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  • Writer's pictureWes Powell

Living with an ADHD Brain: Part 1

What is ADHD?
So, you or someone you love has been diagnosed with ADHD. The first image that may come to mind is a child uncontrollably bouncing off the walls, an adolescent endlessly procrastinating, or an adult under achieving in their career. The reality is, ADHD isn’t a prerequisite for any of these qualities, and although someone with ADHD may be more susceptible to falling into these patterns, they don’t underly what ADHD actually is. So, what is ADHD? Picture the brain as being made up of various machines. Some machines require gasoline, some need electricity, and some run on batteries. These different sources of “fuel” can be likened to neurotransmitters in the brain. There are all kinds of neurotransmitters that fuel the different machines of the brain and assist us with different functions. In the ADHD brain, the neurotransmitter known as dopamine is less abundant than in the “typical” brain. This leads to challenges such as maintaining attention on non-preferred tasks, sitting still for long periods of time, impulsivity, and trouble regulating emotions.

The Good News
A diagnosis can feel scary and raise lots of questions about its implications for the rest of a person’s life. How does this limit my capacity to function in the world, reach my goals, and/or thrive in my relationships? The good news about ADHD is that it isn’t characterized by a lack of ability, but rather a discrepancy between ability and performance. Humans evolve and adapt to their environments over time. Similarly, the world we live in and how it functions has evolved to accommodate the typical human brain, or the “neurotypical brain.” However, not all brains are “typical.” The estimated 5% of children and 2.5% of adults that ADHD effects worldwide are struggling, not because their brains are less capable of intellect, creativity, or human connection, but because they are living with an atypical brain in a neurotypical world! Think of it like trying to rollerblade on a gravel road. There’s nothing wrong with those wheels, but that road was made for thick tires and if you’re one of the few, specially selected individuals that was given rollerblades you’re in for a bumpy, possibly painful ride. Now I know you may be thinking, “that’s so unfair!” Well, I’d say you’re right. The good news is, we can employ strategies to help the ADHD brain function on a more even playing field! With this perspective in mind, it may start to click that a kid who can’t sit still for a whole math lesson and doesn’t absorb the material isn’t out of control or stupid. Rather, their more-than-capable brain just wants to engage in a different way! When those differences are appreciated and catered to, the sky's the limit. Performance can rise closer to ability level.

So What?
There’s so much that can be done! If you suspect that you or someone you love might have ADHD or has already been diagnosed and you’re not sure what to do about it, a great first step is to get an evaluation from a mental health professional that can help you best understand the nature of your diagnosis if one exists, as well as discuss treatment options which may or may not include medication. Next, therapy is invaluable. Connecting with a therapist can help you best understand how ADHD is showing up for you in your life, and help you develop strategies to intervene in difficult areas to get your performance matching your ability in relation to whatever goals you have. Also, living with an atypical brain in a neurotypical world can take a huge toll on how we think and feel about ourselves, and that deserves to be acknowledged, appreciated, and processed. In the meantime, it may also be helpful to explore additional resources for educating yourself about ADHD, building a support team, and engaging in community. ADDitude is an online magazine with educational information, self-assessments, treatment resources, blog posts, tips/tricks, and more. Check it out at Finally, stay tuned for part 2 of this blog post where I will address some of the common struggles people with ADHD face and provide a few non-medication-based strategies for making things a little easier!

By Wes Powell, Master of Social Work Intern, University of Kansas

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