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Are You Easily Distracted Or Is Your Short Attention Span More Serious? A Psychiatrist Explains

Gail Saltz, M.D.
April 6, 2017
Photo by Stocksy & Breather
April 6, 2017

Most of us can relate to our favorite distraction: our smartphones. You open it up to send a simple text but quickly fall into reactive mode, responding to texts, emails, and Instagram notifications before you forget what your intention was in the first place. As our attention becomes a commodity sought after by advertisers, social media, and contacts who want to be always-in-touch, the struggle to maintain longer-span attention is real. What does that mean for us: Are we all developing ADD, or do we just need to get focused?

Attention deficit disorder (ADD) has become much more known as a diagnosis of distractibility, often leaving many people to wonder if the trouble they (or their child) experiences concentrating on something is the diagnosable disorder or is just being easily distracted.

What are the real symptoms of ADD?

It is true that the kid who has trouble paying attention in class or the adult who strains to really focus at the meeting could be manifesting one symptom of ADD. But it's also true that there are many reasons anyone can be distractible from increased anxiety, feeling depressed, and difficulty processing directions to being bored by the material they have trouble attending to. ADD, on the other hand, is a collection of symptoms with very specific characteristics.

In addition to being distractible, those with ADD have difficulty in organizing tasks. This can be issues like difficulty meeting deadlines, keeping belongings organized, or following a set of longer directions. Another common symptom is losing or misplacing needed things like keys, your phone, books. Forgetting to do daily activities like chores or appointments is also a part of ADD, but simply being distractible alone is not. Making careless errors on schoolwork or adult work is more likely to be part of ADD as well. These are all features of the "inattentive subtype" of those with ADD.

The nuances between ADD, ADHD, distractibility, and anxiety, explained.

Some will instead grapple with more symptoms related to hyperactivity called attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. These symptoms are being both fidgety or what I would call "ants in the pants" as well as being impulsive in ways like interrupting others, not waiting your turn, and talking and moving incessantly.

Having a period of being more distractible can really happen at any age, but ADD and ADHD must have started in childhood, before age 17. You may not have been diagnosed, but you can remember these being issues that started when you were in school. Also, while a person can be distractible in only one arena of their lives, such as with a spouse if they are feeling annoyed at them and therefore tuning them out, to be diagnosed as ADD these distractions must be affecting you in at least two different settings, such as school, work, and/or home.

Perhaps the most important distinction of all is that ADD must clearly affect your functioning, causing you to be impaired in at least one arena: socially, academically, or occupationally. From my clinical experience, I can also note that it is important to make sure that your symptoms are not better explained by anxiety, which can also cause you to be distracted, disorganized, forgetful, and impulsive, but because you are consumed with worried thoughts.

What can you do to help ADD, or ADD-like symptoms?

The good news is that ADD is amenable to treatment. Some people benefit most from therapy and training that provides tools to organize and improve focus. Others may require medication to help. What few people know, however, is that while ADD does create struggles in some arenas, the ADD brain also tends to have very particular strengths. Those with ADD often possess exceptional originality and creativity associated with their disinhibited thought process. Their ability to hyper-focus on content of interest can result in outstanding and dedicated work. People often come across as high energy with a willingness to act upon their "out of the box" ideas, which makes them an appealing leader in many fields where creative thinking is highly valued.

If you are still wondering if your distractibility might be ADD, an evaluation by a psychiatrist or psychologist in this area of specialty can discern what is truly going on.

Gail Saltz, M.D. author page.
Gail Saltz, M.D.

Gail Saltz, M.D., is a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell Medical College and a psychoanalyst with the New York Psychoanalytic Institute. A frequent contributor in the media, she is a columnist, bestselling author, podcast host and television commentator and one of the nation’s foremost go-to experts on a variety of psychological and mental health issues, especially those pertaining to women’s emotional well-being, relationships, and the mental health aspects of current news. In her new book, The Power of Different: The Link Between Disorder & Genius, she explores how mental disorders can be an empowering source of creativity.