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ADHD & Working Memory: Getting Through Everyday Struggle
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurodivergent disorder that affects a person's executive functioning. ADHD-related struggles may include problems in the ability of a person to plan, organize, and complete tasks 📝📚 📅 . ADHD symptoms also include difficulty staying focused, emotional dysregulation, and sometimes, hyperactivity and impulsivity. All these can make it challenging for people with ADHD to succeed in daily tasks, especially ones requiring sustained focus like work or school. Another possible struggle besides weaker executive function? Difficulty remembering things due to a possibly poorer working memory.
Working memory is responsible for a person's ability to remember and process information at the moment. When you have a weaker than usual working memory, you may find it hard to keep track of conversations, follow instructions, or complete tasks that require multiple steps.
According to the latest evidence-based research (1) conducted among pediatric ADHD participants, working memory difficulties are significant in children's ADHD group, where 62% to 85% of ADHD children have working memory deficits. Working memory affects a person's short-term memory and can contribute to behavioral symptoms, such as inattentiveness, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness.
And as we know, these core ADHD symptoms are needed to identify a person's ADHD subtype orientation. As per the DSM V ADHD Subtypes, there are three categories of ADHD which include:
- ADHD, Predominantly Inattentive Type: If a person only meets the full criteria for inattention (but not hyperactivity-impulsivity) for at least the past six months.
- ADHD, Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Type: If a person only meets the full criteria for hyperactivity-impulsivity (but not inattention) for at least the past six months.
- ADHD, Combined Type: If a person meets the full criteria for both inattention and hyperactivity-impulsivity for at least the past six months.
Note that “full criteria'' means at least 5 symptoms for children and at least 6 for adolescents and adults. The symptoms must also be disruptive and inappropriate for the developmental level. Still, regardless of the subtype of ADHD criteria, our cognitive processes can always be affected by the working memory deficits we might frequently struggle with.
ADHD & Working Memory in Adults
As an adult with ADHD, I often experience memory problems😔. I tend to forget small details and cannot work on multiple tasks, especially when they are loaded with information or instructions. My performance on cognitive tasks also doesn't look good because of the working memory (WM) impairments that I struggle with.
Working memory serves as a person's internal storage for short-term information. We use this short-term information to execute cognitive tasks. Case in point: when someone asks you to call a phone number, you hold that number in your working memory long enough to make that phone call. Now, put that way, it may sound simple, but working memory is actually complex.
You need to hold several pieces of short-term information in your working memory long enough to carry out a single task 🤔.
Let’s put it this way: a colleague asked for your help to print File X and sent the copy to Superior A. What information stored in your working memory will you use? You must know where to find File X, how to use the photocopier, and the location of Superior A’s office. If you cannot remember any of these details, you’ll have difficulty carrying out that one task.
When working memory fails, some of the processes of the executive functions can also be affected. It can be difficult for us to focus (because of our impulsivity), plan (due to forgetfulness), and organize (since we easily get sidetracked). And when we struggle a lot with these things, problems may continue to occur.
Storing Details in Our ADHD Brains
You probably remember being given several instructions at once. Here’s an example: when you are about to visit your mental health doctor, the secretary will give you specific instructions before seeing the doctor. Let’s say he or she asked you to retrieve your laboratory records, compile your prescriptions, and note down your questions.
But, when you’re about to prepare everything, you get distracted by a text message📱. And then by a chore and then your pet. In other words, you failed to prepare your lab results, prescriptions, and questions.
Aside from the primary function of our working memory to store information, it also processes those pieces of information and manipulates them to take our next step. And since our working memory holds essential details that don't go deep into our long-term memory, we must be able to enact on the stored data available immediately to proceed with the task. Of course, we can do that if our working memory is functioning just fine. When we have working memory deficits, the smooth flow of processing information immediately is disrupted😭.
Due to the impairments, activities, such as going to an unfamiliar place, grocery shopping, or cooking a new recipe, can be challenging if we easily get sidetracked and forget the instructions.
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Why Multiple Tasks At Once Are Difficult
I admit that one of my ADHD struggles is having a poor working memory. Sometimes, when I get too distracted or too immersed in an exciting activity, I tend to not think of the things I am about to do.
Working Memory (WM) impairment can manifest when we are busy doing one thing, and remember we still have a couple of other tasks waiting in line. At some point, we forget certain details we need to accomplish at least one task and then the other tasks become affected as well. This happens because our working memory can only hold a limited amount of information, and when we try to process too many things at once, some details get lost.
When these kinds of situations happen, all I do is laugh it off for a while. But when my memory issues prevent me from functioning well, especially when I am in a hurry to accomplish tasks with deadlines, it sometimes puts me in a difficult position. The WM functioning for an ADHD brain 🧠 may not be as good as others. We may not be able to notice it, but our forgetfulness and easily distracted nature are some of the symptoms that we experience because of our WM deficits.
Struggles With Tasks That Need Good Working Memory
When I find time to start reading a novel, it will take me a few weeks to finish the whole book📚. If you tell me to watch a specific movie, I'll have too many questions inside my ADHD brain. These tasks sometimes involve dual information processing, which we may find challenging. Let me explain further.
Reading a novel requires us not only to read the words on each page but also to understand the story that is being delivered to us. When we watch a movie💻, we simultaneously see the characters' actions and listen to what they are saying. These activities need our full attention to grasp all the details. Unfortunately, for some people with ADHD, it is sometimes difficult for us to focus on two things at once.
That's why we have difficulties in reading social cues as well. When talking to other people, our verbal memory works hard to understand their words; but at the same time, our visual working memory needs to understand the non-verbal queues, such as facial expressions and body language. We might only be able to grasp one. This is one of the reasons why some people with ADHD tend to be misunderstood in many social situations and have social awkwardness.
There are still a lot of activities that we find challenging to do because of our ADHD-related working memory difficulties. However, we should not be discouraged by these struggles. Instead, we should find ways to cope with them.
Relationship Between ADHD Working Memory and Learning Disability
And since weaker executive functioning and working memory deficits can occur inside our minds at the same time, there's a slightly higher risk for us to have comorbidity with our ADHD diagnosis. One of those co-existing conditions that can happen with an ADHD person, especially young adults, is having a learning disability.
Reports say short-term memory is essential in acquiring new long-term memories. If we cannot effectively store the information we learned in our short-term memory, it would be difficult to retrieve it later on and convert it into long-term memories. That's why when our working memory is not functioning well, it can highly influence our learning capabilities🥺.
And from there, the domino effect can take place.
The functional impairments, especially in learning, can cause a lot of trouble not just during our school days but even as we grow older. It can make us anxious about taking exams or submitting requirements on time. It can also give us low self-esteem when we are asked to do a presentation in front of others. All these things can be very challenging for many ADHD individuals. The good news is that high-quality sources suggest that memory issues can be helped with proper medication and treatment.
Managing Working Memory Capacity and ADHD Symptoms
Memory problems can sometimes affect how we function daily; in these cases, seeking professional medical advice👩⚕️ is the most advisable step to take. Understanding how our memory system works and what we can do to improve it can help us manage our ADHD symptoms.
There are numerous things that you can try to improve how you handle WM tasks. Working memory tests online can help you assess which areas you need to focus on. Some of the things that you can do to improve your working memory WM performance include:
- Getting enough sleep 😴 can help you be more focused and attentive during the day, as our central executive system is known to be more active during those times.
- Exercising can also help improve our blood circulation, which can affect our brain function.
- Eating healthy and balanced meals can help ensure that our brains get the proper nutrients. Pick only high-quality sources of essential nutrients 🍲 to help you boost brain power and lessen working memory impairments.
- Exposure to too many distractions can also affect our working memory capacity, so it is essential to find a place where we can work quietly without disrupting our WM load.
- Reading ADHD literature also gives plenty of strategies and tips on how we can better manage our working memory difficulties.
- Using applications on our smartphones and over the internet can also help us manage our WM tasks better📱. Some of these applications can aid us in improving our attention span and understanding spatial locations. While others can help improve our processing speed and short-term memory capability.
- Doing brain training exercises can also help improve our working memory. These exercises work on the principle of neuroplasticity, which is the brain's ability to reorganize structure and function in response to experience🧠. It also enhances our neuropsychological executive functions.
- Joining an ADHD group that understands your situation and can provide emotional support.
- Asking your mental health professional for medical advice on taking a stimulant medication 💊 that can help improve your attention span and focus. Before starting any medications, fully understand the risks and side effects.
Everyone has different ways of managing their ADHD symptoms, so finding what works best for you is essential. Experiment with different strategies and see which ones help improve your working memory capacity. WM deficits are manageable, so do not get too stressed out about it. Just find what works and try to stick with that method❤️ .
ADHD and Working Memory: FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions).
What is working memory?
Working memory is where we store information we need to accomplish cognitive tasks. Generally, it functions like “sticky notes.” We hold onto the information long enough to accomplish tasks.
Does ADHD affect working memory?
t’s possible that ADHD has an impact on a person’s working memory, considering studies show that it’s very common for children to have working memory deficits when they have this neurodivergent condition. Additionally, some of the symptoms of ADHD also affect how we remember things. These symptoms include being easily distracted or inability to sustain attention.
Why do we need to address working memory deficits?
Because WM only stores information for short-term, it may seem like it’s not important. But deficits in WM affect how we accomplish cognitive tasks. It might even affect how we store long-term memories, possibly affecting learning. Hence, we need to address working memory deficits.