Stimming and Fidgeting As An Adult With ADHD

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The information contained in this post is for general information purposes only. The posts on this blog represent the opinions and thoughts of those with ADHD, and are in no way, shape or form meant to be used as a way to diagnose anyone with anything. If you believe that you have ADHD we urge you to reach out to our general practitioner for an initial assessment and possibly a referral to a specialist.

We all experience our ADHD in a different way, but one thing that many adults with ADHD experience is some form of self-stimulation, also known as stimming. Stimming occurs not just in adults, but in children with ADHD as well. In a child these stimming activities are often times interruptive and inappropriate in the moment, but it’s important to understand that the discomfort of not stimming can be far worse then trying to prevent a child from stimming. This is typically where you’ll see behavior get worse, as opposed to better when stimming discontinues.

What is Stimming and Why do we do it?

As you may already know, ADHD is a neurodevelopment disorder, not to be confused with a neurological disorder, where learning ability, self-control, memory, and emotion are impacted by abnormal brain function. ADHD symptoms, specifically, occur due to a functional impairment with the neurotransmitters in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This area of the brain, as you can probably guess, is responsible for the key functions of Executive Function, Attention and Memory, and Speech Production and Language.

My experience is that people believe that those with ADHD are, “not controlling their impulses”, which is exactly why more people need to understand ADHD. If I could control my impulses then I wouldn’t have ADHD, instead of trying to make me act more like you, perhaps, you could try to understand why I’m acting the way that I’m acting from the perspective of an ADHD brain.

What I’d like people to understand is that those with ADHD are acting on impulses because of overstimulation or even under-stimulation of the brain. When a neurotypical brain is working on a task, it can silence the external noises, thoughts, and visuals because their brain’s pre-frontal cortex is activated and operating at 100% efficacy. The ADHD pre-frontal cortex isn’t able to operate at 100% efficacy because it lacks the neurotransmitters, either due to lack of production or because the uptake of neurotransmitters isn’t suitable.

Regardless of whether the ADHD brain is overstimulated or under-stimulated, similar outward actions with represent themselves. When our brains are overstimulated it wants to keep that feeling, desperately. Think about the last time that you tried to pull your child away from your favorite video game. It can be a painful feeling to stop an overstimulating activity; and emotional instability can be frequent. Under-stimulation can be just as bad. If the ADHD brain doesn’t have enough stimulation then it’s going to seek stimulation in any way that is can.

Once the ADHD brains starts to lose stimulation, or is under-stimulated, stimming impulses are going to start to present themsevles.

What does Stimming look like?

Stimming is different for all of us. We all have activities that give us a level of comfort, but they probably aren’t common of the situation. Here are some specific examples of my Stimming activities:

  • Interrupting others during conversation when a thought pops into my head
  • Nail biting; this one is very common when I’m driving
  • Sitting on my hands when I need to sit still and quiet for a long period of time
  • Pace around the room
  • Teeth clenching/grinding
  • Adjusting my glasses on my nose
  • I smell my deodorant every time I put it on
  • I run my hands together
  • Flaring my nostrils
  • Clearing my throat

You might be thinking… these are things that most of us do. What makes these things a stimulation is when we do or think about these things when the situation shouldn’t call for it.

Other appearances of stimming may include:

  • Inability to take turns
  • Blurts out answers before hearing the end of a question
  • Runs when walking is more appropriate
  • Tapping fingers, feet or hands
  • Squirming and fidgeting/rocking
  • Humming/singing
  • Talks loudly without awareness of sound level
  • Unnecessary risk taking
  • Thumb sucking
  • Licking and kissing
  • Gazing at empty space or staring at objects with lights/movement
  • Rubbing hands together
  • Hair twirling
  • Rubbing, scratching, or tapping skin
  • Covering and uncovering ears, eyes or mouth
  • Finger snapping and clapping

These are activities that most of us do, or have done, regardless of whether or not you have ADHD. Someone with ADHD is doing these activities because of a feeling of discomfort, and these feelings are more consistent then not. These behaviors are stimming behaviors when they occur frequently, usually in association with a situation where having ADHD is difficult, such as in school and work settings where these stimming activities aren’t necessarily appropriate.

Many of us develop internal stims due to this stigma, which makes it even more difficult for a diagnosis. We come to believe that this is how we should expect to feel, but that doesn’t have to be the case. If we can learn to be mindful of how we feeling in those moments, we can be more vocal about communicating our needs. This will not only help us feel more comfortable in these uncomfortable situations, but only helps people in your life understand you better.

Keep track of those moments where you do any of the actions mentioned above, and create a list of your own stims. It’s only when you understand your stims will you start to realize when you’re stimulating yourself instead of working through the discomforts of everyday life.

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