Sitting still is something people with ADHD are famous for not doing. People with the hyperactive side of ADHD probably remember being asked “why can’t you sit still?” in the same tone as they would be asked “why can’t you focus?” or “can’t you try harder?”
The short answer is that we have an aversion to sitting still for the same reason we have an aversion to other boring tasks: it’s understimulating.
Having ADHD means you have a brain that’s hungry for reward, stimulation, something interesting. Uninteresting tasks don’t fulfill that need, which is why we tend to have a hard time sustaining focus on them.
Essentially, sitting still is the perfect example of an “uninteresting task” that’s unrewarding and unstimulating. By definition, sitting still is less stimulating than moving around.
A dislike for sitting still is such a classic symptom of hyperactivity that one of six questions often used to screen for ADHD is:
How often do you leave your seat in meetings or other situations in which you are expected to remain seated?
Thinking about this question brings up a few memories for me. It makes me think about sitting in class and feeling so bored and trapped into sitting still that I would “go get a drink of water” or “go to the bathroom” just because I couldn’t stand sitting there any more.
It also reminds me of when I worked in a library. Observing students using the library, I would marvel at how they were able to come in, sit down, and remain still for indefinite periods of time focused on schoolwork.
When I say that people with ADHD have an “aversion” to sitting still, that doesn’t mean we deliberately decide “I’m going to seek out stimulation and not sit still.” Rather, we feel the lack of stimulation viscerally, and our brains automatically try to balance things out through fidgeting.
In this sense, fidgeting isn’t really “something we do” as much as it’s our natural state of being. It’s a subconscious reaction to understimulating situations – like having to sit still.
All of which is to say that there’s a reason people with ADHD fidget. So next time someone asks “why can’t you sit still?” you can tell them all this.
Alternatively, you can say “because fidgeting helps me focus,” which for people with ADHD has been shown to be true.
Or you can use my personal favorite answer: “because people who fidget a lot are less likely to die.”