ADHD and Chronic Boredom

Am I boring you?

If you have ADHD, the answer is: probably.

But the connection between ADHD and boredom is anything but boring. It turns out that boredom and ADHD are deeply entangled in a way that scientists are only beginning to understand.

For starters, research has found that boredom proneness predicts both attention- and hyperactivity- related symptoms of ADHD. In other words, people who get more bored more easily are more likely to exhibit these ADHD symptoms. This news may not come as a surprise to all the ADHDers with low boredom thresholds out there.

More generally, the ability to sustain attention and the ability to not get bored seem to be two sides of the same coin (or, at least, two sides of similar coins), so those who have trouble sustaining attention tend to get bored more easily and vice versa. A 2012 study showed that highly boredom-prone people have more ADHD symptoms on average than folks who find pretty much everything stimulating.

Perhaps less expected than the finding that ADHD and boredom often go hand-in-hand, though, is recent research demonstrating that boredom and ADHD actually have similar “symptoms” to the point that in some situations, it can be hard to tell the two apart. Another study done in 2012 investigated the relationship between boredom and ADHD by concentrating on a symptom that has potentially serious effects on ADHDers’ lives: risky decision making.

To look at how ADHD and boredom impacted people’s propensity for making risky decisions, the researchers ran a two-phase experiment. In phase 1, two groups of ADHDers and non-ADHDers respectively participated in a dice game that measured how often people made risky decisions. Unsurprisingly, ADHDers made risky decisions significantly more often than their non-ADHD counterparts.

In phase 2 of the experiment, two new groups of ADHDers and non-ADHDers were asked to play the same dice game. Before the game began, however, boredom was induced in both groups. Unlike in phase 1 of the experiment, the two groups were equivalent in their risky decision making this time around — the new group of ADHDers took as many risky decisions as the original group, but the new, bored group of non-ADHDers played a riskier strategy than the non-bored non-ADHDers from phase 1. In other words, being bored made neurotypicals act like they had ADHD, at least as far as risky decision making.

Although more research will have to be done to figure out exactly what the relationship between ADHD and boredom here is (sadly, there seems to be a dearth of boredom researchers), this study suggests something in common between the experience of being bored and the experience of being ADHD.

It might be too early to start calling ADHD a disorder of chronic boredom, but this angle can actually be helpful for explaining ADHD to non-ADHDers: having ADHD is like being bored all the time. As far as the understimulation, the always searching for something else to do and, yes, the willingness to make bad decisions just to inject some interestingness into life, the analogy might not be far off.

In the meantime, here are some tips to fight that ADHD boredom:

  • Listen to music: for dealing with boring tasks, the ADHDer has few better friends than background music. Try going for music without lyrics so the music itself doesn’t become a distraction.
  • Move: for ADHDers, movement is a great way of getting their brains back in the game. Fidgeting has been shown to help ADHDers think, and if you can find a way to get up and actually move around, all the better.
  • Chew gum: the research is ambiguous on whether gum chewing improves attention in general (ie. for non-ADHDers), but this can be a great way of letting out fidgety energy and staving off boredom for people with ADHD.
  • Work outside: if you have ADHD, you aren’t doing your boredom-prone self any favors by hanging around inside while working on tedious tasks. Try moving your workspace outside. Green areas can be especially helpful.
  • Take your meds: maybe obvious, but too important a tool to leave out. While there haven’t been any studies on this as far as I know, I’d bet good money that ADHDers are less boredom-prone when on their meds. So if you’re feeling understimulated, well, try a stimulant. Or at the very least a cup of coffee.

Got any other boredom-busting tips that work for you? Leave them in the comments below!


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