Our resident Bristol Wellbeing College blogger, Chrissy, writes about the experience of her mum being diagnosed with ADHD in her 50s, and the benefits of art for people living with ADHD.
When I was growing up, my mum was always the Fun Mum.
You know the ones.
Generally covered in paint or flour or varnish or a combination of all three, she was a whirlwind of exciting ideas for adventures and activities, wrapped up in a cute scarf with cats on.
Our house was full of canvases and painted picture frames and jars full of glass beads and coffee beans. There was a significant period of time where she built a studio flat for my barbies on her bedroom window sill and, every day when I got home from school, the dolls would be acting out a scene from the soap opera-drama narrative she’d created for them. I still can’t believe Ken left Barbie for Sindy, honestly.
But she also had intense anxiety, struggled to carry on with any idea past the first rejection, and God help you if you saved the point of your story till the end because she definitely wasn’t listening anymore.
My mum is an artist, and I always credited her whole deal with being creative and quirky. I’m the same way, it totally makes sense to me.
But then, at the grand-old-age of 50-something, she found out she had ADHD. And the diagnosis turned out to be so accurate it’s scary.
In both children and adults, ADHD is a common neurodevelopmental condition. But it is often misunderstood, particularly when it comes to how it presents in women.
ADHD is often thought of as a ‘kids’ problem’, and kids with ADHD are stereotyped as being loud, uncontrollable and hyperactive.
However, not all kids with ADHD experience hyperactivity.
In fact, there are actually three types of ADHD, and hyperactivity doesn’t have to feature at all.
This form, which refers to difficulties around attention and focus, is called Predominantly Inattentive Presentation, sometimes known as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), and is the form that is more common in women and girls.
Children with ADHD were once believed to grow out of it as they matured, but studies have shown that ADHD symptoms do frequently continue into adulthood.
The lack of understanding as to what ADHD is and what it looks like is one of the many reasons that people (particularly adults) take so long to be diagnosed. And it takes even longer to understand the condition and find ways to harness it for good (or evil, it’s your life).
Research from the Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) suggests that the condition may be caused by an imbalance of pleasure-promoting neurotransmitters, such as dopamine.
Therefore, people with ADHD often feel chronically under-stimulated, finding it hard to stay engaged, interested, or present in the moment.
But this doesn’t mean that they don’t focus, or don’t find anything interesting.
In fact, one of the biggest misconceptions about ADHD comes from its very name. People with ADHD often don’t have a deficit of focus – instead, they have difficulty regulating their focus.
But, ADHD may also offer a key advantage: the ability to think creatively.
There is evidence to suggest that people who possess high levels of creativity may also exhibit the lessened inhibitory behaviours present in those with ADHD.
According to Scientific American, three main aspects of creative cognition are:
Divergent thinking (the ability to come up with lots of different ideas from one basic concept)
Conceptual expansion (the ability to develop existing ideas or broaden the scope of established concepts
Overcoming knowledge constraints (the ability to innovate and conceive of new ideas without being limited by what we already know)
Some of the biggest scientific discoveries in the world, such as Einstein’s theory of relativity, and the idea that the planets revolve around the sun, are examples of people overcoming the constraints of existing knowledge.
Such creative thinking doesn’t have to be limited to scientific discoveries, so put that spectrometer away right now.
It has been suggested that Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent van Gogh, and Pablo Picasso had ADHD, with historians positing that each presented many classic ADHD characteristics.
Each of these artists displayed an intense focus on their art. Each had a way of working that made meeting others’ expectations of them challenging, such as finding it hard to meet deadlines
Hyperfocus is one of the symptoms of ADHD that is less well-known, but very common. This means that people with the condition often focus intensely on things they are interested in – a great advantage when it comes to creating art.
Some people with ADHD struggle with impulsivity and can have a low tolerance for boredom, so often love trying new, unusual and exciting experiences. But people with ADHD can also feel their emotions deeply and can be sensitive to rejection (whether real or perceived). This can make a creative outlet rewarding for people with ADHD – it’s a way of expressing emotions while partaking in a fun activity.
Ok, so it’s not all sunshine and heliocentric planetary models.
Where ADHD can make for enhanced creativity, other elements of the condition can also make the creative process difficult.
Many people with ADHD find that their difficulties staying focused on one thing can lead to losing focus, bouncing from task to task, and difficulty prioritising.
According to biographers and contemporaries, Leonardo Da Vinci was notorious for missing deadlines and jumping from task to task.
Starting a project is easy. Finishing is a whole other thing.
In his book Scattered Minds, renowned doctor author Gabor Maté (who also has ADHD) explains that the individual with ADHD:
“Experiences the mind as a perpetual-motion machine. An intense aversion to boredom, an abhorrence of it, takes hold as soon as there is no ready focus of activity, distraction or attention.”
At the same time, this need for stimulation works against the heightened sensitivity of those with ADHD.
Those with the condition are often “more attuned to sensory input such as sound, colour or musical tone”. Some people with ADHD report feeling intense emotional responses to triggers such as rejection or criticism (sometimes referred to as Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria (RSD)).
If you have ADHD, then you’re in pretty good company.
Historically significant artists and scientists aside, the creative boost many contribute to their ADHD has benefits in the celebrity world too.
A seven-time Grammy Award winner, will.i.am uses his music to manage his ADHD. He says that creating music works as a form of ADHD therapy and helps him stay focused and control his thought patterns.
Similarly, Simone Biles, with seven Olympic medals under her belt, focuses on channelling her ADHD into athletics, stating:
“Having ADHD, and taking medicine for it is nothing to be ashamed of, nothing that I’m afraid to let people know.”
Art therapy and ADHD
So, we know that ADHD may have links to creativity, and that channelling ADHD symptoms into creative pursuits can be very rewarding (unless you, like, hate the idea of 7 awards).
That’s why art therapy offers real benefits to those with ADHD, as well as many other conditions.
Creating art helps people with ADHD to direct their energies constructively, increases focus, and promotes relaxation.
Painting, sculpting and drawing require you to use your body, thoughts and emotions at the same time, helping you to centre yourself in the moment.
Creating also boosts happy brain chemicals like serotonin, which are calming and grounding by nature.
This is basically meditation, and at the end you’ve made a vase, so potentially even a bit better.
You’ve heard the spiel, now see the art! Check out ADHD art over at ADHD Awareness Month.org, where they are displaying a variety of creative work done by people with ADHD. There’re even memes.
Discover your creative side with Bristol Wellbeing College
Exploring your creative side is a great way to nurture your mental wellbeing. As well as the sheer joy of creating something just for the sake of it, creative pursuits like art can help you channel your emotions and express yourself in ways that are hard to put into words.
At Bristol Wellbeing College, we regularly run free creative workshops, such as our upcoming festive Arts & Crafts sessions throughout December at community venues across Bristol.
Check out the Bristol Wellbeing College page to find out more about our upcoming mental health and wellbeing workshops.