I will always struggle to get things done. Motivation, activation, attention, and effort are harder for me than they are for most people. With ADHD as my baseline, this is my reality.
But these everyday challenges also roil many individuals with an entirely different condition: depression. I know because I’ve battled depression throughout my adult life, too. As ADHD and depression can mimic one another, I’ve often asked myself: How do I know whether I’m depressed or simply struggling with my ADHD brain?
When ADHD Feels Like Depression
There is one key difference between ADHD and depression when it comes to getting things done: interest. Those of us with ADHD are known for getting bored easily and struggling to do things we don’t find interesting. That’s because we have an interest-based nervous system. Our brains are literally turned on by novelty, urgency, and passionate interests; when those things are absent, our brains feel like they’re shutting down.
Mundane tasks like homework, chores, and paperwork make our brains go dark and cause us to feel terrible. What’s worse, watching those mundane tasks pile up often triggers our inner critic. We tell ourselves we’re lazy or immature. That we could do it if we wanted to, so why don’t we? When I’m sitting on my couch, endlessly scrolling through social media for dopamine hits while my inner voice yells at me for wasting time, it can feel a lot like depression.
It’s easier to tackle less-desirable tasks once I’ve replenished my dopamine levels. Writing, making videos, watching science-fiction films, and talking to friends can jump start my ADHD brain and pull me out of my slump. I also trick myself into doing chores by listening to music or audiobooks. Once my brain is engaged, my body wants to move. Pretty soon, I’m doing dishes or sweeping the floor, headphones pumping my brain full of dopamine.
[Get This Free Download: Music for Healthy ADHD Brains]
What True Depression Looks Like
But what happens when I can’t think of anything that interests me? What if I don’t want to write or make a video, and I can’t get excited about a good book, show, or podcast? What if I’m isolating from friends and don’t want to connect? When nothing sounds like fun and everything feels like a chore, that’s depression.
Lots of things can trigger a depressive episode for me. Chronic stress, loss, or a situation out of my control can often push me into dangerous territory. Sometimes the depressive episode just comes on, without an easily identifiable trigger. I can go from not functioning well to barely functioning at all, and that can quickly spiral into despair and hopelessness. I start to believe that I will never be happy again, that I’ll never want to do things again, and that people I love would be better off without me. My brain betrays me, and I need help.
The Importance of Support
Fortunately, I now recognize the signs of a depressive episode, and I tell my doctor what’s going on. ADHD medication helps some, but not always. I’m also lucky to have a lot of close friends and family members who know how to identify depression. They may notice that I’m more sedentary, irritable, and withdrawn, and will urge me to seek help.
[Watch: The ADHD and Depression Connection]
It’s important for me to remember that depression, like ADHD, is not a personal failing. Depression affects millions of people, and it is treatable. It can sometimes take time to get out of a depressive episode, but I know I’ll get there eventually, because I’ve gotten out before. When I feel like I’ll never be happy again, I remember all the times I’ve felt the same way, only to bounce back.
I can’t will myself out of a depressive state any more than my ADHD brain can get excited about filling out forms. But I can contact my doctor as soon as I notice I’m no longer interested in doing what I love. Then, with treatment and support, I’ll find my way back to myself.
ADHD and Depression: Next Steps
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