The Rise of ADHD and how to Combat It

Nick Monk: Smiling man with brown hair and tailored blue jacket.
Nick Monk, CTT Director

In a recent article in The Conversation, psychologist Allyson G. Harrison notes a huge rise in reporting of ADHD symptoms during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Harrison reports that "we’ve only diagnosed about five percent of these people with ADHD. This finding is consistent with other studies showing that most of the time, later-onset symptoms of ADHD are due to something else."

Harrison mentions symptoms that mimic ADHD are "depression, anxiety, stress, sleep problems, drugs/alcohol abuse, perfectionism, thyroid problems, trauma or personality disorder." While most of us do not have this challenging condition/disability, the symptoms Harrison lists are serious and debilitating. Fortunately, Harrison has a list of recommendations we can adopt to mitigate our ADHD-mimicking symptoms.

One method is to reduce the time we spend with our electronic devices. For those of us who find ourselves doing more of our work in front of a screen – in a world in which there was no shortage of screen time anyway – Harrison’s advice is that we do less of it can feel both reassuring and annoying. Yes, we see the benefits of apps that limit screen time, taking regular breaks, or doing something completely different, but we have deadlines to meet, grading to finish, lessons to prepare, meetings to attend, Zoom workshops to run. In a world in which technology has permitted greater flexibility, it can feel odd to reduce engagement with the very technology that has made that flexibility a possibility.

The truth is that we need to limit our technology dependence. We are undeniably embodied creatures. This is something I’ve adhered to as a philosophy since I was old enough to understand it, and before that, I just felt it. To our embodied selves the disembodied imperatives of communications technology is, in evolutionary terms, the work of the last nanosecond. As such, it does not sit comfortably with our embedded habits and patterns of behavior. So it makes sense that the pace at which technology moves us and the multiple simultaneous demands it places upon us, can set up counterforces to our embodied condition that disrupt us in ways not yet fully understood.

I have fragments of evidence that support the idea that if we refuse a mind/body dichotomy we are not only more relaxed but more insightful and productive. We simply learn better. I conducted a workshop at a teaching and learning conference a few years ago which was titled A Long Short Walk.

The session began, after the necessary framing and introduction, with the participants reading an article by the novelist Cormac McCarthy titled, The Kekulé Problem: Where Did Language Come From?. It’s a challenging piece that no one finds easy no matter their academic discipline, I stopped the group reading after ten minutes.

The instruction I then gave participants was to take a walk along a specified route, that would normally take ten minutes, in half an hour – three times more slowly than usual. Participants were required to make notes, and engage with sounds, sights, smells, and the feel of things along the way. They could not use phones or converse with one another. Their engagement with their environment had to be both slow and embodied. At the end of the walk, participants were asked to take up reading the McCarthy article from the point at which they paused. Everyone involved reported a surge not only in their alertness, but clearer focus and, in 60% of cases, increased cognitive function. Further research is called for here, but in the meantime my plea is that we recognize our physicality and that we monitor or screen time, breaking it up with an activity that requires us to be in our bodies, and absent from the separated worlds the screen creates.

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