Adults and ADD: Self-help for improving the three types of attention
At one time or another, we’ve all forgotten an obligation, lost our keys or had difficulty concentrating. It’s a part of being human. But if you’ve experienced these problems consistently since childhood, you may be suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).
While most of the American media’s attention has focused on ADD in children and teens, the medical community is now starting to report more cases of adults suffering from the disorder. Chances are, it’s not that more adults are experiencing it, but perhaps that they are likely to recognize the symptoms in themselves when their child is diagnosed. In fact, according to The Adult ADD Center, many adults are diagnosed with adult ADD in their late 30s and early 40s, likely because that is the age when most adults have school-aged children who undergo screenings for ADD and other learning disabilities.
Symptoms and risks
There are a variety of symptoms that present themselves with ADD. Of course, many of these are prevalent in any typical adult’s life – especially for busy, working adults with children, who may be faced with an overwhelming list of daily responsibilities. But by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’ (DSM-IV-TR) criteria, adults with ADD “must have had their symptoms prior to age 7 and these symptoms must have continued for at least 6 months.” For adults, these symptoms may include:
- Chronic stress
- Money management difficulties
- Longstanding feelings of being overwhelmed
- Chronic disorganization
- A history of anxiety and depression
- Significant time management challenges
- Children or siblings with ADD/ADHD
“It’s important to understand that for an adult with ADD, the symptoms aren’t just little nuisances, but can have major impacts on one’s life,” explains Tanya Mitchell, Vice President of Research and Development for LearningRx, a national brain-training franchise that works with people with Attention Deficit Disorder and other learning disabilities. “The risks of undiagnosed and untreated ADD can eventually lead to under- or unemployment, divorce, financial crises, eating disorders, substance abuse and lack of higher education.”
Understanding the weakest link: Attention
As with almost all learning struggles, the most common root cause is one or more weak cognitive skills – the fundamental tools of effective learning.
“Cognitive skills are the underlying tools that enable us to successfully focus, think, prioritize, plan, understand, visualize, remember and create useful associations, and solve problems,” explains Dr. Ken Gibson, author of “Unlock the Einstein Inside.” “An adult’s cognitive skill set is made up of several mental skills including auditory processing, visual processing, short and long-term memory, comprehension, logic and reasoning, and attention skills. In adults with ADD or ADHD, the weakest cognitive skill is attention, although other areas tend to suffer as well.”
The three types of attention
According to Dr. Gibson, there are three types of attention: sustained, selective and divided. In general, they are described as:
- Sustained: Allows us to stay on task for a long period of time
- Selective: Prevents us from being easily distracted
- Divided: Allows us to do more than one thing at a time
In those with ADD, the frontal cortex (surface) of the brain has more difficulty using glucose and less blood flow than in people without ADD. The frontal cortex inhibits impulses, initiates behavior, and controls working memory. When under-active, the ability to screen out irrelevant stimuli is reduced, and the individual pays attention to everything. This results in poor regulation of the motivation system and makes staying on task difficult without immediate rewards.
“Video games provide rapid, constant feedback and stimulation and tend to be very engaging for people with ADD,” explains Dr. Russell Griffiths, a Licensed Educational Psychologist. “Neuroscience shows that by targeting and stimulating the under-active region of the brain responsible for the characteristics of inattention, attention can be strengthened.” This demonstrates that the usual accommodations used in the workplace – like removing distractions, reducing workload, or giving employees with ADD less detail-oriented work – are actually detrimental to adults who could instead undergo cognitive skills training.
Exercises to improve the three types of attention
Although Mitchell recommends a thorough, intense program of cognitive skills training for adults who are diagnosed with ADD, she also offers suggestions for exercises that can be done at home to improve the three types of attention. They include:
• Sustained Attention
Use a stopwatch while you do a small task, like paying bills, and take notice when you lose focus. If you get distracted after a couple minutes, stop the time. Make a goal to try and focus for a longer period of time, then start again. Continue adding new time to the goal until you can repeatedly focus for longer periods of time.
• Selective Attention
Do the same activity for sustained attention but add small distractions. This might mean doing it while the TV is on, or while other people nearby are talking. As you’re able to handle small distractions, the distractions should increase. Turn the TV up, or ask your spouse or child to purposely try to interrupt you.
• Divided attention
This is the most important attention skill. Try reading a book with the TV on and trying to remember information from both sources at the same time. You could also do this with the TV and a phone conversation, but be sure that the friend or family member on the other end is aware of what you’re trying to accomplish.
“I’d suggest trying these exercises at home to complement a cognitive skills training program,” says Mitchell. “After working with a professional (brain trainer) in a one-one-one setting, most adults who have been labeled as having ADHD, ADD or other learning disabilities like dyslexia can improve from three to five grade levels and about half of those already on medication will no longer require it by the end of a 12-week program.”