The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and chocolate
Stress. It happens to everyone, but it happens every day to someone with ADHD, particularly a child or adolescent. Somehow there is something that they do “wrong,” sometimes just by being thoughtless. Of course, a better description would be “thought-free” — his or her thoughts were not on what someone else was thinking, or might do, or might think. Nonetheless, it is considered rude, and the ADHD sufferer gets told that he is wrong just for being the way he is. The cause of just being born with ADHD, or just being born a prince in a dysfunctional family, cause a lot of Shakespearean suffering.
Most people come around to seeing that their weaknesses can be useful, or that their unvalued qualities can be strengths; the old “challenge/opportunity” dilemma. If you have ADHD, you might be able to hyper-focus on something — which could be good or bad. Good if it helps you perform in ever-changing environments, like an emergency room. Bad if you are 12 years old and stuck in a traditional classroom with a teacher lecturing you on something you are not interested in.
In an opinion piece in the LA Times by Robert M. Sapolsky, a noted neuroscientist at Stanford University, he links stress to performance, or “cognitive load“. Learning new information, and making important decisions, are interrupted by stress. His example is called “Rich Brain, Poor Brain.” He describes how the stress that affects poor people creates hardships that are just not as bad for people with comfortable income. A car problem: does it stop you in your tracks, as you decide what bill not to pay so that you can fix your car and get back on the road to work, or do you have a comfortable enough income that you can get the car taken care of while you continue with your regular routine? The stresses that poor people deal with interfere with their “regular routine” — worrying thoughts, i.e., stress, increase the number of things that they have to juggle.
Sapolsky describes a creative experiment done by Anandi Mani, testing people who will experience a great stress over money on their cognitive functions before and after the stressful time (harvesting a once-a-year crop). The farmers’ performance on the cognitive tests plummeted dramatically when they had not yet received their annual income. The conclusion is that worrying about money (being poor) increases the cognitive load — leaving less memory and attention to thinking and planning.
An excellent example involves chocolate! If you need to get something done, you are using your executive functions to plan, prioritize, and pull up ideas out of your memory. This happens, most neuroscientists think, in the pre-frontal cortex area of your brain. Well, you can’t remember everything all at once, obviously, so you juggle the current ideas in your working memory.
According to Sapolosky, “Extensive research shows that ‘frontal function’ is impaired in people who increase their cognitive load with such things as distracting tasks, stress, sleep deprivation, pain or even resisting temptation (for example, if you make someone’s front cortex work hard in order for them to resist eating chocolate, they are less capable immediately afterward of performing frontal cognitive tasks.)”
If (not) resisting chocolate is something you can relate to, then you can imagine how terrible it is to have stress caused by something bad: a punishment for not remembering an assignment, poor grades in school, knowing how angry your parents are going to be at you, and hatred for yourself for being “stupid.” Let’s increase our awareness of the stress that children with ADHD are going through, and find ways to reduce that stress, to give them a fairer chance to do their school work.