What is ADHD?
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a condition that can make it harder for people to focus, pay attention, and control their impulses (urges to do things). It’s thought to affect the way certain parts of the brain sends and receives messages. ADHD can impact a person’s ability to do things like study and work.
The good news is there are lots of ways to manage the challenges that can come with ADHD. There are plenty of strategies, support, and treatments available to help people manage their symptoms, embrace their strengths, and live rewarding, and meaningful lives.
Some people with this condition prefer to identify as neurodiverse. This word can be used for many different diagnostic labels– it’s always best to check with the person which term they prefer.
What are the signs and symptoms of ADHD?
At times, we can all find it difficult to sit still, pay attention, or control our behaviour. However, for people experiencing ADHD, these difficulties are more constant and can impact on many areas of their lives including relationships, goals, studies and work.
ADHD symptoms are divided into three key areas:
Let's break those down...
When people experience inattention, it can be hard for them to focus on things for a long period of time. They might forget important things like tasks they really need to do, or have trouble following instructions at school, work or home. This can lead to unfished tasks or
switching between tasks without finishing them. It can be tough to concentrate on things that need a lot of mental effort over a long period of time.
Impulsivity is when you have a difficult time stopping yourself from doing something you feel like doing, even if you know it’s not a good idea. Some people call this difficulty controlling impulses. This can make it tough to wait for things or to think before acting. For example, feeling frustrated about waiting a turn in conversation and interrupting others.
Hyperactivity is when someone feels restless and fidgety. It can be difficult to sit still, and the person may have a strong urge to talk and move around a lot. Some people describe it like they have a motor inside that won't stop or slow down, and they keep going even when they're tired. This can make it hard to participate in activities, or games calmly.
Despite its challenges, lots of people with ADHD embrace their unique strengths and perspectives, and find ways to thrive in their personal, student or professional lives.
What are the types of ADHD?
ADHD is divided into three main types or presentations, depending on which symptoms appear most.
Predominantly inattentive presentation
Things like finding it difficult to finish tasks, pay attention to details, or follow instructions and conversations. The person can get easily distracted.
Predominantly hyperactive/impulsive presentation
Things like fidgeting, impatience and talking a lot. Speaking over people or at inappropriate times.
A combination of both of the above.
Other things to note about ADHD symptoms
ADHD symptoms can also change over time. Things like experiencing less hyperactivity or more inattention. Your sex assigned at birth can impact how ADHD symptoms appear - this can sometimes make it more challenging to get the right diagnosis.
How is ADHD diagnosed?
You may have heard people talking about testing for ADHD. While there is no single ADHD test, specialist health professionals can make a diagnosis through a detailed assessment which involves: asking lots of questions about the person's medical history; how they act and think; what they're good at and what they have challenges with. They might also ask about what the person was like when they were younger, or want to see how the person interacts with others, or at school. The person’s family and teachers may also be asked questions.
A diagnosis is only one part of the treatment process. Healthcare professionals also work with the person and their family to develop a treatment plan – this can include medication, therapy or other tools and strategies to help try to manage symptoms.
It’s also important to find out if the symptoms experienced are caused by something else that might need different treatment. Some other mental health disorders that can be commonly diagnosed alongside ADHD and share some symptoms are anxiety, oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder and bipolar disorder.
What causes ADHD?
Research suggests that approximately one in 20 children experience ADHD in Australia, with symptoms starting in childhood. We’re learning more in this space all the time. However, it’s thought that ADHD is the result of a mix of genes and the environment (the things that happen around us). There’s no research to support the idea that ADHD is caused by too much sugar or TV.
How might ADHD affect other areas of life?
People can experience ADHD differently...
Some people with ADHD can be creative, original and adventurous. They can be excellent at problem solving and coming up with solutions by thinking outside the box.
However, people experiencing ADHD can find it difficult to do what is expected of them in their studies, relationships, or at work.
Everyone experiencing ADHD will have their own unique strengths, skills and challenges resulting in needing more or less support with studies, work and relationships.
Some of the challenges people with ADHD might experience at school, uni or TAFE are things like:
- paying attention in class or while studying
- time management and completing assignments on time
- forgetfulness and disorganisation
- impulsivity, like acting without thinking.
Some of the challenges people with ADHD might experience in their relationships are things like:
- planning and following through with tasks, which can lead to breaking promises or missing catch-ups
- difficulties with communication, like losing track of what has been said or getting distracted and talking off track
- difficulty with managing feelings. This can lead to mood swings and arguments or disagreements in relationships
- impulsivity and making hasty decisions or saying things without thinking them through.
Some of the challenges people with ADHD might experience in the workplace are things like:
- time management and meeting deadlines
- organising competing tasks and completing tasks
- being impulsive and making mistakes
- talking and interacting with others, and relationships with colleagues.
With the right strategies and support though, people with ADHD can do well in their studies, careers, and relationships. This can involve working with teachers/tutors, therapists, or coaches to develop study, communication, and conflict resolution skills (solving arguments in a helpful way). There are also tools available such as planning/reminder apps, or they might ask for extra time with assignments/projects or request a quiet workspace.
Experiencing ADHD symptoms can impact how a person feels about themselves. Sometimes other people might not have a good understanding of ADHD, adding extra challenges. This may lead to changes in mood and to worrying and it’s not uncommon for depression and anxiety to occur alongside ADHD, or for a person to use alcohol and other drugs to try to cope with the symptoms.
What can help manage my ADHD?
If you have been diagnosed with ADHD, know you’re not alone. There are others who are going through similar experiences. Living with ADHD doesn’t define you as a person though, you are unique with your own strengths and abilities. Sometimes people can find the experience of ADHD helpful, like being able to finish tasks in a short period of time when you have deadlines or being able to come up with creative solutions. However, we know that sometimes the symptoms can get in the way of you living the life you want to live.
We’ve broken down some suggestions that can help you manage your ADHD below…
Be sure to look after yourself! There are things we can do in our daily life that help support our mental health. Things like eating well, getting enough sleep and staying active can be particularly helpful for people with ADHD.
Eating nutritious food can be a great way to boost our mood, increase our energy levels, and improve our overall health and wellbeing. When we eat foods like veggies, fruits, proteins and whole grains, we help give our bodies and brains the power they need to function at their best. However, many of us have times when we turn to less nutritious foods when we're feeling stressed or overwhelmed. That's why developing some coping strategies that don't involve food, like relaxation activities or other forms of self-care, can work really well for us. Check out our tips for handling tough times.
Get enough sleep
Getting good quality sleep can balance our energy, improve our concentration, and protect our mental health and wellbeing. However, getting a good night’s sleep isn’t always easy, especially for a restless mind - some tips that can help include:
- turn off screens at least an hour before bedtime
- try relaxation exercises
- have a bedtime routine
- avoid caffeine or other stimulants before you go to bed
- limit the use of alcohol and other drugs
- avoid napping during the day.
We mightn’t always feel like it, but staying active can help improve our sleep, manage stress, and boost our mood. There are so many ways to get moving, and the key is to find something you enjoy. Whether it's getting into nature, the gym, playing a sport with friends, or taking a walk, choose an activity that works for you. When you do something you enjoy, it's easier to stick to it and make it a part of your routine. Start with a small, easy goal and ask a friend to join you for some extra motivation and fun.
Other things you can do to help support your mental health are:
- staying connected with your family and friends - they’re super important and can help form your awesome support team
- cutting back on alcohol and other drugs - these can leave you sluggish and impact your health and wellbeing in the long-run
- get into life – take some time for yourself to regularly do things that you love. This can give you a sense of achievement or even just help you relax.
- learning some skills to cope when times are tough - we all have tough times, learning how to handle them can really help.
Check out our other tips for a healthy headspace.
Get to know your strengths
Strengths are things that we’re good at and come naturally to us. We all have our own unique strengths. We might be creative, enthusiastic, or have lots of energy. Or we might be funny, good at problem solving, or have a great imagination. Knowing our strengths can help us focus on the wonderful, unique people we are. They can help us find ways to overcome challenges and achieve our goals. What are yours?
Find your own way to get organised
Getting organised helps us manage time and tasks. However, it can be really hard to do this, especially for people with ADHD. You might have to try a few different things to find something that works for you. Don’t be hard on yourself if you aren’t able to do these the first time – learning new skills takes time and lots of practise. Reach out if you need help. If it feels overwhelming, you don't know where to start, or you get off track, sometimes talking through things with someone close to you can help.
It’s normal to have ups and downs, just try again and be kind to yourself. You could try asking for support from someone you trust like a parent, carer, counsellor, or Elder.
We’ve put a list together of some of the things that might work for you to help you plan and complete your tasks. Give one or some of these a try:
Use planners, lists or calendars – write down important dates, deadlines and tasks so you can keep track of what needs to be done. There are lots of apps for your phone.
Break tasks down into smaller steps – large tasks can seem overwhelming. Breaking them down into manageable steps and prioritising important tasks first can help them feel less daunting. It’s good to just start on something. If tasks feel big, sometimes starting them can make them feel less overwhelming. Maybe try putting tasks you don’t like between two that you do.
Try out a routine - routines help make things more automatic. This can help our stress levels by making things more predictable. Include things like waking up and bedtimes, time for activities, and time to chill.
Reduce distractions – it can be hard staying focused when there’s lots of noise/activities going on around you. See if you can find a quiet spot to study/work. Noise cancelling headphones are also a good idea as well as turning off notifications on your phone/computer.
Know your patterns - you might find that you have better attention or less hyperactivity during certain times of the day. This could be a good time to try scheduling tasks or activities that need lots of mental effort.
Your health professionals might discuss talk therapy approaches with you. Talk therapies are based on the idea that how we think about things can impact how we act, behave and feel. The therapist usually discusses your goals and explores how your thoughts and beliefs might be impacting on you and explore practical ways to work through this.
ADHD medication/s can be prescribed by paediatricians, psychiatrists and at times, GPs. Medication might be recommended as part of your treatment plan after a full assessment is completed. This will be discussed with you (and your family), so that you’re making the decisions together with health professionals.
Changes in your environment
You (or your care team) could speak to a school, uni or TAFE counsellor, or your manager to help modify activities, timelines and expectations. Being allowed longer timelines to submit tasks can be handy when it comes to keeping up with day-to-day life. Some people have also found it useful when school, uni, TAFE or work allow regular movement breaks to cope with hyperactivity.
Living with ADHD can feel overwhelming and learning about the things that can be helpful might seem like a lot. Communicating with others like a friend, family member, teacher, partner might feel scary – especially if you are trying to talk about things you need, want or are not sure about. You might need to talk about things they are doing to help you, or sometimes even things that aren’t so helpful. This article might be a useful starting point to share with others to help them to understand what you’re experiencing. headspace has useful resources online for family.
Sometimes it can feel difficult to let people know what is happening in our lives, as we might worry about how the other person will react. But building your support team and talking to someone you trust – like a friend, family member, teacher, an Elder, or school, TAFE or uni counsellor – is the first step you can take towards supporting yourself and getting help. Seeing a GP or a health professional like those at headspace centres can also help.
Your GP can help you access treatment options tailored to you and discuss your eligibility for the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), a national scheme that funds support for eligible people.
For more information or support, visit eheadspace or find your nearest headspace centre.
Some other useful websites and resources include:
- ADHD headspace Group Chat transcripts, ‘you don’t understand my ADHD’ and ‘ADHD in a neurotypical world’
- ADHD Australia
- Australian ADHD Professionals Association - factsheet for people with a lived experience of ADHD.
The headspace Content Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website.
Last reviewed 31 March 2023.
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-5-TR) (2022). American Psychiatric Association.
Australian ADHD Professionals Association. (n.d.). Australian Evidence-Based Clinical Practice Guideline For ADHD: Factsheet for people with a lived experience of ADHD.
Australian ADHD Professionals Association (2023). Guideline treatment overview for clinicians.
ADHD Guideline Recommendations and Decision-Making Flowchart for Clinicians (aadpa.com.au)
Australian ADHD Professionals Association. (2023). Summary of recommendations – Australian ADHD Clinical Practice Guideline. Australian ADHD Professionals Association.
Summary of recommendations - Australian ADHD Clinical Practice Guideline (aadpa.com.au)
Australian ADHD Professionals Association. (2022). Australian Evidence-Based Clinical Practice Guideline for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), First Edition. Australian ADHD Professionals Association.
Australian Evidence-Based Clinical Practice ADHD Guideline (aadpa.com.au)
Australian ADHD Professionals Association. (2022). Talking about ADHD language guide. Australian ADHD Professionals Association. Australian ADHD Professionals Association.
Australian Government, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2021). Australia’s youth: Mental illness. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
Australia's youth: Mental illness - Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (aihw.gov.au)
Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022). What is ADHD? Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.
National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. (2018). Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: diagnosis and management. NICE guideline [NG87] Published: 14 March 2018 Last updated: 13 September 2019
Sayal, K., Prasad, V., Daley, D., Ford, T., Coghill, D., & Sergeant, J. (2018). ADHD in children and young people: Prevalence, care pathways, and service provision. The Lancet Psychiatry, 5(2), 175-186. doi:10.1016/S2215-0366(17)30167-0.
ADHD in children and young people: prevalence, care pathways, and service provision - PubMed (nih.gov)
World Health Organization. (2022). ICD-11: International classification of diseases (11th revision). 6A05 attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. World Health Organization.
ICD-11 for Mortality and Morbidity Statistics (who.int)