So you’ve been on TikTok a while and slowly but surely the algorithm begins sending videos your way that start raising eyebrows. Maybe you begin seeing videos that call out your anxious tendencies, get you curious about your attachment style, or inspire you to start therapy. Soon enough, the videos start getting more specific and start to coalesce around certain diagnostic categories. Maybe it's autism, ADHD, borderline personality disorder, depression, or CPTSD, to name a few.
You relate quite a bit to what these videos say and it even seems to be making sense of your experiences in a new way. So, does this mean that you have that diagnosis? The answer might be more complicated than you initially think. Let’s look at the phenomenon of how TIkTok guides us toward self-diagnosis, specifically ADHD.
Is TikTok Telling Me I Have ADHD?
There’s a lot of good information on TikTok, and it makes sense if you’ve felt “seen” when you hear descriptions that resonate with your experience of anxiety, depression or styles of attachment. But then maybe you start hearing terms like “time blindness,” “task avoidance,” or “hyperfocus” in ADHD-focused videos and you think, well shoot, I think that might apply to me too! Does that mean I have ADHD? Well, the answer is maybe! And maybe not.
Tiktok creators’ short-form videos tend to capture individual symptoms and help flesh them out so that the meaning behind the clinical language of the diagnosis is accessible. This way of discussing and bringing awareness to ADHD traits and symptoms has been invaluable for many people with ADHD, particularly late-diagnosed adults. Imagine, you are in your 20s or 30s or 40s and you’ve never had language to articulate your experience. Like, how certain things seem to require so much effort of you compared to others or how certain things go to the level of impossibility when others have minimal trouble with them. You figured you just had a harder time, or were lazy, or were bad at that certain subject or task, etc. Throughout your life, you may learn a little about ADHD but you have a vision of the kid tapping his feet on his chair in class, unable to sit still or keep quiet, and you think, “well, I don’t do that. So I don’t think hyperactivity applies to me.” You picture the girl with her head in the clouds, never able to pay attention in the conversation, and think, “Well, I can get myself to listen when I need to, so inattention probably doesn’t apply to me.”
But then you start seeing TikToks that show other representations of what ADHD can look like from the outside and, more importantly, what it feels like internally. You see the thought processes, the unaccounted for effort, and the “quirks'' that you thought were just something about YOU. And they were all private - most of these were probably things that you never really talked to anyone about. You may see something that you do regularly now being described as “stimming” or hear how your “irritability” may actually be considered sensory sensitivities and sensory overload. All of a sudden, all these little parts of your daily life start to fit together like a puzzle and you can see a clear picture for the first time. This process is often both disorienting and relieving, and it is just the start. But why do so many people seem to have ADHD all of sudden? It’s not all of a sudden - the prevalence of ADHD is not new, but what may be new is people’s ability to find the language to identify ADHD traits and symptoms in themselves.
Finding the Source of Your Symptoms
For people looking to make sense of their life, ADHD may be a diagnosis that ties a lot of their experiences together. However, the symptoms, traits, or experiences that may tap into ADHD may find their source in other mental health diagnoses, physical health concerns, personality traits, or in the typical range of being a person in a chronically overburdening and under-resourced society. Many concepts that ADHD-Tok digs into, like “ADHD paralysis,” time blindness, struggles with task initiation, disorganization, etc., can fall under the umbrella of executive dysfunction. To define it briefly, executive functions are the cognitive processes that enable people to organize and execute goal-directed behaviors. While executive dysfunction is extremely common in ADHD, it also occurs with autism, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, dementia, Tourette’s syndrome, complex trauma, and traumatic brain injuries. Additionally, temporary causes of executive dysfunction include exhaustion, stress, severe pain, distracting environments, and drug or alcohol use. Due to the many potential causes of difficulties with executive functioning, it is important to differentiate between the sources of these challenges. Differentiating between these things can take effort, time, and possibly professional assistance, and may also involve confronting painful realities. However, investing in yourself in this way leads to immense clarity, direction for growth, and, if needed, tailored treatment that can have life-long positive effects.
What is “Normal”?
Additionally, there must be space in this conversation for people to have a variety of experiences: there are people who have some ADHD symptoms or tendencies that do not rise to the level of significant impairment or fit other diagnostic criteria to warrant an ADHD diagnosis. Maybe you notice a tendency toward forgetfulness in yourself. This forgetfulness can be an inconvenience and maybe once in a while it disrupts your day, but for the most part, it doesn’t really bug you or significantly impair your everyday functioning. It could be the same with getting sidetracked, feeling restless or bored, being talkative, having interests you get extremely passionate about, and so many other things. There is a vast range of what is considered “typical” in how humans function. And while we do love having names for experiences we haven’t fully understood and we love connecting with others who get it too, it’s important to see if the phenomenon you’ve identified in yourself (and the way it impacts your life) falls in that wide range of “typical” functioning or if it lies beyond that.
Seeking a Diagnosis
If you are curious about ADHD being an appropriate diagnosis for you, it may be time to begin exploring options regarding professional evaluation and self-diagnosis. “Self-diagnosis” is a term that means just what you’d think – this is when you as an individual notice symptoms in yourself and work to understand how those symptoms fit diagnostic categories without a formal evaluation done by a mental health professional. The process of self-diagnosis has historically been extremely important in neurodivergent circles as appropriate formal diagnoses can be very difficult to access due to the expense, stigma, unavailability of formal evaluation, or due to the underrepresentation of symptoms in certain populations (e.g., women’s experiences are often missed for both ADHD and autism).
At the same time, if a formal evaluation with a psychologist is accessible, completing it can have very long-term benefits. Once again, we look at an image of a puzzle coming together and showing a clear picture: one of the greatest benefits of undergoing a thorough evaluation is how you get to see many aspects of your life all brought together to help form an understanding of how you function as a person, with all the complexity of what that means. In this process, you not only get your own perspectives taken into account but you also get the expertise of someone who has the training and experience to assess, notice, and collect pieces of the puzzle that you may not be able to fully see … or that you don’t yet have the language to identify.
To wrap it all up, TikTok has been an important place for people with ADHD and mental health professionals to share their experiences and insights about living with ADHD in a manner that is far more accessible than the clinical language of the DSM could ever be. Finally, the diverse experiences of ADHDers are being represented in a way that is new and this has been life changing for a lot of people. And it is still so important to recognize that no, not everyone has “a little ADHD” (that’s not a thing), but yes, a lot of people may relate to the experiences being shared. Differentiating between the severity and sources of these experiences is a huge part of gaining clarity about your life, your functioning, and your next steps in caring for yourself and engaging in your life. If you feel that it might be right for you to seek out some professional help in this process, reach out to Relational Psych for a consultation to see if our services are appropriate for you.