- It's impossible to fully grasp what having a mental health condition is like without living with it. But shared experiences offer a window.
- Everyone faces boredom sometimes, and for people with ADHD, it can be an especially frequent experience.
- Like those with ADHD, people who are feeling bored may engage in greater risk-taking, research suggests.
Don’t judge a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Wise advice; but not so easy to do. How can we enter into the lived experience of another person—how can we think their thoughts and feel their feelings? It's even more difficult when we try to imagine the life of someone different from ourselves—when, for example, we try to wrap our head around what it’s like to struggle with a mental health challenge.
Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a case in point. Often judged and rarely understood, people with ADHD experience the world differently. At the risk of oversimplification, we suggest that thinking feels different for people with ADHD. What’s more, many of the behaviours associated with ADHD can be understood as attempts to escape uncomfortable feelings about thinking. So, these feelings really matter—they shape the lives of individuals with ADHD. But of course, unless you have ADHD, you don’t really know what it’s like.
There is, however, a common touchstone shared by people who do and do not suffer from ADHD—the pain of being unable to engage our mind. In a word: boredom. Most of us have been afflicted by boredom at some point, but for people with ADHD, boredom—the really soul-crushing, unremitting kind—is a near-constant companion; always lurking and waiting to strike.
For those of us without ADHD, recalling our worst moments of boredom might provide a small taste of what it’s like to have ADHD, and doing so might help us be a little more understanding of why people with ADHD struggle in the ways they do.
Boredom and ADHD Go Together
The central role of boredom in the life of people with ADHD is well known to those who work closely with them, and the clinical ADHD literature is full of references to boredom. There are also a wealth of studies showing that adults who are especially prone to boredom report elevated symptoms of ADHD; but these are non-clinical samples, leaving us in the dark about what is true for people who have been diagnosed with ADHD.
Hsu and colleagues studied children and adolescents who were formally diagnosed with ADHD and confirmed that indeed, they were rated by their parents as being more prone to boredom. In addition, the children and adolescents with ADHD became more bored compared to the participants without ADHD after completing a tedious test of attention. And their increased boredom predicted worse performance.
We know that boredom gets in the way for all of us when it comes to paying attention, but this study suggests people with ADHD may feel boredom more intensely. And in the face of increased boredom, focusing attention is just that much more challenging, setting up a vicious cycle that can be challenging to break.
In another recent study, parental reports of boredom proneness and ADHD symptoms were correlated in children and adolescents diagnosed with ADHD. The researchers also found that after three months of treatment with stimulant medication, both ADHD symptoms and boredom proneness decreased. But when medication was withdrawn, ADHD symptoms and boredom proneness increased once again in a lock-step fashion. The idea that boredom is associated with reduced physiological arousal, and thus alleviated by stimulating medication, is not a new one (having been studied as far back as the 1930s), and suggests just how tight the association may be between boredom and ADHD.
Boredom, ADHD, and Risk-Taking
Another thing ADHD and boredom have in common is risky behaviour. People who are prone to boredom engage in more risky behaviour, and when made bored it seems we are all more likely to roll the dice. Similarly, ADHD is also associated with impulsivity and risky decision-making.
Matthies and colleagues note that individuals with ADHD may engage in risky behaviour and make poor choices precisely in order to stave off feelings of boredom. They brought adults with and without ADHD into the lab and asked them to complete a Game of Dice Task, which assesses willingness to take risks. Sure enough, those with ADHD engaged in more risky decision-making. But things got really interesting in the second part of the study, when the researchers made everyone bored before playing the dice game. When individuals without ADHD were bored, their risky decision-making increased from pre-boredom levels and became comparable to that of the participants with ADHD.
Of course, being bored is not the same as having ADHD; and unless you are afflicted yourself you can't really know what it is like to have ADHD. But by reflecting on our own experience of boredom—that restless, uncomfortable feeling of being unable to engage our mind with what’s at hand—we might be better able to walk alongside our children, friends, and partners who have ADHD with a little less judgment and a little more understanding.
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