When You Have ADHD, Boredom Is Painful
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can often lead to boredom. It can also result in discovering exciting methods to counter that discontent. In certain ways, I get bored less often than friends who do not have the condition, and what someone considers uninteresting is entirely subjective. Still, it appears I am not alone when it comes to ADHDers who absolutely despise being bored.
Boredom Is Very Uncomfortable for ADHDers
It can be hard to explain to others how excruciating boredom can feel. I was often baffled by those who refer to a job as “pretty boring” but still tolerable. A tedious job terrifies me (at least if it lasts a long time). ADHD coach Andrew Lewis puts it well when he compares ADHD boredom to physical pain.1 I have indeed been bored to tears.
Part of this frustration is how people respond. One therapist advised me that work is not fun, and we all have to do things we do not find “fun” to survive. At the time, neither of us thought I had ADHD. He was not exactly wrong, but his advice did not help me in the slightest. I found it incredibly disheartening. It made me feel that all I had to look forward to was a career doing something I hated or, more likely, moving from one unfulfilling job to another. Even wonderful jobs would eventually become intolerable.
ADHD and an Interest-Based Nervous System
Lewis notes that ADHD brains have trouble regulating dopamine, neurotransmitters “responsible for our feelings of reward, interest, and stimulation.”1 It is likely one reason ADHDers are prone to addiction. We must seek stimulation that our brain has issues processing. Interestingly, a stimulated brain also helps our self-control and ability to tolerate boredom, so engaging our brain by doing something enjoyable can actually help us complete banal tasks.
I was shocked when I first realized that many people prioritize projects based on importance (to them and others), rewards, and punishments. ADHDers tend to prioritize based on urgency, novelty, challenge, and personal interest.2 It is not that we lack attention, it is that we struggle to direct our attention at will. It can feel almost physically impossible to something I want or need to do if I find it horribly boring.
How to Cope with ADHD Boredom
ADHDers, including myself, develop many strategies to avoid being bored. (Not all of those coping methods are feasible or even safe.) When young, I would read cereal boxes, calculate serving sizes, and count things to keep my mind occupied. I also composed stories, made up television episodes, or went over favorite movies in my head.
Sometimes, staving off boredom involves taking breaks and slowing down. I am experimenting with working on projects for longer blocks of time while still breaking up those blocks in order to relax and reset. Checking in on your physical and mental health is also crucial. This might include taking a few minutes to meditate, exercise, and making sure to eat and drink. Counterintuitively, pausing when I want to speed up helps me feel more balanced and less restless.
Taking the right medication, creating something (writing, drawing, singing, etc.), and consciously doing things you enjoy, like reading or dancing, can also ignite those sparks that help with self-control and diminish boredom. Other tips include spending time outside, talking with friends, or trying something new and a little frightening.3
Do you have ADHD and feel the same way about being bored? If so, what challenges do you face and how do you deal with them? Let me know in the comments, and thank you for reading.
- Lewis, A., "I'm bored." SimplyWellBeing, Feb. 2017.
- Dodson, W., "Secrets of Your ADHD Brain." ADDitude, Summer 2013.
- Sinfield, J., "The Link Between ADHD and Boredom." Verywell Mind, Oct. 2018.
Matteson, N. (2019, June 12). When You Have ADHD, Boredom Is Painful, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2023, June 1 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/livingwithadultadhd/2019/6/when-you-have-adhd-boredom-is-painful
Author: Noelle Matteson
When I was in school, I thought everyone felt their brain chomping at the bit for class to end. I never realized how different ADHD made my experience at the time. Even though I was polite and never disruptive, I would truly seethe with anger at how slow time passed in class. My peers never shared the same desperation, even though they had the same goal. It feels silly to say being bored hurts, but it was truly awful. That pain is still so visceral in my memory that I don't miss high school or college at all. The fun times didn't measure against the toll it took on my brain to be still and "on-track" for that long.
I'm lucky now to be in a job that lets me listen to high-energy music while I work. Giving my brain something fun to have on in the background actually makes my "foreground" thoughts less likely to wander. Gotta do what works best for you!
Reading this just helped me make a connection. Years ago I needed a job, and took one with Verizon customer service. I have never not wanted to go to a job more than that one. Waking up every morning I had to go there was an exercise in depression. Like I can’t use a certain ringer on my phone anymore because I associate it with waking up to go to that job. If you were even a minute late then they would count you as being half an hour late or something like that (to make keeping track of hours and pay easier, and to save them money, I assume), so on mornings that I was late I would just sit in my car in the parking lot for half an hour, feeling depressed, but happy to not be in the building. Only now do I realize that this was because I’m ADHD, and it was a painfully boring place to be.
Yeah, boredom is scary.. that's why the pandemic has been tough on me. There are times I have no idea what I want to do or where to go, especially since I took leave of work for safety.
Then I remember that when at work I would dance behind the counter or while cleaning, and have strategies to stave off boredom. I can solve this problem.
Many people don’t realize how much control adhd takes in your everyday life. When I tell people I have adhd, they usually think that I’m just have too much energy and can’t focus sometimes. Reality is that adhd has an impact on almost everything you do, or don’t. When I feel that I get bored, I get a bit scared of what is about to happen. A huge engine inside me starts running and I just wanna leave the place, do something else, no matter what, just something else. When I stay longer in that position I get frustrated, angry or depressed and would like to hit against the wall till my hands, just to release stress, I don’t do it, but this feeling is unbearable.
I’m glad I found this - I am starting to realise that my lifelong habit of finding ‘boredom’ excruciating, and considering talking to my GP about ADHD. Put it this way, I’m 38 and the longest I’ve held down a job is 21 months. I’ve got a BA, post grad certificate and MA in completely different subjects. I’ve never been fired, but quit every job when I start feeling I’m going mad with boredom - which to me is a combination of lacking mental stimulation, having to stay in one place, and worst of all, then being expected to concentrate on an uninteresting task. I can find ‘dull’ subjects fascinating if I am on an information binge of my own creation (the history of nuclear reactors, brick bond types, etc) or need distracting (reading packaging, dictionaries, obscure news, etc). I can focus intensely on creative stuff (writing, drawing) but all my jobs have been office based and non-creative. I end up making lots of tea, going to the loo, and writing long emails to myself (disguised as work) to survive in these jobs, and then reach breaking point a few months in and leave... secondary school was the same - couldn’t do homework, but liked learning new things if interesting and did well in exams as got intense focus! Became really depressed at not being ‘normal’ but still couldn’t focus. I don’t think the term ADHD was used back when I was at school - I was just seen as difficult, lazy, fidgety, over talkative, forgetful and weird.
I’m hoping I can explain this to my GP and might show them your article, if that’s OK? Thanks!