Is what you’re going through a period of low motivation, or could it be something else, like ADHD?

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If you’ve been having trouble focusing on work or summoning the energy to complete your to-do’s, it can feel frustrating. It can be all too easy to put yourself down when you can’t meet the goals you’ve set for yourself.

You might also be wondering if this could mean you have ADHD. The answer to that is… “maybe.”

If you have ADHD, symptoms can affect certain aspects of your behaviors. People are often wrongly labeled as lazy — but a better way of putting it would be lacking motivation.

In reality, people with ADHD aren’t lazy. This myth tends to come from misunderstandings about how ADHD affects people. The low motivation sometimes experienced by people with ADHD is just one of many symptoms associated with this condition.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by a wide range of symptoms and behaviors, some of which can look like a lack of motivation.

Healthcare professionals use specific criteria to diagnose ADHD, which differs slightly between children and adults.

Symptoms and behaviors associated with ADHD include:

  • trouble focusing on tasks or becoming so focused on an activity that you lose track of time
  • difficulty paying attention and being easily distracted
  • moving from one activity or task to another without completing them
  • impulsive behaviors that may result in negative consequences
  • regularly forgetting items or appointments
  • low motivation to begin tasks, especially ones that don’t interest you

Some of these symptoms can look like an unwillingness to engage in a task or activity. This is most likely why some people associate ADHD with laziness.

In reality, there are many reasons you might have trouble staying motivated and engaging in tasks if you have ADHD.

Deficits in executive function

A 2020 study looked at the symptoms of ADHD in adults to see if they could identify specific patterns of behavior. According to the researchers, adults with ADHD showed deficits in executive function and different types of attention.

Executive functioning is the ability to plan, remember instructions, and carry out tasks to completion. If you have ADHD, this may be especially challenging for you, making it seem like you lack motivation.

Differences in brain chemistry

A study using mice suggests certain neurotransmitters — notably dopamine — may play a role in motivation for people living with ADHD.

Lower levels of this neurotransmitter can affect reward centers in the brain, causing a lack of enthusiasm for starting or completing tasks.

Researchers suggest that altered patterns in the dopamine pathway may be one reason you might have difficulty with motivation if you live with ADHD.

In addition, research in 2017 suggests differences in the brain structure of people with ADHD may also play a role in low motivation.

Challenges with sustained or divided attention

In a 2015 study involving 29 adults with ADHD and 30 people without ADHD, researchers found that those with ADHD had difficulty with selective attention and divided attention.

Researchers suggest this result supports the idea that focusing on an activity or multiple sources of information for a relatively long and undisturbed time can be difficult for adults with ADHD.

These differences in attention can appear to be a lack of motivation, when in reality, it’s a manifestation of ADHD symptoms.

Because symptoms differ between adults and children, and between males and females, it’s sometimes difficult to determine on your own if what you’re experiencing is ADHD.

For women, ADHD is often underdiagnosed. This may be partly due to the misconception that ADHD only affects school-aged boys. But symptoms of ADHD in women can look different from men, leading to confusion in the diagnostic process.

To figure out if your symptoms or behaviors might be caused by ADHD, you could start by taking this questionnaire. Tests like this aren’t meant to diagnose ADHD, but they can help you decide if it might be a good idea to reach out to a mental health professional for more info.

If you believe you’re having symptoms of ADHD regularly, or your symptoms are creating challenges in your relationships, work, and more, consider speaking with your doctor to figure out what’s going on.

Maybe you don’t meet the criteria for ADHD — so what else could be making it harder for you to feel motivated and focused?

Complex trauma (C-PTSD)

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder is the result of ongoing exposure to stressful events. It can cause symptoms and behaviors similar to ADHD, including lack of motivation and impulsivity.

If you’ve experienced prolonged and repeated trauma and now feel unfocused or foggy, you’re not the only one. It’s possible to manage C-PTSD — you can learn more about it here.

Depression

Tiredness, low motivation, and a lack of focus can also be signs of depression. If you’ve been having the following symptoms for 2 weeks or longer, it could be depression:

  • sadness
  • hopelessness
  • loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy

Anxiety

Anxiety disorders commonly cause feelings of overwhelm that can lead to challenges focusing — which may affect your motivation.

In addition, the following anxiety symptoms can make it harder to begin or complete tasks:

  • trouble concentrating
  • restlessness
  • difficulty remembering things

Existential crisis

Questioning your place in life — sometimes known as an existential crisis — can also cause reduced motivation. For example, if you’re having trouble finding meaning in your work or feel like you’ve lost direction in life, this can lead to low enthusiasm.

These feelings are usually temporary. Once you find your focus point again and identify your goals, your motivation will likely increase naturally.

If you think existential concerns are at the root of you feeling less-than-enthused about your current tasks and activities, it can help to talk with a trusted family member, friend, or doctor as you work through this time in your life.

If you have ADHD and are feeling unmotivated, you’re not alone. What you’re feeling is real — research even suggests there are biological reasons you may feel this way.

Still, ADHD isn’t the only reason for lacking motivation. Other mental health conditions can cause it, as well as different life phases you may be going through.

Whether it’s ADHD or another reason causing your tiredness (or general feeling of low enthusiasm), there are ways to manage it and eventually regain your energy, motivation, and inspiration.

And remember: Whatever the cause, you’re not lazy.