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ADHD Brain Off, ADHD Brain On

Have you ever gone to do work, hit the button to power your laptop on, and then had nothing happen? If you’ve ever forgotten to charge your laptop when the battery is low, the answer is probably yes.

OK. Now, have you ever gone to do work and found that it’s your brain that won’t power on? If you have ADHD, there’s a chance that’s another answer in the affirmative.

This inability to get your brain into the appropriate gear is par for the course when you have the deficits in executive functioning and self-control that come with ADHD.

Power ButtonIt expresses itself in different ways. A wandering mind when you should be focused. A deep lack of motivation to engage with a task you know needs to be done. Underperforming in situations where you just can’t find the cognitive resources for the task at hand, even though you know they’re in there somewhere. Most generally, a feeling of not being able to get you brain into the right “mode” for whatever it is that needs to be done.

It’s hard for an ADHDer to get their brain into the right gear at will. The flip side of this, though, is that there are certain situations that seem to power the ADHD brain up to full capacity and get it firing on all cylinders.

Sometimes this happens the moment right before a deadline. After procrastinating and procrastinating on a project you know you should have started, the final minutes of the clock ticking down send a bolt of adrenaline through your brain, and suddenly all your energy is focused on what needs to be done.

I think this is one reason people with ADHD commonly procrastinate. We rely on the rush, or sheer panic, of an impending deadline to accomplish something we can’t do on our own: activate our brains, and get us in the right mindset to focus on the task at hand.

Another situation that can power on the ADHD brain is doing something we genuinely find engaging and rewarding. When ADHDers lock into the laser-like state of hyperfocus, it’s often because we’re working on a hobby or other type of task that we find stimulating and enjoyable. Catch an ADHDer in this state, and you’d never know they otherwise have problems sustaining attention.

There’s a certain subset of ADHDers who are the kind of people who do well in a crisis. You might find these ADHDers working in environments like an ER. I bring this up because situations that are highly unexpected, or even downright emergencies, can sometimes power the ADHD brain on – similar to tight deadlines or highly rewarding activities.

This is also a reason you’ll find people with ADHD amply represented among adrenaline junkies. Highly stimulating, even potentially dangerous, situations can flip the switch for “ADHD brain on” in a way that, again, someone with ADHD can’t necessarily do themselves.

It’s good to be aware of this off-and-on way in which the ADHD brain tends to work for a couple reasons. The first is so that when you find yourself unable to power your brain on at will, you can recognize this as a tendency that goes hand-in-hand with ADHD rather than getting frustrated at yourself for being “lazy.”

The second is to take note of what situations do tend to power your brain on. By becoming aware of the cues that get your brain firing on all cylinders, you can seek out jobs, hobbies and situations that bring out the best in your ADHD brain.

Image: Flickr/Scott Cawley

ADHD Brain Off, ADHD Brain On

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. (2019). ADHD Brain Off, ADHD Brain On. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 10, 2020, from


Last updated: 13 Jun 2019
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