Describing inattention in ADHD as not being able to concentrate has always seemed like something of an understatement to me. It’s the kind of description you would give if you saw someone being inattentive, but it doesn’t really capture what inattention is like in the first person.
When you have ADHD, it’s not simply that you can’t concentrate. It’s that concentrating can actually be painful.
Part of this goes back to boredom tolerance. People with ADHD have a low boredom threshold, and we often feel boredom in a very visceral way.
Boredom can actually hurt. When people with ADHD feel bored and under-stimulated, our brains automatically take steps to relieve this unpleasant state, hence hyperactivity and distractibility.
This is one of the things I disliked about being in school. For much of the time I was supposed to be listening to lectures or concentrating on schoolwork, my brain was yelling, “get me out of here, get me out of here, get me out of here.”
Now, from the outside, this state where sitting still and focusing is almost physically unpleasant just looks like “not paying attention.” And that’s not exactly an incorrect description, because not paying attention is the ultimate outcome.
But inside, there’s more than that going on. Wanting to escape boredom. Being repelled by tasks that aren’t stimulating enough.
The ADHD brain is wired to really hate being bored and under-stimulated. This is partly what makes trying to pay attention to something you can’t pay attention to so frustrating when you have ADHD. It’s not just that your concentration keeps lapsing, preventing you from completing the task at hand – although that in itself would be bad enough.
Rather, to add insult to injury, trying to pay attention grates against your psyche. Your brain is under-stimulated and wants to go do something else, which makes it hard to pay attention – and the more you try to pay attention to the under-stimulating task, the more under-stimulated your brain gets, and the more it lets you know it’s not happy.
But there are steps you can take to help break this cycle. I’ve written here before about how music helps make tedious tasks more interesting and dials back the boredom that inattention thrives on. Meds can also make a night-and-day difference in this area.
Whatever it is that helps you take the teeth out of boredom, the key is that if you want to tackle inattention, you have to go to root of the problem – the painful under-stimulation that leaves your brain screaming, “I”ll focus on anything but this.”