The ADHD Iceberg

Understanding the Full Spectrum of the ADHD Iceberg

Beneath the surface of visible ADHD symptoms lies a larger 'iceberg' of challenges and strengths. These include emotional sensitivity, hyperfocus, and internal struggles that are not immediately apparent but are crucial to comprehending the complexity of ADHD.

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Written by

Alice Gendron

Founder of The Mini ADHD Coach

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A word form our expert

What's Beneath the ADHD Iceberg

In the movie Titanic, Jack and Rose's enormous ship 🚢sank after contact with what the captain thought was just a chunk of ice in the middle of the ocean. It was nighttime, according to the movie, which was inspired by real-life events.  The chunk of ice🧊, in reality, was a giant iceberg, and the crew didn't see it until it was too late. I want to relive the memory of when I watched the film and hyperfocused on everything about it.  Later on, I realized that there's a semblance between the movie and ADHD.

An iceberg is a large chunk of ice broken off from glaciers and usually floats in the middle of the ocean🌊. It is generally made from frozen freshwater, not saltwater, which makes it less dense than the ocean. Typically, when an iceberg is seen above sea level, you only see 10% of it: the rest is submerged. 

This is where the iceberg analogy starts. When people see just the tip of the iceberg, they believe it’s just a small chunk. Similarly, when someone learns you have ADHD, they might think you only have hyperactivity or impulsivity - and nothing more. They might think they know everything about the neurodivergent condition and underestimate what’s more to it than just the traits on the surface.

The captain of the Titanic may have miscalculated. They didn’t think they were headed into a much more significant chunk of ice that could potentially endanger everyone aboard. This can also happen in life, if we let ourselves learn only the tip, without further knowledge and information, it can cause struggles and difficulties for you and others🥺. 

Just The Tip of Our Mental Health

This message is dedicated to everyone, not just for those people struggling with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. 

It can be easy for some people to judge others who they believe are inferior to them, calling them names and making them feel bad about themselves. But I would like to remind you guys that what you see is not always what it is.

For example, people can assume that someone who is always happy and smiling must be okay. In reality, they could be struggling with something we can only imagine. We don't know every person's experience, so we don't have the right to jump to judgments quickly. A little compassion can go a long way 😘.

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The ADHD Iceberg: All You Need To Know

When people are asked about their perception or initial idea about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, they tend to answer along the lines of a young boy jumping around and cannot sit still during class🧒.

the ADHD iceberg: Young Boy Jumping Around

This is the familiar representation of people with ADHD to those who know less about this neurodivergent disorder. Many people think that Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder can only affect male children and the symptoms are confined to having unlimited energy and hyperactive behaviors. For them, this is the tip of the ADHD iceberg.

We cannot blame them for their understanding of ADHD. After all, did you know that mental health professionals first noticed ADHD in kids? It was first described in 1902 by a British Pediatrician named Sir George Frederick Still. He observed a group of kids showing impulsivity, poor concentration, and hyperactivity. And these kids were also disruptive in school and at home! 

However, as time goes by with new studies and reports about ADHD surfacing, developments have been done, and it is no longer only associated with kids. Hidden layers of this iceberg are slowly being revealed and doctors discovered that this disorder can also be diagnosed in adults🙋‍♀️.

That Lady Who's Been Always Quiet and Shy

Yes, you have read it right. ADHD can also be present in the female population, AND you don't have to exhibit physical hyperactivity to be considered for an ADHD diagnosis. “Invisible symptoms” can be present in people struggling with this neurodivergent disorder. And just as some neurotypical people can only see the iceberg, ADHD adults may also find it hard to completely understand their condition without the help of a mental health professional👩‍⚕️. 

the ADHD iceberg: Quiet and Shy

The quiet and shy girl represents the predominantly inattentive type of ADHD. She may not be as disruptive or energetic as the boy from the earlier example, but she can still experience difficulties with focus and concentration. These people with ADHD can be the ones who get easily distracted, have problems with inattention like not noticing details and finishing tasks, and are disorganized.

The problem with having symptoms of inattention is that they are often misdiagnosed or not given an ADHD diagnosis and treatment. People may think they don't fit in the description of ADHD because they are well-behaved or can sit still for hours without so much as a problem. However, when your internal experiences are already getting to the surface, and you cannot do what you want because of your ADHD, it can still affect your mental health.

The Smart Achiever, and Competitive Person

Another example of the hidden part of the ADHD iceberg can be found in those people with good grades. These are usually those who have life already laid out in front of them and seem so put together. 

Come to think of it, many people with ADHD struggle with numerous ADHD symptoms and also succeed in life. They still have the challenges brought about by different ADHD traits, but they manage to develop an innate sense of strategies to cope and achieve their goals.

the ADHD iceberg: Good Grades & Degrees

However, their success may not be the same as others because they must put in extra effort and work harder. Their executive functioning skills can be affected, and other issues still arise. They might overcompensate to cope with these ADHD symptoms. Alternatively, they might turn to masking their ADHD traits so other people wouldn’t judge them. 

Let it be known that masking ADHD symptoms isn't bad😉. However, when it takes a toll on your mental and emotional state, that's when you know that it’s too much. It is always best to get help from professionals to manage your symptoms and not let them hinder your success or personal growth.

ADHD & Autism Spectrum Disorder

ADHD can have co-occurring conditions that amplify the symptoms and traits we already struggle with. One of the most common comorbidities for ADHD is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Sometimes, a handful of symptoms we thought happen due to ADHD, are actually related to ASD and vice versa.

the ADHD iceberg: ADHD and Autistic

ADHD & ASD can be connected because they share many similarities when it comes to the symptoms. Both can experience social difficulties, problems with communication, and may have repetitive behaviors, so the chance of having both is not impossible. A quarter of the children diagnosed with ADHD actually have low-level ASD symptoms, too.

Elders and the Not-so-old Adults

Here's another common misconception: Only a child can experience ADHD. People often believe that ADHD only affects children, and when you grow up as an adult, your ADHD symptoms will go away😨. However, this may not be entirely true.

As you age, your symptoms might change, but they may not go away. We only develop different ways to manage our ADHD symptoms, like learning to get overly organized because of our “weaker” executive functioning, doing schedules and reminders to compensate for our time blindness, or masking our emotions due to the emotional dysregulation that we tend to experience.

the ADHD iceberg: Elder

Still, many adults with ADHD can undergo numerous challenges as well. They have to balance their behavior to blend in with the society, sort out the difficulty in organizing their home, plot schedules 📅 to avoid missing any appointments, or constantly make sure that they are on top of everything. These activities can be exhausting. But some people might only see the external symptoms of ADHD in adults, so they only know the surface. They have no idea of the effort we put into things just so we can function well😔.

ADHD, Anxiety, and Depression

When the people around us only see the tip and not the entire ADHD iceberg, all the stress, struggles, and negative emotions may build up inside us. After all, it’s hard enough to cope with the symptoms. What more if we need to endure other people’s judgment😭? 

Emotional regulation can be a challenge for many people with ADHD, and when we can't seem to keep our emotions in check, comorbidities may start to develop.

It is not uncommon for some people with ADHD to experience comorbidities, and one of the most common is depression. Reports say more than 50% of people with ADHD also end up getting treatment for depression. Depression may be caused by multiple factors, like the negative feedback we get from others, the constant feeling of not being good enough, or the masking we do every day to cope and function well.

the ADHD iceberg: Struggling with Depression

Anxiety can just be as overwhelming. It can be caused by our fear of not being able to meet other people's expectations, the worry of screwing up, or the doubts that we often have about ourselves. When a hyperactive mind 😵 is combined with an overthinking brain🧠, anxiety can take over. It may result in low self-esteem, being unmotivated, and fears of social interaction.

Knowing and understanding most of our traits can help us express ourselves truthfully. Remember, there might be more to the struggles we already experience and other issues may still arise, like addictive behaviors, personality defects, and developmental delays. Hence, whatever that case may be, there's more to our neurodivergent condition than the tip of the iceberg.

The Misconceptions About ADHD Treatment

A qualified professional for mental health may tell you that there's no cure for ADHD. However, that doesn't mean that we will always struggle with executive dysfunction or time management difficulties. After all, there are plenty of treatment approaches to minimize the impact of ADHD in our lives.

People with ADHD can still lead successful and meaningful lives. We must find the right combination of treatments that work for us. Some people with ADHD may be recommended to take medicines or supplements 💊 as a treatment for their ADHD symptoms, and others may have to take the therapeutic approach for managing symptoms of ADHD. This includes receiving counseling or therapy. 

Whatever happens, an ADHD diagnosis is essential. With an official diagnosis, you can receive the right treatment plan for your condition. Remember that there's no one size fits all ADHD treatment, and it would be best to find an expert you trust to help you with this journey.


Equipping yourself with plenty of knowledge about ADHD can be helpful when you need to deal with it. A lot of misconceptions and stereotypes float about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, but remember that there's more to it than the tip of the ADHD iceberg👌.

Spreading awareness about ADHD can make other people understand that a lot is going on other than the unlimited amount of energy we have when we are hyperactive. For this reason, a little compassion from them can go a long way for people with ADHD.

And for you struggling with ADHD, you aren't defined by your struggles. You are so much more than that, and you will get through this! 😘

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The ADHD Iceberg: FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

What is an “ADHD Iceberg?”

An ADHD iceberg is the entire ADHD situation a person experiences. However, some people only see the tip of the iceberg as most parts are “hidden.” Alternatively, some people with ADHD also experience only seeing the tip, when they believe there’s nothing more to their symptoms. In reality, their symptoms might become more complex or they might develop comorbid conditions.

What are the “hidden” facets of having ADHD?‍

One of the hidden facts of ADHD is being shy and quiet. Many people believe that ADHD is only present in kids who are hyperactive. But, the truth is, this neurodivergent condition can also occur in adults who have no problem sitting still. 

How do you best deal with ADHD?

The best way to deal with ADHD is to get an official diagnosis and supervision with a mental health professional. Of course, having trial and error on some coping strategies might be necessary for you to find the best approach.

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