Russell Ramsay on Attending to ADHD in Adulthood

Russell Ramsay on Attending to ADHD in Adulthood

by Lawrence Rubin
 Improve your transdiagnostic outcomes by paying attention to ADHD during the assessment and treatment of adult clients. 
Filed Under: Adolescents, Children, ADD/ADHD


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Three Avenues to ADHD

Lawrence Rubin:  Hi, Russell. Can you tell us about the typical clinical presentation of someone who has either been diagnosed with or is a good candidate for the diagnosis of ADHD in adulthood?

Russell Ramsay: Well, there’s a couple of different avenues.

If there is a history of ADHD or suspected ADHD they may think, 'All right, I’d better see somebody about this for managing adult life.'
The first is exemplified by somebody who may have been diagnosed in childhood or adolescence and is seeking out continuity of care in adulthood. They may not have come to us right out of high school but are usually making a transition, when all of a sudden and with increased chronological age, there are increased demands for self-regulation and self-management. Waking up and getting to class in college, managing homework, getting to a job on time, things like that. Usually, these clients will say things like, “You know what? I struggled with the same things over several years as I am right now and I keep starting anew, but I’m not making progress.” If there is a history of ADHD or suspected ADHD, they may think, “All right, I’d better see somebody about this for managing adult life.”

This may sound much more pessimistic than I actually intend, but there’s no end of the school year in adult life. You keep going, unless you're a teacher, whereas for children and adolescents, not that it’s any easy go, but if they can hang on until summer, everything stops. And then they can start over in the fall with a fresh slate—which also keeps some people from getting diagnosed until they move into adulthood. Maybe they can hold it together until the end of the school year when they say something like, “I should probably get an assessment,” followed by, “All right, I got through. It was okay and I started off the new school year okay. So maybe it was just last year.” But that gets repeated, and it becomes a continuity of care issue, with some people saying, “Okay, I had treatment in high school, and now I need some help in college.”

For people who do not come to us until adulthood and weren’t diagnosed in childhood or adolescence, we call them late-identified, not late diagnosis. With a full and thorough evaluation, we can usually confirm that there was emergence of symptoms in childhood or adolescence, even if they weren’t diagnosed at that time. And so people will come to us saying, “I’ve tried to make changes. I’ve made adjustments.” We’ve actually had college students who quit a sports team saying, “I have more time, but I’m not getting any farther ahead.”

a client may present in adulthood with repetitive difficulties managing what previously seemed to be manageable affairs
Or a client may present in adulthood with repetitive difficulties managing what previously seemed to be manageable affairs. And it is not all or nothing. It’s not like, “I never go to class. I never hand in homework.” The frustrating thing is, it’s something within reach, or there’s some documented evidence that “I know I can do this. The admission committee let me in the school. I did well in this class or I did well through midterms, but then I lost it later on.” That consistent inconsistency.

And that sort of drives some of the self-mistrust that can develop within these individuals. So, the second avenue is people saying, “I’m not fulfilling my potential.” We could have a philosophical argument about whether there is such a thing as potential, and if we’re not reaching it, is it reachable? But usually what people mean is, “I’ve done it well, but I don’t sustain it.” There are often college-related difficulties, dropping classes due to falling behind. And it’s not necessarily due to trying to be a physics major, then just finding out you’re not wired for physics.

In managing workplace affairs, even if it’s not a performance improvement plan, people might say, as one of my colleagues so insightfully described, that they’re “working twice as hard for half as much.” Or they might say, “People think I’m so dedicated because I stay late, but that’s how long it takes.” Or they do a lot of extra work on the weekends, which we are all familiar with, but it’s not because they are trying to get ahead so much as they are saying, “No, this is not me going above and beyond. This is me trying to catch up before Monday comes.”

The third avenue, which has recently gotten more clinical and research attention, is people experiencing the effect of ADHD on relationships, be it committed romantic relationships, parenting, or just keeping up with friendships. We see this occurring a lot after college, where people lose touch with people because it takes more maintenance to keep up with friends, as does scheduling and coordination.

We really need to think about ADHD as a problem of self-regulation
From the diagnostic standpoint, ADHD, the name, is probably not going to change. It’s a brand. The A and the H of ADHD are really red herrings. A friend and colleague, Russell Barkley, who is probably a leading, if not the leading figure in ADHD and other matters, has a great line for it. He says, “Calling ADHD an attention problem is like calling Autism eye gaze disorder or saying, ‘Oh, their eye contact seems to be okay, so it’s not autism.’” Some people, whether diagnosed with Autism or ADHD, can perform well in some circumstances. We really need to think about ADHD as a problem of self-regulation. How efficiently do you do what you set out to do?

And without diving too deeply into that, these folks can function pretty well some of the time, but there are enough recurring areas of difficulty. These include difficulties following through, usually towards deferred goals that take sustained effort to reach. And this could be retirement funds, papers for school, organizing behavior across time towards these ends.
LR: So ADHD, whether first recognized as an adult disorder or a continuity of a child/adolescent disorder, is a life management disorder based in part on continuous and pervasive deficits in self-regulation and executive function.
we’re probably not treating the symptoms of ADHD, we’re treating the life problems associated with ADHD
Right. As psychologists, we understand that medication use is evidence-based and that it can be very helpful, like prescription eyeglasses. And whether we’re speaking of medication or eyeglasses, some people will say that’s all they need. This is just like cognitive therapy for depression. I’m sure this isn’t empirically accurate, but the rule of thirds applies. One-third of people do well with meds only, one-third with therapy only, one-third with combined. A lot of people can do fine with medications alone. But even with a positive medication response, many people will say, “Yeah, but I still procrastinate,” or “I still don’t look forward to reading Beowulf or working on my income taxes, so I still put it off, but I can really pay attention to the sports page or whatever I’m reading.” So we’re probably not treating the symptoms of ADHD, we’re treating the life problems associated with ADHD.

Psychiatric Comorbidities

LR: You say in your writing that psychiatric comorbidity is the rule rather than the exception. What type of psychiatric syndromes or symptoms have you noticed in your work with this population?

RR: Well, both from my noticing it, and also from what has been found in the literature, the top three in ascending order are anxiety, depression, and substance use or addiction problems. And with that, we can probably even bundle in dealing with technology as a distraction.

Now, comorbidities are always interesting because anything could be a comorbidity, really. It makes sense that among these top three, anxiety, which we often see even in subthreshold form, is number one. I think that in the DSM-IV, this particular subthreshold phenomenon was relegated to the “not otherwise specified” domain. Now, in the DSM-5, it’s “other specified” or “unspecified.” In adult-identified ADHD, this anxiety is related to that consistent inconsistency, that uncertainty which is often associated with underlying fear and risk.

uncertainty creates the apprehension, and creating uncertainty is exactly what ADHD does. “I know I can do it, but I don't know if I’m going to be able to make myself
Uncertainty creates the apprehension, and creating uncertainty is exactly what ADHD does. “I know I can do it, but I don't know if I’m going to be able to make myself. I did fine on the midterm exam, but am I going to be able to study and retain and test well enough on the final to get a decent grade or pass the course?” Domains of difficulty can be layered with that uncertainty.

In some ways, anxiety is adaptive because it makes somebody pay attention more and focus on it, like gasoline on fire. But it can also lead to avoidance. And then depression is a sense of loss, so that can lead to disappointment. And that can create a cycle of avoidance, and then comes the self-fulfilling prophecy of, “Oh, you see, it didn’t work out well.” Or, “I tried my therapy and it’s not working, so nothing works for me.” And then comes disengaging.
LR: Hopelessness?
RR: And there’s hopelessness. And then the substance use problem seems to be tied in with the need to self-medicate or self-soothe or, in other cases, it’s maybe related to early initiation due to poor impulse control.
LR: So when you see these comorbidities like anxiety, depression, or substance abuse, is it more helpful for a clinician to conceptualize those as sequelae, with ADHD as the foundational deficit? Or can depression or anxiety or substance abuse lead to symptoms that mimic ADHD? Seems to be a nuanced differential diagnostic issue.
RR: Right. Taking that last point first, absolutely! And even going back to the executive functioning model or that self-regulation model, which addresses the importance of organizing behavior across time towards a delayed goal. We all have executive functions. Going back to Walter Mischel’s marshmallow study, we saw kids who were sitting on their hands during the study so they could earn the second marshmallow—that’s self-regulation. At age eight, sitting on your hands is self-regulation. Just like if those kids had marshmallow issues later on in life, not bringing marshmallows into the house so they weren’t tempted to snack on them would be an example of how this self-regulatory skill followed them forward in life.

So, just like attention problems are ubiquitous in the psychiatric emotional disorders, they’re also a symptom of pretty much every one of the disorders. If you’re in the midst of a major depressive episode, your executive functioning will go down. In the midst of an anxiety disorder, executive functioning goes down. If you have a sleep disorder, executive functioning goes down. In tracking these generally episodic conditions, it becomes important to ask these clients if these executive functioning problems or ADHD predate their emergence?

asking people later on in life which came first, the symptoms of ADHD or the trauma, can be a very difficult discrimination for them to make
One of the tricky ones is when there’s an early childhood trauma. Asking people later on in life which came first, the symptoms of ADHD or the trauma, can be a very difficult discrimination for them to make. Problems with attention and dissociation can both look very ADHD-like. They can also coexist, or the persisting executive functioning problems can exist and endure outside of specific triggering situations or a year with a teacher who might have been abusive and not effective in working with that client when they were younger. Experiences that occurred outside of the triggering situation and outside of any other explanation would warrant further follow-up about the possibility of ADHD.

Then there’s a second conceptualization, where we are simply seeing true coincidental disorders. This would be a clinical scenario where the disorders don’t necessarily or typically overlap, like panic disorder and ADHD, or maybe obsessive-compulsive disorder and ADHD. Social anxiety is another one, because sometimes the ADHD difficulties are very public, like the uncertainty and fear accompanying being called on in class.
LR: When evaluating a client for anxiety, depression, or substance abuse, would a clinician be well advised to also consider some sort of ADHD questionnaire, just to get a sense of executive functioning capacity and the possibility of a more pervasive underlying ADHD?
there are some good screening scales in the public domain for assessing the components of ADHD
I can be very liberal with heaping more work on some hard-working therapists out there, but there are some good screening scales in the public domain for assessing the components of ADHD. It’s important to remember that screening scales are designed, both for psychological psychology and medical practice, to cast a little bit of a wider net, trying to reduce some false negatives and maybe tolerate some false positives. But in order to identify potential follow-up as a differential diagnosis, sure, they can be helpful.

ADHD as Executive Dysfunction

LR: Okay. Let me drop back a step, Russell, because you’ve used a couple of terms that a lot of therapists out there may be familiar with but haven’t really connected to other disorders. You say that ADHD is an executive dysfunction disorder and a deficit in self-regulation?
RR: Executive functions pretty much are self-regulation, and as an umbrella term within the neuropsychology literature, they generally cluster around one factor. How efficiently do you do what you set out to do? And a lot of this comes right from some of the research of Russ Barkley, Martha Denckla, Tom Brown. There are several executive functioning scales out there, and they generally cluster around goal-focused behavior, referring to goals that we want—we have skin in the game.

Executive functions include task initiation, time management, organization, problem solving, motivation, impulse control, and emotional regulation. We now know that difficulty with emotional regulation within the domain of executive functions is a core feature of ADHD, even if it’s not in the DSM. And it’s not necessarily a mood or anxiety disorder itself. It’s managing the same frustrations and stressors in day-to-day life that we all face, but they just tend to be more disruptive and distracting for individuals with ADHD. And they have a harder time rebounding from them.

I use the example of taking your car in for an oil change, finding out that you need a whole new transmission, and having to decide whether or not to get a new car. Yeah, that’s going to be a little bit distracting, but most people can say, “You know what? When I get home, I’ll talk it over with my partner, and we’ll decide.” While somebody with ADHD may be more prone to say, “I have to look up things now and figure this out now and skip class or lose half a day at work.”
LR: Along these lines of executive dysfunction, which is associated with the frontal lobe, what are the implications of calling ADHD a neurodevelopmental disorder?
RR: I think it draws on evidence, on one of the more consistent findings, that within that particular category, there is a high genetic loading for ADHD. Whether or not genetics are destiny, the unfolding of that predisposition has a lot to do with environmental influences.

there is a high heritability rate in ADHD, which is tied with several interdigitating brain networks, particularly the prefrontal cortex, where the executive functions are housed
We also know there is a high heritability rate in ADHD, which is tied with several interdigitating brain networks, particularly the prefrontal cortex, where the executive functions are housed. It’s not a matter of justifying it one way, as genetic or environmental. I think where we are going with this is that there is going to be a predisposition, and these disorders that emerge in childhood might require some form of lifetime management. This would be similar to the case of diabetes in the medical model, which requires ongoing insulin or paying attention to one’s diet.

We all do that to some degree in the event of more chronic or lifelong conditions, but with ADHD, there might be more specific domains, a little different for each person, that require ongoing, intentional management. Another term in the literature related to this discussion is that ADHD is a quantitative difference, not a qualitative difference, particularly with regard to executive functions. The difference with somebody who, for lack of a better phrase, has intact executive functions is that they have a relatively consistent baseline, while that baseline for someone with ADHD is more variable.

'Well, if you’ve seen one person with ADHD, you’ve seen one person with ADHD.'

It’s almost like the baseline for the ADHD client is a moving target, that consistent inconsistency. And there can be different domains of the executive functions, each of which has its own developmental timing and unfolding. In this sense, different people can have different rabbit holes that can pull them down. One of the lines in my field is, “Well, if you’ve seen one person with ADHD, you’ve seen one person with ADHD.”

Culture and Society

LR: Contemporary clinical practice revolves around an increasingly diverse client base. Does ADHD target any one culture, SES, or race more than it does others?
RR: From the available evidence, it seems like ADHD is equal opportunity. Wherever there are human brains, the risk factor for ADHD is probably around 1 to 3%. Now, what we will see is in terms of identifying ADHD and seeking help specifically for it, that can be where we will hear people of a certain age say, “I grew up in the ‘70s or ‘80s. We didn’t have ADHD back then.” Actually, we did, but it probably just wasn’t as recognized. Or somebody will come from a different country, culture, or family system where they say that mental health issues were not first on people’s minds in terms of looking at what could be helpful.

I think there was an international study conducted around 2001 with college students. They might have found that there were zero Italian women with ADHD, but that was probably more of a cultural difference at that time. They couldn’t determine the differences in prevalence were culturally bound or related to gender. So, I think it would be safe to say that wherever there’s a brain, or a population of people with brains, there’s probably roughly the same prevalence of ADHD. But then there is a difference in rates of help-seeking behavior.
LR: Before we shift into some questions about treatment, Maggie Jackson’s book, Distracted, came to mind. Is the prevalence of ADHD somehow related to the complex, increasingly technology-dependent, fast-moving pace of our society? Or has it always been there, just waiting to come out, as would a previously latent viral threat?
even though ADHD is not environmentally caused, it is environmentally bound
You know what? It has always been there, because we see early accounts in the literature going back to the early 1700s. Even William James talked about attention and what grabs it. Now that said, even though ADHD is not environmentally caused, it is environmentally bound.

People say, “What about the anxieties and uncertainties in hunter gatherer or farming societies,” like forgetting to close a fence or things like that. When you start looking, there are different manifestations of it. But I would say from a diagnostic standpoint, and in the past 18 months or so of COVID reactions and working from home, there may be more people who are struggling with executive functions now than in the past. And where we rely on environmental scaffolding, like something as simple as going to the office, we can otherwise spend all day not working. But there’s limitations on what we’re going to do. Actually, there’s a term for that. It’s called presenteeism.
LR: Presenteeism?
RR: You’re at work but are nonproductive. This kind of phenomenon might be part of a thorough developmental review of different levels of academic achievement. Whether somebody was valedictorian of their high school class or, on the other hand, struggled with low or mediocre grades, people might have said, “You’re not fulfilling your potential.” You might even hear the class valedictorian say, “Well, my parents had to sit with me every night, even through high school.” Or somebody might have had mediocre grades whose parents said, “You’re not fulfilling your potential,” and they responded with, “No, I can do it. I choose not to. And I can pull it together, and I know what I am doing. And I do enough to stay on my sports team.”

we’re probably going to see some research on how this access to technology affects brain functioning for kids compared with other people
Bringing this back to issues like managing technology and whatnot, you’re right. The advent of digital technology is a unique watershed event in human history, this jump—I mean, humans have always had tools, but nothing like this. And so, that is part of the assessment. And even developmentally, children now have access to smartphones and tablets early on. And I think we’re probably going to see some research on how this access to technology affects brain functioning for kids compared with other people. Going back to self-regulation, there can be a lot of distractions, so it becomes important to ask about screen time and how much they are actually getting done. On the positive side, technology can help us to be more efficient and get more done in less time.

And then, somebody might say, “Yeah, I binge watched the show, I did all this, but when I was at work, I also got all my work done. And I’m on top of things. I clean up the kitchen when I say I’m going to.” It comes down to looking at that executive function. Someone might be struggling, and it could be ADHD that pre-dated COVID. And it’s just that the pandemic kicked it over in terms of their holding it together. But even in that case, they might say things like, “You know what? It was hard enough before. I was staying at work late and all these things. And now that I’m at home and have to make sure my kids are doing classes and things like that, that was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Shifting Focus to Treatment

LR: Russell, I’d like to shift gears a bit and chat about treatment by asking, what is it about CBT that lends itself so well to the treatment of ADHD in adulthood?

the initial and immediate appeal of CBT was its structured orientation and focus on performance and implementation outside of the session
I think the initial and immediate appeal of CBT was its structured orientation and focus on performance and implementation outside of the session. And not that other good therapies don’t do this, but that initial appeal came from the behavioral side and then along the way, seeing the role that cognitions play. And then we found that the emotional part, anxiety or discomfort, for example, were related to that “ugh” feeling. It’s like, “Ugh, I don’t feel like doing the lawn right now.”

It became important to help these clients to put words on the emotion. The cognitive piece plays a role in follow-through and emotional management. So, I think it started with the structure and the focus on behavioral follow through, setting up the environment differently, and then it became more nuanced over the past couple decades, including expanding into focusing on strengths and making the most of those as well.
LR: In what way does CBT specifically address the cognitive and emotional components of ADHD, including cognitive schema?
From the behavioral side, CBT’s value comes in helping these clients with engagement versus avoidance, because avoidance is probably the number one problem with adult ADHD
From the behavioral side, CBT’s value comes in helping these clients with engagement versus avoidance, because avoidance is probably the number one problem with adult ADHD. It’s not from a lack of caring, but instead they might say things like, “These things are difficult. It’s easy not to do them.” Their challenges can come from feeling overwhelmed or mismanaging time. There are a lot of ways that we don’t budget ourselves and end up spreading ourselves out.

From the emotional side, there is no single theme, but I think the main emotional task is avoidance and managing discomfort. The “ugh” feeling. Addressing the discomfort is very similar to progressive exposure for anxiety. We ask them, “How can you handle the discomfort by changing your relationship with it?” And we remind them that the discomfort doesn’t have to stop them and that they can then follow through with a plan for engagement and, by engaging, have the discomfort diminish. This is the proverbial, “Once I get started, it’s not as bad.” And then, hopefully, they can access their skills.

It’s not that they can simply think themselves into it. So much of it is about things we want to do and achieve, even if it’s stuff like homework that we just want to get out of the way so we don’t have to think about it anymore. But it can also be things that we want to do, like following through on an exercise plan or being able to play a sport.

it is important to remind them that even if ADHD is not their fault, it is their responsibility
If ADHD gets in the way of these goals, it may lead to disappointments and frustrations, and those then get turned back on the self in the form of negative self-talk and low self-esteem. One of the early popular books on adult ADHD was called You Mean I’m Not Stupid, Lazy, or Crazy? I think that’s very often the attribution that people have. While it is important to help these people with this negative attribution, it is important to remind them that even if ADHD is not their fault, it is their responsibility.

So we look towards coping strategies for ADHD that include reframing the mindset. That involves an understanding of ADHD, why things were difficult, and why some of the setbacks happened, and trying to set up systems and expectations moving ahead so that people feel more efficacious. I use that term decidedly because within cognitive therapy, different disorders have different themes. In depression, the cognitive theme centers around loss—loss of esteem, loss of opportunity. With anxiety, it’s dealing with uncertainty and the threat or risk that comes from that.

I landed on the recently-deceased Albert Bandura’s notion of self efficacy, which initially seemed too general. But in going through some of his writings, I came across the concept of “self-regulatory efficacy,” which is about one’s ability to stick through with all the dirty work that you have to do for those outcomes. I’ve got to sit down, I’ve got to study. I’ve got to write the paper. I’ve got to do something I don’t feel like, and that sort of gets to that emotional “ugh” feeling. It was virtually a rewording of the executive functions, without ever using that word.

And my sense of Bandura’s writings was that this capacity is assumed to be intact for most people. If somebody’s depressed and they have problems with efficacy, it’s more at the depression level. But I saw that as more of a fundamental feature for folks with ADHD. They know at some level that “I know I can do it, but I’m not sure I can get myself to do it when I have to do it.” And I think that’s what goes into the thoughts of procrastination: “I’ll do it later, and hopefully, at that time, then I’ll be ready to do it.” Interestingly, some of my colleagues have developed an ADHD cognition scale that actually includes distorted positive thoughts which lead to avoidance.
LR: Distorted positive thoughts?!
RR: They are permission-giving beliefs. A non-ADHD example is, “You know what? I’m going to have a second scoop of ice cream, and I’ll work out twice as hard tomorrow.” And if they do it, that’s fine. But these distorted permission-giving beliefs are things like, “I know this usually sucks me in, but I’ll just do it for a minute. Being impulsive is a big part of who I am. I work best waiting until the last minute.” Or these self-justifications for not now, later. And I think it is coming from that point of, “All right, I’m not feeling up to this now, but maybe I will be later.” But later then becomes now. What did George Carlin say, “‘Now’ is the only word in the English dictionary that changes definition every time it’s used?” But there’s always that “I’ll do it a little later, a little later, a little later” that then comes back to bite them.

Intention to Action

LR: Is this why you say that one of the core elements of CBT treatment with ADHD adults is converting attention into action?
we CBT psychologists are pretty good at helping people understand how they don’t do things
People say, “I know what I need to do, but I just don’t do it.” And there’s no trade secret about the strategies. I mean, it’s useful having different reframes or different ways to approach it, but we generally know what we need to do. And so, people say, “I know exactly what I need to do. If I could do all these things, I wouldn’t need you, psychologist. So what good is talking with you going to do about it?” And my answer to that is that we CBT psychologists are pretty good at helping people understand how they don’t do things.

Almost like a reverse engineering of the executive function. If we’re talking about procrastination, I’ll tell my clients, “You know what? You really need to start earlier.” Please, sue me for malpractice. But if we look at situations, and this is cognitive behavioral therapy in general, “Let’s reverse engineer it to understand how you procrastinated, because it could be a planning issue.”

If they say, “All right, I knew I had to do it, but I never made an appointment or told myself, ‘I really should do this Saturday at 10:00,’” in this instance, it could be organization. If they say, “I had the plan, but I lost it or didn’t check it,” it could be that they had the plan but didn’t feel up to it at the time and thought themselves out of executing it. The “ugh” feeling. Or they may say, “I just didn’t feel right, it was too uncomfortable or overwhelming,” or “I saw something else that needed to be done. Tell you what, let me clean up the kitchen, then I’ll be in the mood to work on taxes.” In actuality, they probably weren’t. If they were, that’s great.

I’m a big believer in the idea that there are multiple ways to do things well, which is what I mean by helping these clients to convert intention into action
I’m a big believer in the idea that there are multiple ways to do things well, which is what I mean by helping these clients to convert intention into action, by following our grandmothers’ rule of breaking it down into manageable tasks. But it is also sitting with somebody and being able to work through it. Like, how do I do that with this task to get to the point that they can say, “I can get started with that. This is manageable. It’s some sort of bounded task. I can see the end point and then I can work from there, reach the next end point, and then do it again and again.”
LR: Is this self-regulatory efficacy or lack of self-regulatory efficacy what you might consider a core schema underlying ADHD? And how do you address such an embedded belief system that is so potentially debilitating?

Core ADHD Schema

Right—that is my clinically informed hypothesis. And with that theme, within cognitive behavioral therapy, there’s the automatic thought, so we might ask the client, “What thought went through your mind at 10:00 on Saturday that led you to go mow the lawn rather than work on homework, or whatever it may be?” That’s like Freud’s notion of the preconscious, which is that there is a flow of thoughts or self-talk that we have going through our head. And if we pay attention to it—and that was one of Aaron Beck’s revolutionary ideas—then people can catch themselves thinking in this way and change it. You know, sort of promoting efficacy.

As the field of cognitive therapy for depression went forward and we saw that some people did really well, while others who didn’t had these core beliefs, it became clear that these nonconscious beliefs were probably being encoded emotionally. We could help people to become more aware of this process and catch themselves. This might sound something like, “You know what? If I feel okay, if it feels good, I can do it. Or if it’s interesting, I can do it.” This is the conditional rule. Or another version of that rule might be, “But if it doesn’t feel good, it must be bad, or I don’t do this.”

What we’re really doing is putting words on emotions. At the level of automatic thought, it becomes more about semantics. If we say the person has self-distrust thoughts, then it is a more localized process, as opposed to the embedded schema or global belief system around the notion of self-mistrust, which is more pervasive. They are related to each other.

in two studies of schema in adult ADHD, failure was the number one schema endorsed in both
In the case of ADHD, some people may say, “Hey, I know I’m good. I know I can do it, but it’s just, I really struggle in this specific domain at work.” Here, it’s relatively circumscribed, while for others, it extends beyond the workplace and is more pervasive. These people might believe, “I’m a failure. I’m no good.” Actually, in two studies of schema in adult ADHD, failure was the number one schema endorsed in both.

This makes sense, tying in with the efficacy. All the have-tos and many of the want-tos in adult life feel like, “I haven’t achieved as I ‘should.’” But when dealing with schema, we’re recognizing them—“All right, let’s put words on the old belief or the old frame.” And very often, it could be a failure belief of, “I haven’t done, and I can’t do, what I need to do, and nothing is ever going to work out.” That may be so, but it’s only one view.

Is there evidence to the contrary? And even if you say, “Well, no, I dropped out of school, did whatever”—all right, well, what do you want to do now? With getting treatments, medications, whatever it is for ADHD, what would you like to re-approach? And is there a different view you can have that’s like, “Okay, this has been difficult for me before, but I can at least give it a try and maybe put forth a better effort now that I have these supports and see what happens.” There may not be any guarantees, but it’s worth the try.

The Power of Framing

RR: There is support for this thinking from research on the power of framing. Just having a counterpoint of, “Is there something else I’m working towards or a different way of looking at this?” Even if we don’t buy it yet. It can feel like being an actor learning lines when the other ones had a head start. But at least now you doubled your options. There’s the, if you will, the failure outcome of this. But let’s come with at least, at the very least, the possibility view and consider how to manifest that. And then, nothing convinces like experience. Emotional, cognitive, behavioral—and each of them can change the other two.
LR: I can imagine, then, that a clinician can also draw on some of the techniques of Solution Focused Brief Therapy and Narrative Therapy to help a person draw out success experiences that they’ve had as a foundation for building future successes. How did you get yourself to class? How did you get that work done?
that’s the insidious thing about ADHD. It can overgeneralize and contaminate everything
Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein talk about islands of competence. Sometimes, that’s the insidious thing about ADHD. It can overgeneralize and contaminate everything. It might be helpful to ask somebody who is really good at getting to the gym or really good at a sport, “How do you practice all the time?” or “How do you get yourself at the gym?” Or you might point out to them, “There’s got to be plenty of days you don’t feel like doing it. Is there any way you can translate that into getting started on whatever chore it is or homework? Just as an analogy, just have that mode that you go to.” And they may respond with, “All right, here’s something I can try, and this can be like the first 10 minutes on the treadmill. Where it’s like, okay, it’s not my workout yet, but I need to break a sweat. So, I can give myself 10 minutes to break a sweat on homework or something like that.” I think the restorying that happens with narrative therapy is relevant here.

As an aside, I did my doctoral dissertation on personal narratives, so that’s near and dear to my heart. The thing about editing a story in the here-and-now is equivalent to saying, “Okay, this is sort of like there’s been a plot change, with the diagnosis of ADHD. What do I want to do with my character now?” It can be very useful to build on positives and things that might have gotten short shrift, either projects or wishes, or passions abandoned prematurely at the first sign of trouble, before the knowledge of ADHD was there. Or maybe it’s about things that somebody previously said “I can’t do.” And I might offer something like, “You know what? I can’t guarantee anything. That might be true, but is that something you’re willing to give a chance or give a try? And what does that look like, and how can you do it differently now?”
LR: As we wind down, Russ, I wonder if some of the symptomatology—the behavioral, emotional, and cognitive patterns that you described in folks with ADHD—also complicate treatment by leading to treatment resistance or avoidance or not following through outside of session?
therapeutic alliance plays a big part, because the therapist who is familiar with ADHD can validate the difficulties and setbacks, but also the successes
I think this is why we try to set up early success experiences, which also comes from the change literature and specifically the stages of change model. It’s sort of like building up momentum or getting a running start. If somebody has some big issues, like a performance improvement plan at work or getting ready for a final exam, there may be smaller examples from their day-to-day lives, like unloading a dishwasher or submitting their room application for next semester, that also have to be done. In these instances, my line for that is, “We procrastinate on the small stuff the same way we do the big stuff.” So it’s not like we have to go through every single thing, like, “Okay, here’s how you procrastinate on income taxes. Let’s talk about how you procrastinate on your local taxes.” No, we can take some of those elements and then adapt them, they can generalize to other things. And that’s similar to what we were talking about before, the solution focused, “All right, what can you use here over there for help?” So we try to have some success experiences. I think this is where the therapeutic alliance plays a big part, because the therapist who is familiar with ADHD can validate the difficulties and setbacks, but also the successes.

And it’s important that the clinician focus on normalizing by saying, for instance, “You know what? As we move ahead, there will be areas of difficulty. But that’s the name of the game.” So two things are at play which go back to the cognitions. People with ADHD tend to compare themselves unfavorably to others, thinking that everybody else has it so much easier. It becomes therapeutically important to validate that taxes and homework, especially writing assignments, can be very challenging.
LR: For everybody.
RR: Actually, writing assignments among college students, ADHD or not, are the number one procrastination target. People procrastinate on writing assignments because writing is hard. And even that reframe of, “Okay, this is hard for everybody” can be empowering, because we know that misery loves company, and we can point out that it’s a matter of degree. ADHD makes it harder, but can we get in there and then, you know, tolerate the discomfort that may be associated with that?

most people just want a clearer, more consistent sense of cause and effect. 'If I put in the effort and the time, then I’ll be able…'
And there can be this overgeneralization. “If I can’t do this, then there are other things I can’t do.” We want to ask, ”Let’s find out what you can do. And can you do this better? And it still may be difficult.” Most often, people say, “If I can just get the assignment done, if I get a B, I’ll take it.” And it gets back to that notion of efficacy, in that most people just want a clearer, more consistent sense of cause and effect. “If I put in the effort and the time, then I’ll be able…” to submit the homework, finish my classes by the end of the semester, whatever it is. It may not be “I have to be the CEO of some Fortune 500 company.”

But it’s just attending to the more immediate cause-effect relationships, like, “Okay, I did the work and I got the outcome, and now it’s gone. I did it. Now I don’t have to worry about it anymore.” And that’s just a nice starting foundation for people finding out that they can do the things that they want to do, and then maybe even start to expand beyond that more.

We can almost look at this process through a medical lens. There’s “rehabilitation,” and that is getting back to a baseline, such as rehabilitating a knee. Then there is “habilitation,” which is making the most of it with whatever resources we have. Here, someone might say, “I don’t have dyslexia or anything, but I’m just a slow reader. I have to read things a couple times.” Whatever it may be. It’s like, okay, how are you going to work with that?

So there are ways that you can play to their strengths and things like that. And my own cutesy line is “abilitation.” Like, after you take care of managing the problems with ADHD, are there some things, maybe some newfound directions that you can go in?

It’s like, “Hey, maybe I can try this.” It could be going back to school. It could be trying a new endeavor. It could be somebody saying, “No, I don’t want to go back to school and read textbooks. But if I read a biography of my favorite athlete, maybe I can get back to pleasure reading.” Whatever, however people define it. And that’s how newfound avenues get unlocked.
LR: I think that’s a good note to stop on. I want to thank you so much, Russell, for sharing your wisdom and your experience with our readers who may be struggling to succeed with their adult ADHD clients.
RR: Sure thing. You’re welcome.

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Russell Ramsay Russell Ramsay, Ph.D., ABPP, is co-founder and co-director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Adult ADHD Treatment and Research Program and an associate professor of clinical psychology in the Department of Psychiatry in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
Dr. Ramsay has authored numerous peer-reviewed professional and scientific articles, research abstracts, and book chapters. He is the author of five books related to the understanding and treatment of adult ADHD. His Adult ADHD Tool Kit has been translated into Spanish (Kindle version), French-Canadian, and is in the process of being translated to Korean; it has been designated as a recommended self-help book by the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies. His most recent book is Rethinking Adult ADHD.
Dr. Ramsay is an inductee in the CHADD Hall of Fame and received the Szuba Award for Excellence in Clinical Teaching & Research from the University of Pennsylvania. He serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Attention Disorders and is sought out as an ad hoc reviewer for many other journals. He has served on the Professional Advisory Boards (PAB) of the Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA; including serving as co-chair), CHADD, and on the Board of the American Professional Society of ADHD and Related Disorders (APSARD). He currently serves on the PAB of Totally ADD and is on the scientific advisory board of Additude Magazine.
Lawrence Rubin Lawrence ‘Larry’ Rubin, PhD, ABPP, is a Florida licensed psychologist, and registered play therapist. He currently teaches in the doctoral program in Psychology at Nova Southeastern University and retired Professor of Counselor Education at St. Thomas University. A board-certified diplomate in clinical child and adolescent psychology, he has published numerous book chapters and edited volumes in psychotherapy and popular culture including the Handbook of Medical Play Therapy and Child Life: Interventions in Clinical and Medical Settings and Diagnosis and Treatment Planning Skills: A Popular Culture Casebook Approach. Larry is the editor at

CE credits: 1

Learning Objectives:

  • Discuss how improve your transdiagnostic outcomes by recognizing the symptoms of ADHD
  • Plan treatment to help your clients manage the effects of ADHD
  • Critique the notion that children grow out of ADHD in adulthood

Articles are not approved by Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) for CE. See complete list of CE approvals here