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ADHD Symptom or Coping Mechanism?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about some recent research suggesting that hyperactivity may be more of a coping mechanism people with ADHD use in certain situations than a core symptom of the disorder.

ADHD Symptom or Coping MechanismNow I want to take this idea a little further. Many behaviors associated with ADHD occupy a grey area between pure symptoms and intentional coping mechanisms. Some examples:

  • Fidgeting: Several studies have shown that fidgeting helps people with ADHD concentrate. That’s why one of the best things you can do to keep students with ADHD engaged is let them fidget. Fidgeting is somewhere in between a symptom and a coping mechanism partly because it’s often an unconscious coping mechanism: many people with ADHD react spontaneously to situations requiring sustained attention by fidgeting. They don’t necessarily know in an intellectual sense that it helps them concentrate, but it’s what feels right for their brains.
  • Procrastination: There’s no doubt that procrastination can be a symptom that causes real problems for people with ADHD. But I think it can be a coping mechanism too. Specifically, it’s similar to fidgeting in that it’s a way of compensating for understimulation: nothing fires the brain up and helps with concentration like the rush and sometimes straight-up panic of doing things at the last possible minute.
  • Not following through: So this one might seem like a stretch. How could not following through on things (e.g., starting projects and then not finishing them) ever be a “coping mechanism”? Surely this is just a straight-up symptom. But I’d argue that not following through can be a good thing in one sense: when you have ADHD, sometimes it’s important to cut your losses. One of the problems people with ADHD have is that projects often seem exciting in the early stages, but it’s hard to tell which projects will stay exciting in the middle or later stages. If things fizzle out part way through and you find it harder and harder to stay focused as a project goes on, it can be helpful to simply let that project die off to make room for other stuff, assuming you’re able to do so in a way that’s responsible and doesn’t let other people down. Therefore, dropping things part way through is a symptom that can definitely create trouble for people with ADHD, but it can also be a sort of subconscious (or not) coping mechanism.

There’s no doubt that fidgeting, procrastination and not following through can be symptoms of ADHD that make life harder in their own right. But they can also be ways of dealing with underlying problems with concentration and self-regulation, especially in understimulating environments and during understimulating tasks.

D’you experience these more as symptoms or coping mechanisms? Can you think of other behaviors that are somewhere in between symptoms and coping mechanisms?

Image: Beierle

ADHD Symptom or Coping Mechanism?

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on education, learning disabilities and technology. He received his B.A. in 2014 and was diagnosed with ADHD at the beginning of his college studies. Neil also works for a music education non-profit and hopes to help create an education system that can better serve students with ADHD.

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2016). ADHD Symptom or Coping Mechanism?. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 17, 2019, from


Last updated: 22 May 2016
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