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Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D.

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Is it ADHD/ADD or Are We Just Overloaded?

Posted: 08/04/11 10:46 AM ET

So is attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD) a real thing, or is it just a byproduct of the times we live in? We have overcommitted, over-scheduled and overextended ourselves. We have to answer our emails right now. We have to check Facebook as soon as we wake up in the morning. Television shows have quick edits and short sound bites, and we have 800 channels to choose from. Have we been conditioned to be an ADHD/ADD society?

Not exactly.

While overscheduling ourselves and constantly looking at our Blackberrys and iPhones can cause us to be distracted and inattentive, it doesn't really qualify as ADD/ADHD. Being overextended can mimic ADD/ADHD symptoms, but there is a big difference between having some symptoms and qualifying for a diagnosis.

Symptoms of ADD/ADHD include:

  • Difficulty following multi-step directions
  • Not listening
  • Disorganization
  • Interrupting others
  • Distractibility
  • Difficulty following through on tasks/projects
  • Losing items often
  • Acting before thinking

Now, you may say to yourself, "Are you kidding me? I had all those symptoms today before breakfast." I believe you. Sure, all of us lose our keys from time to time. And we may lose them even more so when we are supposed to be in five different places at once. But here is the difference between being "overloaded" and having ADD/ADHD:

The big difference is the intensity, frequency and duration of symptoms.

  • How severe are the symptoms? Are they impairing your day-to-day functioning?
  • How often do the symptoms occur? Is it just when you are overloaded? Or is it all the time? How many symptoms do you experience on a daily basis?
  • How long do these symptoms last? Do they seem to turn off and on, or do they never really seem to go away?
  • Have other people in your family had the same difficulties as you?

If you have ADHD/ADD, you most likely:

  • Have had symptoms like distraction and fidgeting since childhood.
  • Have problems with organization, even when you aren't over-scheduled.
  • Have ADHD symptoms that affect all aspects of your life -- home, school, work and social.
  • Had comments on your school report cards such as, "doesn't work to potential," "runs in hallways," "does not stay at desk," "has difficulty keeping friends," "looks out the window during class time," "difficulty managing time" or "messy desk."
  • Have had symptoms that were always there -- you can't remember a time when you didn't have difficulty with focus, disorganization, not following through on things, etc.
  • Have had impairment in your day-to-day functioning due to these symptoms -- you have had difficulty in your relationships, you may have been fired from jobs, you may just feel like you have never worked to your potential.
  • Have one or more family members who had lifetime difficulties with focus and distraction.

If you have ADD/ADHD, being over-scheduled and overextended just makes your symptoms (and functioning) worse. But being over-scheduled and overextended does not cause the symptoms outright.

Then why has it become more prevalent? Well, it really hasn't; ADD/ADHD has been around a long time, way before the technological age.

ADD/ADHD is a biological and genetic disorder. There have been several genes linked to ADD/ADHD, and children with ADHD have genetic variations not found in children without ADHD (Elia et al. 2010; Guan et al. 2009). And if you have ADD, there is a 75 percent chance that you inherited the genes from at least one of your parents (Rietveld et al. 2004).

So while it is best to get some downtime from your Blackberry, iPhone, iPad, what-have-you, they are not causing you to have ADD/ADHD. Your overuse may just be mimicking the symptoms of ADD/ADHD.

The important thing to look at is how long you've been having difficulties with distractibility and inattention. Equally important (if not more so) is asking your family about its medical history, including any relatives that had symptoms of ADD/ADHD, bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression. Knowing that information can unlock many doors in determining whether you have electronics-induced ADD/ADHD or the real thing.

If you feel that your symptoms of inattention, distractibility and disorganization have caused you impairment in your day-to-day living, it's worth talking about it with a doctor. There is treatment available if you do meet the diagnostic criteria for ADD/ADHD.

And for everyone, ADHD/ADD or not, it's important to "unplug" on a regular basis.

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