Kopchick: How students with ADHD – and those without – can stay focused for distance learning

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Everyone struggles with distractibility at some point. ADHD is one of the most well-researched mental disorders, yet it is also one of the most overdiagnosed due to our culture of immediate gratification and reliance on technology.

As of June 2019, 81% of Americans own a smartphone. Every notification releases a hit of dopamine, a short-term reward chemical that is highly addictive. Frequent smartphone use alters your neural landscape – when your brain is constantly flooded with dopamine, it prunes the number of available dopamine receptors to adjust. When deprived of a smartphone’s constant stimulation, frequent users experience dopamine withdrawal symptoms of lowered motivation and distractibility.

Moreover, many Americans don’t get enough physical activity. When the body exercises, it releases the short- and long-term “happy chemicals” serotonin and dopamine, as well the mind-stimulating chemical norepinephrine. When enough of these neurotransmitters aren’t released, ADHD-like symptoms of brain fog and restlessness ensue.

A sedentary lifestyle and a smartphone addiction can initiate a downward spiral into a state of distraction and cognitive deterioration. In these quarantined times, the lure of our smartphones and the couch potato life is stronger than ever. This is concerning, because with the advent of online courses, these bad habits will do you no favors.

As individuals with ADHD, our brains are chronically under-stimulated due to inheritance rather than environmental factors. Disorganized thought patterns and impulsive behavior are unalterable characteristics of our personalities. People with ADHD naturally have lower levels of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine and are more reliant on exercise for mental clarity than the neurotypical person. We are compulsively hyperactive for a reason – our bodies know what is best for us. In fact, prescribed ADHD medication imitates the neurochemical changes the brain undergoes as a result of exercise.

Intelligence and the quality of one’s work ethic are separate entities. If intelligence can be likened to the horsepower of a car, then self-regulation and concentration are like the transmission and steering. No matter how much horsepower a car has, shoddy transmission and brakes will render it nonfunctional. 

Despite medicine’s helpful intervention, it is certainly not a cure. Thus, we have developed lifestyle adjustments to manage our disorder. Fascinatingly, these coping mechanisms are scientifically proven to benefit neurotypical people as well.

Here are some recommended strategies that improved our cognitive functioning:

  • Get at least 30 minutes of aerobic activity daily, and do anaerobic exercise every other day. In addition to producing neurotransmitters that promote happiness and mental alertness, the body produces BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) which helps generate new neural connections. Exercise increases metabolism, is a natural stimulant, and an antidepressant as it produces opioid-like painkillers called endorphins. It also aids in healthy sleep-wake cycles (which electronic devices and lighting disturbs).
  • Proper sleep is essential, yet individual to each person by genetics. Some of us can function off of 5 or 6 hours, others need more. If you have difficulty sleeping, try reading instead of scrolling through your phone. The blue light from electronic devices keeps you awake as your brain evolved to associate it with the blue skies of daytime. The more cognitively demanding nature of reading will tire you out faster. This practice also promotes effective studying, as your brain will retain whatever information you look at before you close your eyes.
  • Hydrate adequately the body is 60% water. Your brain is 70% water. H2O reduces hunger pangs and flushes out toxins. It takes three days for the body to be completely hydrated, so drink at least 8 cups daily.
  • Aim for a balanced diet mainly consisting of minimally processed foods. Diet is perhaps more important than exercise when it comes to maintaining healthy weight. The more we alter food from nature, the worse we make it for ourselves! High quality proteins, unsaturated fats, and complex carbs are essential macronutrients. Your body uses material from the food it ingests to replace dead cells – you really are what you eat. 
  • Utilize the time of day where you have the highest energy levels to devote to your work. You will be more effective, and less likely to associate schoolwork with agony.
  • Often, the root of laziness is BOREDOM. Challenge yourself to make unfavorable activities and subjects interesting by finding their useful applications in real life. If this proves too difficult, tie the unfavorable subject to something else you like.
  • Write down the due dates of ALL of your assignments where they are visible. Check online platforms daily, and start large assignments as soon as possible. Read the next bullet to find out how to make this less excruciating.
  • Break tasks into microtasks. Congratulate yourself for little things. Opened your laptop? Congrats! Logged into your laptop? Congrats again! It will feel silly at first, yet it will raise your morale to accomplish bigger tasks.
  • Implement the Spaced Repetition tactic for studying. Study for each subject a little bit every day every couple of hours. By focusing hard on a subject a little bit daily, you commit the information to your long-term memory. Work Accomplished = Time Spent x Intensity. Relying on cramming and short-term memory for complex college courses is not sustainable.

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