Distractibility or ADHD? How to Tell the Difference (2023)

What Does It Mean to Be Easily Distracted?

Potential distractions are everywhere in a world in which we’re often bombarded with emails, texts, and social media notifications throughout the day. “It is hard to set healthy boundaries with time that allows the brain to decompress, rest, and restore to reduce distractibility,” says licensed clinical mental health counselor Amelia Kelley, PhD, of Kelley Counseling and Wellness in Cary, North Carolina.

What’s more, being easily distracted can differ from person to person. Some experience frequent internal distractions; they may feel anxious, dwell on certain thoughts, or worry about their to-do list. Others are more prone to external distractions; they may find it hard to stay focused on one task because it reminds them of another, unrelated task, explains Kara Naylon, PhD, a neuropsychologist at LifeStance Health in Boston. Both forms of distraction are normal and happen to everyone at one point or another.

Other common causes of distractibility, says Dr. Kelley, include:

  • Parenting, especially when more than one child needs attention. Needing to stay focused on their needs can lead you to misplace important items like your keys, forget other important tasks, or make you late to appointments.
  • Struggling to focus on work projects when you’re working from home. It’s easy to turn your attention to nonwork-related tasks, especially if other family members are also at home while you’re on the clock.
  • Everyday stress. It’s easy to turn your attention away from the task at hand or forget about prior commitments when you’re preoccupied by other responsibilities or stressors such as fatigue, money problems, family conflicts, or illnesses.

What Does It Mean to Have ADHD?

More often than not, most people — even those who are prone to distractibility — can focus on a work or school project without simultaneously being disrupted by thoughts of what they need to cook for dinner tonight or what book they need to read next, explains Shanna Pearson, who lives with ADHD and is the founder and president of Expert ADHD Coaching, a company that helps adults and college students with ADHD.

In contrast, people who have ADHD have a neurodevelopmental disorder that falls under the same diagnostic category as autism spectrum disorder, intellectual disability, communication disorders, and motor disorders, according to the APA.

(Video) Anxiety vs. ADHD - The Difference - How You Can Tell

“Having ADHD is so much more than being easily distracted,” she says. “It involves a lifetime of living with a brain that isn’t able to easily compartmentalize. Not being able to compartmentalize or create separations between tasks, thoughts, ideas, and outcomes feels like living with everything occurring at the same place and time at once in your mind.”

This results in constant feelings of being overwhelmed for people with ADHD. In turn, these feelings lead to other common ADHD symptoms like impulsivity, says Kelley.

Along with impulsivity, key signs of ADHD include hyperactivity and inattention. Some people with ADHD experience only one of these behaviors as the main issue, while others experience a combination of them. These signs may also show up differently in children than in adults.

Symptoms of ADHD in children may manifest as:

  • Hyperactivity They may talk excessively, fidget and squirm, or find it hard to sit still.
  • Impulsivity They may lack self-control, have difficulty being patient or waiting their turn, frequently interrupt others, or overreact to frustration, disappointment, and criticism.
  • Inattention They may daydream often, become bored easily, not follow through on tasks, or struggle with memory and focus.

Symptoms of ADHD in adults may manifest as:

(Video) What is ADHD?

  • Hyperactivity In addition to experiencing many of same symptoms seen in children, hyperactivity in adults with ADHD may make it difficult for them to be patient or to relax. It may also make them move around too much, make them talk excessively, lead to outbursts of anger or frustration, or cause them to arrive late to appointments.
  • Impulsivity This may cause them to act without considering potential consequences, interrupt others inappropriately, change jobs frequently, drive recklessly, or have more marital problems.
  • Inattention A shorter-than-typical attention span may exhibit as overall disorganization, forgetfulness, trouble prioritizing, careless mistakes, or avoidance of tasks requiring concentration.

Mental health professionals use specific diagnostic criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) to diagnose people with ADHD, per the APA. ADHD symptoms must have been present before age 12 to diagnose an individual with this condition, according to the DSM-5.

Although experts don’t know exactly what causes ADHD, they have identified several factors that likely play a role, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics:

  • Exposure to alcohol or nicotine in utero
  • Having a parent or sibling with ADHD
  • Issues with the parts of the brain that control attention and activity level
  • Concussions or other serious head injuries
  • In rare cases, a buildup of environmental toxins, such as lead, in the body can raise the risk of ADHD

How to Tell the Difference Between Distractibility and ADHD

The severity of one’s concentration difficulties and whether they happen along with other symptoms like impulsivity or hyperactivity are often what sets ADHD apart from everyday distractibility, Kelley says.

In general, it’s easier to focus on tasks you enjoy and it’s more challenging to focus on tasks that are difficult or unpleasant. However, people who are easily distracted but don’t have ADHD can almost always consciously refocus and get back on track once they realize they’ve been distracted — especially if they get rid of the distraction, for example, by turning off the television or a cell phone. This is not the case for people with ADHD, says Kelley.

Bottom line: General distractibility doesn’t typically impede one’s ability to go about their day, get important tasks done, or fulfill commitments, Dr. Naylon notes. On the other hand, ADHD typically impairs a person’s functioning, including their ability to work, succeed in school, or maintain personal relationships.

(Video) Key Differences Between ADHD and Distraction

ADHD symptoms also cause a lot of frustration and distress. People who have ADHD feel overwhelmed by their thoughts and environment almost all the time, Pearson says.

“It's the overwhelm that has people with ADHD being easily distracted, disorganized, fidgety, and impulsive, and having more difficulty managing their emotions,” she says.

Management Strategies for ADHD

If you or your child have been diagnosed with ADHD, consulting a mental health professional could be very helpful. Evidence-based treatments for ADHD include psychotherapy (also known as talk therapy), medication, skills training, and educational services, according to Mayo Clinic.

The most commonly prescribed medications for ADHD are prescription stimulants, which, according to the Cleveland Clinic, improve ADHD symptoms in about 70 percent of adults and 70 to 80 percent of children shortly after beginning treatment.

For children with ADHD, Mayo Clinic states, common forms of psychotherapy include:

(Video) ADHD or Anxiety | What's the Difference?

  • Behavioral therapy to help parents and teachers learn strategies that can lead to positive behavior changes among children
  • Social skills therapy in which children learn appropriate behaviors for social settings
  • Parenting skills training so that parents of children with ADHD can better understand and improve their child’s behavior

Common psychotherapies for adults with ADHD include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy, whichfocuses on strategies to replace negative thinking and behavioral patterns with healthier more productive ones
  • Marriage or family therapy to learn better ways to communicate and solve problems with an ADHD partner or relative, as well as learn ways to cope with any stress related to the loved one’s condition

Additional Coping Tips for People With — and Without — ADHD

  1. Practice mindfulness.There are types of meditation, but Kelley specifically recommends mindfulness meditation, which can help people with or without ADHD learn to focus on the present moment rather than on what happened yesterday or might happen in the future.
  2. Create to-do lists. “Most people who identify as organized and successful keep some kind of list in order to recall important dates and information,” says Kelley. She suggests keeping your to-do list short — no more than three items — and adding start and stop times for each task.
  3. Write down competing and distracting thoughts.Try jotting them down on a Post-it note or in a notebook and saving them for later. This way, you put them aside until you are done working without worrying that you will forget, explain experts at the Learning Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  4. Reduce distractions.“Our environment can either make or break our ability to focus,” says Kelley. “For example, if you are checking your email while also chatting online and watching TV, you are demanding that your brain engage in a division of focus.” She encourages single tasking, also known as monotasking. For instance, if you need to check your email, consider turning off the TV while doing so.
  5. Consulting a professional. You don’t need to have a specific diagnosis to benefit from professional help. Even if you don’t have ADHD, a trained therapist can help you find ways to better manage distractibility.
(Video) ADHD - What is it and what's the difference with ADD?


How to tell the difference between ADHD and regular distraction? ›

Bottom line: General distractibility doesn't typically impede one's ability to go about their day, get important tasks done, or fulfill commitments, Dr. Naylon notes. On the other hand, ADHD typically impairs a person's functioning, including their ability to work, succeed in school, or maintain personal relationships.

How do I know if I have ADHD or just cant focus? ›

Lack of focus

Lack of focus, the telltale symptom of ADHD, goes beyond simply finding it hard to pay attention. It also means: being easily distracted. finding it hard to listen to others in a conversation.

How do you tell if it's ADHD or something else? ›

A doctor has to identify ADHD through observing your child's behavior. There are no blood tests or brain scans to give a definite diagnosis. And many other disorders have the same, or similar, symptoms as ADHD, so it's important for your doctor to look for all possibilities before coming to a conclusion.

Do I have ADHD if I get distracted? ›

Being easily distracted is one of the official symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. While it's common for neurotypical people to get distracted, too, from time to time, ADHD-related distractibility may have a significant impact in their daily life. Learn more about ADHD & Distractions here.

What often gets mistaken for ADHD? ›

If your child seems hyperactive--fidgety, impulsive, and inattentive--don't automatically assume that they have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Anxiety, depression, learning disorders, physical health, and many other conditions can cause symptoms that look like ADHD but aren't.

Is Scatterbrained ADHD? ›

But just being forgetful or scatterbrained doesn't mean you have ADHD. Of course, many people, especially those older than 60, have these problems, but they could be a sign of something else — or nothing at all.

What looks like ADHD but isn t? ›

People with bipolar disorder appear to display ADHD symptoms during manic episodes, such as restlessness, trouble sleeping, and hyperactivity. During depressive episodes, symptoms such as lack of focus, lethargy, and inattention can also mirror those of ADHD.

What does ADHD lack of focus feel like? ›

Kids with the inattentive kind of ADHD have a hard time concentrating and following instructions. They often forget and lose things; they can't seem to get organized or complete assignments or chores. Most kids with ADHD have a combination of the hyperactive-impulsive and inattentive types.

Can you have silent ADHD? ›

Adults with ADHD Inattentive presentation can seem quiet and shy when you look at them. Their symptoms may appear timid and they might often be left out in social gatherings. On top of that, they cannot seem to stay focused.

How do you hint that you have ADHD? ›

  1. You're often late. Time management is an ongoing challenge when you have ADHD. ...
  2. You have trouble concentrating. ...
  3. You leave things undone. ...
  4. You had behavior issues as a child. ...
  5. You lack impulse control. ...
  6. You can't get organized. ...
  7. You're fidgety. ...
  8. You can't control your emotions.
Mar 8, 2021

How anxiety can look like ADHD? ›

Both anxiety and ADHD can cause people to tune out and get caught up in their emotions — just for different reasons. People with ADHD have trouble paying attention because they have trouble focusing. People with anxiety have trouble paying attention because they're distracted by worries and fears.

What does untreated ADHD look like in adults? ›

Untreated ADHD in adults can lead to mental health disorders like anxiety and depression. This is because ADHD symptoms can lead to focus, concentration, and impulsivity problems. When these problems are not managed effectively, they can lead to feelings of frustration, irritability, and low self-esteem.

What are the 3 main symptoms of ADHD? ›

The 3 categories of symptoms of ADHD include the following:
  • Inattention: Short attention span for age (difficulty sustaining attention) Difficulty listening to others. ...
  • Impulsivity: Often interrupts others. ...
  • Hyperactivity: Seems to be in constant motion; runs or climbs, at times with no apparent goal except motion.

What are examples of ADHD distractions? ›

They are the chimes, buzzes, chatter, sights, and stimuli that enter your brain through your 5 senses. They interrupt your flow, concentration, and effort and divert your attention from the task at hand.

Can people with ADHD still focus sometimes? ›

Children and adults with ADHD find it very hard to focus on boring mundane tasks, yet can focus exceptionally well on activities that interest them. In fact, when they are engaged in a task that is interesting to them, they focus so well that it is called hyperfocus.

What is masking ADHD? ›

If you hide your adult ADHD symptoms from other people, that's called masking. Basically, you're trying to seem more “normal” or “regular.” ADHD causes some people to act hyperactive or impulsive. It makes other folks have trouble paying attention. And still other adults have a combination of those symptoms.

What is mirroring ADHD? ›

One type of ADHD masking — known as mirroring — involves intentionally or unintentionally mimicking the speech, movements, or behaviors of someone else. While ADHD mirroring and body doubling may seem similar at first glance, you can work alongside a body double without imitating them in any way.

What are ADHD mood swings like? ›

Symptoms of Mood Swings in ADHD

Switching from excited one moment to sad, angry, or anxious the next. Fluctuating between having trouble paying attention and hyperfocusing on an activity. Having bursts of energy and fatigue through the day. Feeling emotions intensely and having difficulty regulating them.

What is ADHD forgetfulness like? ›

Forgetfulness in ADHD

When that's impaired, it can lead to annoying and disruptive symptoms like: Losing things, even things you just had a few minutes earlier. Missing appointments, dates, and other plans. Abandoning a task midway because you forgot you were doing it.

Why are people with ADHD calm in stressful situations? ›

You're calm under pressure.

High-stress situations get the dopamine pumping in the brain, which is why adults with ADHD tend to make great firefighters and ER doctors, as well as brilliant stock-traders and entrepreneurs.

How would you describe brain fog ADHD? ›

What is ADHD Brain Fog? As with all types of brain fog, ADHD brain fog is a period of cloudy thinking. The individual is often frustrated by their ability to think clearly, leading to disorganization and restlessness - it feels as though doing anything is better than doing nothing.

How do you describe ADHD to someone without it? ›

People with ADHD often describe their lives as feeling chaotic and out of control. They might seem careless because they're scrambling to find their phone or to pay that bill, but they're overwhelmed.

Is ADHD overdiagnosed? ›

Although it is true that overdiagnosis means that some people without ADHD receive treatment, on the whole, people with ADHD are actually undertreated.

What is undefined ADHD? ›

The unspecified ADHD category is used in situations in which the clinician chooses not to specify the reason that the criteria are not met for the ADHD or for a specific neurodevelopmental disorder and includes presentation in which there is insufficient information to make a more specific diagnosis.

What are the signs of ADHD in female adults? ›

Symptoms and signs of ADHD in adult women can include: Difficulty with time management. Disorganization. Feeling overwhelmed.

What are the signs of ADHD in a girl? ›

Symptoms in children and teenagers
  • having a short attention span and being easily distracted.
  • making careless mistakes – for example, in schoolwork.
  • appearing forgetful or losing things.
  • being unable to stick to tasks that are tedious or time-consuming.
  • appearing to be unable to listen to or carry out instructions.

How do you tell if I have ADHD as a woman? ›

Signs and Symptoms of ADHD in Females
  1. Not paying close attention to details.
  2. Making careless mistakes in schoolwork.
  3. Trouble staying focused.
  4. Being easily distracted.
  5. Being disorganized or messy.
  6. Forgetting routine tasks, like house chores.
  7. Appears not to be listening when spoken to.
  8. Not following through on instructions.
Jan 31, 2023

What does ADHD look like in introverts? ›

Some introverts with ADHD may experience conflicting characteristics. For example, they may be cautious in some situations and highly impulsive in others. They may find it hard to focus in some situations and experience periods of hyper-focus at other times.

Are people with ADHD talkative or quiet? ›

For starters, not everyone with the hyperactive side of ADHD is loud and talkative. While talking non-stop is part of ADHD for some people, there are many other ways hyperactivity can express itself.

Can you have ADHD and not be chatty? ›

Sometimes, individuals with ADHD Inattentive Type will be mischaracterized as shy or withdrawn. But like the more familiar ADHD, this condition can be diagnosed and treated effectively.

Does caffeine help ADHD? ›

Some studies have found that caffeine can boost concentration for people with ADHD. Since it's a stimulant drug, it mimics some of the effects of stronger stimulants used to treat ADHD, such as amphetamine medications. However, caffeine alone is less effective than prescription medications.

What is the best medication for inattentive ADHD in adults? ›

Psychostimulants are the medications of choice in treating ADHD. The two types that are most commonly used are amphetamine and methylphenidate. Mixed amphetamine salts are marketed under the brand name Adderall®. Methylphenidate is sold under the brand names Ritalin®, Concerta®, Metadate® and others.

Can high functioning anxiety be mistaken for ADHD? ›

Confusing the picture of whether or not it is anxiety or ADHD is the fact that generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and inattentive presentation of ADHD clinically show much the same symptoms of inattention, leading to frequent misdiagnosis (e.g., ADHD misdiagnosed as anxiety and vice versa).

Can anxiety mask ADHD? ›

Diagnosis Implications

✦ Firstly, anxiety symptoms may mask ADHD symptoms as anxiety can lower impulsivity. However, anxiety may also inhibit impulsivity but make inattention worse, which can complicate diagnosis (Pliszka et al., 1999).

Does ADHD affect memory? ›

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has been associated with large magnitude impairments in working memory, whereas short-term memory deficits, when detected, tend to be less pronounced.

What are the dark side of ADHD? ›

Physical and mental health problems.

The symptoms of ADHD can contribute to a variety of health problems, including compulsive eating, substance abuse, anxiety, chronic stress and tension, and low self-esteem.

What happens if ADHD goes unnoticed? ›

If left untreated in childhood or adulthood, the symptoms of ADHD (hyperactivity, inattention, and impulsiveness) can lead to behavioral, emotional, social, academic, and vocational problems.

What are symptoms of ADHD that people don't know about? ›

10 things you didn't know could be symptoms of adult ADHD
  • Excessive talking. ...
  • Problems prioritising things. ...
  • Difficulty dealing with stress. ...
  • Taking risks. ...
  • Anxiety and depression. ...
  • Forgetfulness. ...
  • Mood swings. ...
  • Fatigue and sleep problems.
Dec 8, 2022

What age does ADHD peak? ›

At what age are symptoms of ADHD the worst? The symptoms of hyperactivity are typically most severe at age 7 to 8, gradually declining thereafter. Peak severity of impulsive behaviour is usually at age 7 or 8. There is no specific age of peak severity for inattentive behaviour.

What are the 5 stages of ADHD? ›

When a client comes back to me with an ADHD diagnosis, they almost always follow this discrete series of stages.
  • Phase One: Excitement/Relief. ...
  • Phase Two: Investigation. ...
  • Phase Three: Frustration. ...
  • Phase Four: Acceptance. ...
  • Phase Five: Application.
Mar 31, 2022

What is the root cause of ADHD? ›

The cause(s) and risk factors for ADHD are unknown, but current research shows that genetics plays an important role. Recent studies link genetic factors with ADHD. In addition to genetics, scientists are studying other possible causes and risk factors including: Brain injury.

What are common ADHD habits? ›

Adult ADHD symptoms may include:
  • Impulsiveness.
  • Disorganization and problems prioritizing.
  • Poor time management skills.
  • Problems focusing on a task.
  • Trouble multitasking.
  • Excessive activity or restlessness.
  • Poor planning.
  • Low frustration tolerance.
Jan 25, 2023

What are some habits of ADHD? ›

People with ADHD are often easily distracted. They may also have something called hyperfocus, according to a 2019 literature review . A person with ADHD can get so engrossed in something that they can become unaware of anything else around them.

Why do people with ADHD zone out? ›

The Mini ADHD Coach Medical Advisor says: “Zoning out is a common core symptom of Inattentive-type ADHD when your brain involuntarily shifts focus from the task at hand. The reason this occurs is due to the differences in connectivity between brain networks that conduct where you should (or want to) focus.

What is hyperfixation on a person with ADHD? ›

Hyperfixation is characterized by an obsessive preoccupation with a particular person, object, or activity. People with hyperfixation often fixate on trivial or even imaginary things, and they may become so focused on their obsession that they neglect their own health and well-being.

Why won't it let me focus with ADHD? ›

The primary symptoms of ADHD are inattention and lack of focus. The reason for this may lie in your brain chemistry. Research suggests that people with ADHD have lower levels of dopamine and norepinephrine — neurotransmitters in the brain associated with attention and focus.

What does ADHD distraction feel like? ›

People with this type of ADHD have trouble paying attention to details, are easily distracted, often have trouble organizing or finishing tasks and often forget routine chores (such as paying bills on time or returning phone calls).

What types of distractions do people with ADHD have? ›

They are the chimes, buzzes, chatter, sights, and stimuli that enter your brain through your 5 senses. They interrupt your flow, concentration, and effort and divert your attention from the task at hand.

How is ADHD different from typical inattention? ›

Previously, hyperactive and impulsive symptoms were associated with the term “ADHD,” while inattentive symptoms like trouble listening or managing time were diagnosed as “ADD.” Today, the condition is simply called ADHD — according to changes in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V)1 — and ...


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