feel distracted and have difficulty focusing due to mundane day-to-day responsibilities; this is different from ADHD.
Why the confusion?
It is common for ADHD symptoms to be confused with other conditions. Oftentimes, by adulthood, individuals with ADHD have adapted to their environments and discovered ways to cope or mask symptoms. Therefore, their symptoms don’t always manifest in an obvious way. A multitude of causes or disorders also may co-occur or be mistaken for ADHD.
These can include, but are not limited to:
- Stressors (financial, environmental, emotional, etc.)
- Sudden life changes (divorce, passing of a loved one, the pandemic, etc.)
- Sleep problems/disorders
- Oppositional defiant or conduct disorders
- Bipolar disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorders
- Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
- A variety of learning and processing disorders
The likelihood of comorbidities or resemblance of symptomatology between these disorders sometimes leads to undiagnosed ADHD without the use of proper and extensive testing. ADHD assessments should include reports of behavioral functioning and specific testing for different components of attention/concentration, learning/memory, as well as executive, intellectual, and emotional functioning.
How can getting an ADHD diagnosis help?
Does it matter if you know whether you have ADHD or not? There are many benefits of receiving a diagnosis.
Sense of community and understanding
Oftentimes when we experience difficulty with something, we are quick to place the blame on ourselves. We are inclined to believe that whatever we are doing wrong, it must be our fault. Being able to put a name to what we are experiencing allows us to seek out others with the same diagnoses. This can build a sense of comradery, understanding, and support that we may not otherwise receive.
Student accommodations and resources
This may include extra time with exams, taking exams in a separate and quiet location, extra breaks upon request, preferential seating, and potentially help with note taking. Studying can still be a challenge, however, these accommodations may help you reach your academic potential.
Effective treatment planning
Getting an official diagnosis allows for more specified treatment options. Having a clearer understanding can provide you with the proper tools and resources to effectively navigate everyday life. Without this deeper understanding, you are likely to keep trying the same old strategies that often cause frustration and feelings of failure when they do not work. With the diagnosis and guidance of a mental health professional, you are likely to explore and implement more defined strategies that would.
What to expect from the testing process
Generally, the assessment consists of a battery of standardized tests that are valid and extremely in-depth. These assessments are designed to look at consistencies and discrepancies in all areas of executive, intellectual, behavioral, and emotional functioning as well as our attention/concentration and learning/memory abilities.
After inquiring, you will likely have an intake session with a licensed psychologist. In this session, the licensed psychologist will ask a series of questions to determine what specific tests may be needed for the assessment. The battery of standardized tests conducted often depends upon the age of the individual. For example, the tests that are appropriate for a young child, adolescent, or adult may look different, even though they may be testing similar things. This may include a series of intellectual screenings, behavioral observations, clinical interviews, questionnaires, rating scales, and other psychological measures.
The licensed psychologist will also want to be informed if the purpose of testing is for personal knowledge or to help receive specific accommodations in school. It is important to communicate this information because different settings may require different components to be included in the assessment.
If the assessment is conducted virtually, they will review any equipment and procedural requirements.
Be sure to set up in a comfortable and quiet environment with minimal distraction. You will be provided breaks throughout the day, as the combination of standardized tests may last a few hours.
The licensed psychologist or a highly trained clinician will conduct the battery of standardized tests for you or your child on the date and time that was scheduled during the intake.
Once the testing is completed, the licensed psychologist will review and score the results of the assessments. You will then have a follow-up session with the licensed psychologist who will explain any diagnoses and recommendations that were found based on the results of the assessments and interviews that were conducted.
This also allows the client to ask any questions they may have and review the suggested recommendations based on the original concerns and the outcome of the tests.
All this to say…
As a Licensed Mental Health Therapist, and someone who has gone undiagnosed with ADHD for many years, my heart grows bigger as we destigmatize all mental health conditions, encourage conversations, and advocate for resources.
Whether you believe you have ADHD, another mental health condition, or aren’t completely sure, I encourage you to seek guidance from a local mental health professional. Feeling validated by TikTok therapists or taking the 10-minute quizzes on Facebook may feel great, but they are not always accurate or all-encompassing. Many diagnoses, including ADHD, often coexist or are mistaken for one another – and cannot be differentiated through social media outlets.
The only way to know for sure is to schedule an official assessment that is conducted, scored, and reviewed by a highly trained and qualified licensed professional. Considering the emotional rollercoaster of the past few years, I think we all deserve to the sense of relief and validation that comes from proper testing, treatment planning, and resources.
Our Psychological Assessment team works closely with both children and adults who would like to be assessed for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.