From time to time, I suffer from a terrible side effect of ADHD — not of ADHD medication, but of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder itself. It is highly destructive, perhaps especially for women, and it has a name: ADHD writer’s block.
What is ADHD writer’s block, you ask? Well, first you have to understand the science behind ADHD. Now, full disclosure: What I am about to tell you *may* not actually be correct. You see, even though I’m confident that the cause I’m going to provide is right, so far, it’s politically correct just to say ADHD is thought to have that etiology. I know in my bones this explanation is accurate, and I’m pretty sure scientists haven’t thrown their weight behind it definitively only because they’re terrified they’ll turn out to be wrong. Still, this should not be taken as credible medical advice. Having said that, the primary source of ADHD is almost definitely, in a word, dopamine — or rather lack thereof. I think Jessica McCabe explains it best:
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that’s part of the reward system in our brain. We do a thing; we get a hit of dopamine; we feel good. The problem is, in ADHD brains, there aren’t as many dopamine receptors as there are in the average brain. We kind of have to flood our brain with dopamine to feel the effects. You’ve heard of heat-seeking missiles? We are dopamine-seeking missiles.
The kicker is that estrogen modulates dopamine systems. According to a November 1988 article in the New York Times, “In two studies involving 200 women … the women performed better on tasks involving verbal skill or muscular coordination when estrogen levels were high than they did when the levels were low.” In other words, the higher your estrogen levels, the higher your dopamine levels; and the higher your dopamine levels, the stronger your verbal acuity. Thus, women are left experiencing heightened difficulty expressing themselves, both in conversation and in writing, during certain times in their monthly menstrual cycle and throughout their lives.
During a bout of ADHD writer’s block, I, for one, feel tremendous amounts of frustration. I cannot overstate how aggravating it is to have half-formed brilliant ideas floating around in your head, but then be unable even to start typing when it comes time to write them down. Sometimes snatches of individual sentences will flit in and out of my mind, but when I set out to complete them and commit them to paper (well, to WordPress, anyway), they come out as gobbledygook, or worse, they don’t come out at all. This was a dangerous game for my brain to play with me back in grad school when I would need to write multiple-page papers on very imminent deadlines. And if you’re a professional writer, like me, it can actually put your career in jeopardy. Not to mention, it’s just plain annoying!
OK, great. But what are we supposed to do about it? Is there even anything to do about it? The answer, fortunately, is yes, there is:
As Devon Frye explains,
Caffeine is most commonly used to overcome sleepiness and increase productivity; in some people with ADHD, it’s thought to combat common symptoms like distractibility and inattention in the same way that stimulant medications do. […] Caffeine works by stimulating the autonomic nervous system — responsible for regulating heart rate and other involuntary bodily functions like digestion. In the brain, caffeine stimulates the release of certain neurotransmitters, like dopamine, and blocks the absorption of others, like adenosine — a chemical linked to sleep and relaxation.
So, there you have it. I usually am able to get my writing work done thanks to caffeine* — caffeine delivered in coffee form, that is. Personally, I get the most potent benefits from a regular coffee drink such as a Starbucks Grande Caramel Frappuccino (100 milligrams of caffeine) with an added shot of espresso (about 64 mg caffeine) thrown in. Of course, your mileage may vary. After all, I’m pretty sure I have the severest ADHD in literally (yes, literally, literally) the whole world; you may need less caffeine to achieve the same effects.
In any case, after about 15 minutes of intermittent sipping, I’ll suddenly notice myself finishing incomplete thoughts and finding the language that will enable me to evoke them. Now, that’s my kind of ‘java-script!’
*For the record, coffee is not the only palliative for ADHD writer’s block. More suggestions on how to combat ADHD writer’s block can be found in Beth Harvey’s February 2016 post on her blog Smart Girls with ADHD.