Exploring ADHD and autistic spectrum states from the perspectives of neuroscience, psychoanalysis, and energy psychology.
ADHD consists of a spectrum of difficulties (as well as benefits) affecting multiple areas of functioning. The deficits are not restricted to the domains of attention and levels of activity, but disrupt all areas of self-regulation, management of affect, goal-directed activity, and relationships with others. These difficulties can all be conceptualised within the Freudian framework of impaired ego functions, and enhanced needs for regulatory assistance from others – the selfobject functions described and theorised by Kohut.
ADHD can be comorbid with many mental (and physical) health conditions, including bipolar disorder – and may be a hidden core in Borderline Personality Disorder. Abnormal functioning of the frontal lobes appears to be a key feature, but many factors can contribute to this. Benefits of ADHD can include creativity, independence of thought, and a capacity for hyperfocus on tasks that are of interest
Some guidelines regarding ADHD
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD] involves problems with attention, the pursuit of goals, and the regulation of emotion. It is thought to reflect primarily a subtle variation from normal brain function.
The diagnosis of ADHD is not precise (this is true also of most psychiatric diagnoses) – but a common constellation of problems are often found together, and in recent years this has been termed ADHD. Some clinicians consider this is quite common, whilst others are doubtful of its existence in adults. Often it seems not to be recognised in childhood, where a child is viewed just as ‘naughty’ (although in some instances an overdiagnosis of ADHD may occur). It seems reasonable to suppose that a child with ADHD will grow up to be an adult with ADHD. A person who has struggled throughout life with ADHD problems, and the impact of these on their family and social relationships, may very likely also attract a diagnosis of ‘personality disorder.
Why does ADHD occur?
ADHD is thought to involve a deficit in the functioning of the frontal lobes of the brain – areas that are to do with planning, attention and concentration, abstract reasoning, inhibition of impulse, and regulation of emotion. This can give rise to the following set of difficulties:
- A tendency to 'jump to conclusions'. This might be thought of as a kind of cognitive impulsivity. The person forms a conclusion based on a superficial appraisal, or without adequate attention to facts. This false conclusion is then believed and acting upon. It can be combined with impulsive behaviour, with potentially harmful consequences: 'Jumping to conclusions' - a less commonly recognised feature of ADHD / Blog | Psychoanalytic Energy Psychotherapy (philmollon.net)
- Lack of normal social inhibition (when emotions are aroused).
- Difficulties with concentrating and attending
- Low tolerance of frustration
- Proneness to rage and tantrums
- States of being overwhelmed with emotion – no ‘emotional brakes’ – resulting in escalating storms of rage and other emotions.
- Self harm, when rage is discharged on the self.
- Aggression against others, particularly within the family.
- Difficulties in forward planning, establishing goals, and pursuing these.
- Social difficulties – resentment of the demands made by others.
- States of feeling overwhelmed by the demands of daily life.
- Difficulties staying on track – wandering off and being easily distracted.
- Procrastination - a difficulty in undertaking any task, even those that are simple and routine, if these are not of immediate interest or rewarding. This can result in a kind of behavioural paralysis.
- Very low tolerance of boredom – some people with ADHD describe boredom as ‘terrifying’.
- Childlike neediness – appearing immature and experiencing difficulty grappling with the demands of adult life.
- Egocentricity, due to a difficulty in decentring from one’s own need, emotion, and perspective.
- Lack of clear identity and self-concept.
- Low self-esteem.
- Restlessness, dissatisfaction, and dysphoric mood.
- Mood swings – with extremes of mood and emotion.
- Violent feelings of hatred.
- Sensitivity to rejection Sensitivity to rejection - a common feature of ADHD / Blog | Psychoanalytic Energy Psychotherapy (philmollon.net)
There are some positive features of ADHD – and no doubt it has been selected by evolution for having value for the survival of the group:
- Creativity (in both arts and science).
- Enjoyment of activities involving constant change and challenge.
- Activities where risk-taking is an advantage
- Artistic innovation
- The capacity to be ‘different’.
- In earlier evolutionary times, such people may have been hunters or fighters.
- People with ADHD can be highly intelligent.
- The ADHD brain and unconscious mind may be capable of 'quantum computing', a capacity to consider multiple possibilities concurrently and process large amounts of information, giving rise to intuition and 'knowing'.
It is thought that many high-achieving people have ADHD.
ADHD can run in families.
Ways of adapting to ADHD.
- Understanding the problem can be important.
- Realising that it is no-one’s fault – this can be a relief to both the person with ADHD and their family.
- A person with ADHD may appear angry – and may assume that they must be angry about something, perhaps blaming family and other circumstances. The truth is more likely that the person is angry because he or she has an ADHD temperament and therefore finds life inherently frustrating, irritating, sometimes enraging, and often overwhelming – the demands of society being experienced as impossible, and perhaps even an offensive imposition. Understanding this – and accepting the nature of the basic ADHD temperament – can be important.
- A person with ADHD can learn methods of affect-regulation, to reduce agitation, anger, and anxiety. Simple and natural de-stressing methods, such as EFT, can be helpful.
- Simple exercises from the field of educational kinesiology can be helpful in generating greater coherence and balance in mind and brain – for example, ‘Cooks’ Hookups’.
- Simple adjuncts to memory and planning, such as writing goals and lists, can be helpful.
- Avoidance of foods and additives that appear to trigger ADHD symptoms can often have a marked effect – these are often highly individual, but the additive ‘Aspartame’ is particularly notorious.
- Those close to a person with ADHD may need to learn to reduce expressions of emotion. Expression of anger towards a person with ADHD may evoke strong and overwhelming anger and anxiety in response – creating situations that can easily escalate. Communications are best kept simple, and emotionally ‘low key’.
- Interpersonal communications that are too complex, confusing, or contradictory, may cause the person with ADHD to feel overwhelmed with anger and anxiety.
- It must be understood that a person with ADHD will not be able to control his or her emotions once they have escalated beyond a certain critical point – resulting in potentially hazardous situations. Therefore it is important for that person, and those close to him or her, to find ways of noticing the warning signs and shifting to an alternative strategy. For example, a person with ADHD may learn that walking away from an escalating situation, before it reaches the critical threshold, may be a feasible option. Others around the ADHD person may find that backing off, speaking quietly and with less emotion, leads to a calming.
- People with ADHD are easily overwhelmed with the tasks of life – resulting in anxiety, anger, and even panic. Therefore, help with organising, planning, and thinking through these tasks can be enormously important.
- Tasks need to be broken down into manageable chunks.
- A person with ADHD will often be extremely grateful for understanding of their difficulties – particularly since much of their life may have been characterised by negative social interactions, spiralling mutual aggression, and an ever-plunging self-esteem.
- Society needs people with ADHD – life would lose much colour without them.
Key points for psychotherapists in relation to ADHD
ADHD is a neurobiological condition that interacts with a child’s and adult’s interpersonal environment to create a variety of difficult and painful experiences and profound effects on a person’s self-esteem. Most psychotherapists, clinical psychologists, or counsellors will have clients with ADHD, but perhaps without understanding the nature of this condition. Many people with ADHD do not realise this is a central part of their problems. Vast amounts of time and money may be invested in fruitless explorations of psychodynamic explanations for the individual’s anxiety, procrastination, emotional upheavals, mood swings, episodes of rage, impulsiveness, failure to follow through on commitments, chronic lateness, and generally erratic behaviour. Years of difficulty, helped only minimally by mental health professionals, may leave an adult with ADHD deeply wounded in their feelings about self and life.
A person with ADHD may know they cannot manage many ordinary aspects of life, may know they tend to be disorganised and forgetful, may know they get bored easily and find this very aversive, may know they can be impulsive, and easily get into fights and arguments, may know they tend to experience life as tedious, painful, frustrating and unrewarding, may know they can feel depressed and anxious – but they may not know they have ADHD!
There are many variants of AD(H)D. Some tend more towards hyperactivity and some are more dreamy. It is a spectrum and a mixture, without neat categories. There is also much overlap with the autistic spectrum,
The name ‘Attention Deficit Disorder’ is misleading
Much misunderstanding arises from the name, with its emphasis on attentional problems. Whilst difficulties in sustaining attention can be a feature, this is not the key defining factor – and, in fact, people with ADHD are often capable of sustaining obsessive attention for long periods on a task that is of interest to them (a phenomenon called hyperfocus). The core feature of ADHD is a difficulty in the brain’s management of itself. Although many complex brain functions may be involved, it is generally recognised that under-functioning frontal lobes are crucial. The frontal lobes are somewhat like the Freudian ego, managing the interface between inner needs or drives and the outer environment. It is the frontal lobes that apply the emotional brakes and inhibit impulses in order to achieve longer term goals. With these functions in deficit, the person with ADHD is often overwhelmed and floundering.
A person with ADHD needs external assistance in managing their brain
We are all, throughout the lifespan, dependent on empathic and responsive others for our well-being, but particularly so during childhood. In the case of the person with ADHD, this need for the presence of a responsive other, who can function like an external ego, is more pronounced. The responsive other is needed as someone to talk things through with, to help motivate, to sooth and reassure, and to remind the person of priority tasks. When this responsive other is not available, or fails in some way, the person with ADHD may feel extremely anxious, may panic, or fly into a rage.
The brain of a person with ADHD will seek stimulation – as if trying to wake itself up. Unfortunately, this stimulation sometimes takes the form of fights and arguments with others, or the creation of drama. This can be addictive.
For some people, stimulant medication is helpful because it wakes the brain up and increases arousal in the frontal lobes. This has a paradoxical calming effect. The drug takes the place of the other person as an external ego.
Deficits in reward and motivation
It can be very hard for a person with ADHD to engage in tasks that are not immediately of interest or rewarding. Procrastination can be a significant problem – a difficulty starting, and then sometimes a difficulty stopping. Their neurobiology is such that they are deficient in the processes mediating reward and motivation. As a result, they are inclined to experience life as dreary and to feel depressed. This may lead them to seek activities and substances that provide immediate reward and pleasure.
The deficit in reward neurobiology leads to negative emotional interpretations of events and other people’s motivations. This neurobiology also leads them to feel unloved, because their inner brain responses do not match the external expressions of love by others.
Part 2. The focus of therapeutic work
It is important to develop a feel for the various presentations of ADHD and an empathy for the helplessness the person may feel in relation to their own mind and brain.
How to quickly spot ADHD
ADHD is often revealed easily through the person’s conversational style. He or she may not listen well, may speak rapidly as if under pressure, may interrupt the other person before they have completed a sentence, and may interject with their own associations. Their discourse is impulsive, and has the quality of a discharge of tension rather than an intentional communication of thought. In a psychotherapeutic context, the person may not stop to listen to the therapist’s remarks but will plough on with their own stream of words. Some other ADHD clients may, by contrast, appear inarticulate, incoherent, and extremely anxious.
Shame is always a feature of the experience of people with ADHD, and it is crucial that this is explored. It stems from repeated experiences of failing at multiple basic tasks of life and in social interactions. The person feels shamed and humiliated and embarrassed by his or her own erratic behaviour and the intensity of their emotional states. When the person is emotionally aroused, in anger or anxiety, he or she feels overwhelmed and out of control – a state of disintegration. This may be regarded as an endogenous trauma, evoked by the intensity of the person’s own emotions that overwhelm the ego. Such experiences then give rise to mortifying ruminations around shame. A spiral of shame, rage, and panic may ensue.
Shame may also lead to attacks on the self – both internal, in the form of critical and judgemental self-talk, and in external behaviours of harming the body. The latter will then lead to more shame.
- The first task is to help the person understand the nature of their ADHD and how it has affected them throughout life. This can help reduce feelings of shame and facilitate compassion for self.
- A second task is to address the multiple shame-based traumas that have resulted from having an ADHD temperament. Methods such as EMDR and/or energy psychology modalities such as EFT can be very helpful. When using energy psychotherapy, tapping on acupoints or other energy centres can be combined with a global phrase such as “all the times and ways I have felt overwhelmed by my own emotions”. Out of this, significant specific experiences may emerge, which can then be tapped through until the shame and other emotions have dissipated.
- The third task is to help the person find strategies for managing ADHD. An important aspect of this is to identify some of the positive benefits of ADHD, such as creativity and the capacity to sustain long periods of work on a task that is of interest. People with ADHD are naturally rebellious and seek stimulation and novelty, and a degree of brain ‘chaos’ can facilitate making unusual connections – this combination of factors can often be a good basis for an entrepreneur.
- A fourth task is to help the person identify goals, and then clarify the steps involved in achieving these. Often a person with ADHD will have a goal, but no realistic idea of how to get there. Their goals and expectations may also be quite grandiose. Asking practical questions can be important in introducing reality to the fantasy. Empathy and tact are required in addressing grandiosity and narcissistic vulnerability.
It is important to convey that neither the individual nor their family of origin are to blame for the ADHD constellation. The basis is neurobiology, and the family and individual psychodynamics are secondary to this. All involved in the situation will have suffered, and no-one is to blame.
Phil Mollon PhD
Psychoanalyst and Energy Psychotherapist
Mollon, P. (2015). The Disintegrating Self: Psychotherapy with Adult ADHD and Autistic Spectrum. London. Karnac.
Video: So you think you have ADHD…