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Expert Q&A

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Do I really have ADHD?

Asked by Thomas, Dallas, Texas

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I have just been diagnosed with ADD/ADHD, but I am questioning the diagnosis since I feel that I don't exhibit most of the symptoms. I mean, I do get distracted while I am working on my research or studying, but I feel everyone gets distracted just as I do. How is normal distraction different from ADHD?

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Mental Health Expert Dr. Charles Raison Psychiatrist,
Emory University Medical School

Expert answer:

Dear Thomas:

The answer to your question is straightforward: Distraction is different from ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) by a matter of degree. That, plus adults with ADHD tend to struggle with other symptoms in addition to distractibility, such as chronic lateness, poor self-control, irritability and mood swings, as well as additional problems.

The key to ADHD, as with all psychiatric disorders, is that the symptoms must be causing distress and/or disrupting one's ability to function in life. Note that these two things need not completely overlap. In some psychiatric conditions, such as depression, they always do. Depression by definition is a miserable state, and it is that misery that in large measure leads to life difficulties. But in other conditions, such as adult ADHD, misery and distress can be only marginally connected.

Let me say this in other way. ADHD is one of those conditions in which the impairment can come as much from the suffering of those around you as from your own struggle with concentration and distractibility.

Lots of folks with ADHD know that they are profoundly disorganized, frequently lose things, often "spaced out" unless they are hyper-focused on a task of interest to them, reliably late for appointments and so on, but feel that this is just "how they are." They wonder why people close them, such as parents or spouses, are so chronically frustrated with them.

Of course, I don't know anything about you other than your quick question, but your ADHD diagnosis means that someone other than yourself thinks your distractibility is severe enough and enough of a problem that it warrants treatment.

I can't comment on whether this is an accurate assessment, but I can say that because people with ADHD often don't fully recognize the breadth and depth of their symptoms nor the toll these symptoms are exacting on their lives, the opinions and insights of others are well worth considering seriously.

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