Is it really worth it to take ADHD medication? What should I expect it to do? I hear these questions quite a bit. Pursuing treatment for ADHD can be an uphill battle that is often still met with stigma. Wondering if stimulant meds are worth pursuing is understandable.
People will come to different conclusions in answering that question because we all have different experiences but hopefully in sharing my honest experience, it helps you decide whether it’s worth the battle to pursue treatment. And maybe even give you an idea of what to expect.
I started ADHD medication in 2018 right after I was diagnosed (at 28 years old). My doctor has tried me on a few different stimulant medications before settling on the right one for me. That’s given me a decent overview of the good and bad and what it feels like to be on the right med verses the wrong one.
The Pros of Taking ADHD Medication (when you have ADHD)
Better Control Over Thoughts
For me, there have been quite a few benefits I’ve experienced taking ADHD medication. The biggest positive change I’ve noticed has been in my control over my thoughts and attention. When I don’t take my medication, it feels like my thoughts are constantly ping ponging all over the place. I often can’t even finish a thought before another thought has jumped in and taken over. ADHD medication feels like it slows my thoughts down–but in a good way. I can give individual thoughts more attention and act on them without irrelevant ones distracting me first.
There are many ways that having better control over your thoughts, not having them bouncing all over the place, affects day to day life. Some of them are a bit surprising.
More Productive, Less Forgetful
Since I have better thought control when I’m taking my medication, I’m able to be more productive and less forgetful.. It’s really hard to get anything done when you can’t stick with a thought or a topic. You might think about how you need to take the pizza out of the oven but before you even get out of your seat to do it, another thought has popped in to distract you. Before you know it, you find yourself outside pulling weeds while the pizza turns to charcoal.
When you can slow those thoughts down into a more meaningful pace, you’re better able to stick with the “time to get the pizza out” thought and keep it from burning. You can also start something AND FINISH IT before moving on to something else.
Those wild and fast thoughts that often come with ADHD are often the source of at least some of the anxiety most of us experience before treatment. When thoughts are constantly interrupting each other even the really important ones end up quickly forgotten in the chaos of an overactive brain. That’s a big reason most of us carry around the nagging feeling that something is falling through the cracks. The chaos itself can feel anxiety producing, too.
On ADHD medication, since those thoughts slow down to a more manageable pace, it can help reduce or even eliminate the anxiety that stems from those challenges. That has been one of the more surprising and beneficial parts of taking ADHD medication for me. My brain is calmer, my anxiety is calmer.
Related: ADHD, Anxiety, or Both?
Paying Attention to Conversations is Much Easier
When I take my medication, I can have deeper, more meaningful conversations because my thoughts can actually stay on the person in front of me. When I don’t take my medication, I have a very hard time staying focused and apparently it’s obvious. Everything distracts me: music, hearing other people talking nearby, hearing animal sounds, and especially my own thoughts.
Since medication gives me better control over my thoughts and attention, I’m able to focus it better on the person in front of me and the conversation we’re having. So when my husband asks what I think about something he’s just told me, I can actually give a meaningful answer instead of the shallow one I used to give hoping he didn’t notice that I had no idea what he was talking about. He says that this particular medication pro is his personal favorite and the one that is the most noticeable to him.
Distractions are Less Distracting
When I’m not taking my medication, I am distracted by everything. I can’t have conversations or read or write if the television is on, music is playing, or people are talking nearby. My attention will dart between the person in front of me and every other stimuli around me.
I frequently have to rewind shows and movies because one scene set off a chain of thoughts that I got lost in and missed important scenes that came after. I often try to solve that by just re-watching shows I really like so that if I miss anything, I still know what’s going on. Of course, that can get a bit boring after a while…
But when I’m on my medication, distractions are less distracting. Small things like the trees swaying outside don’t even really register as a distraction. People talking nearby will register in my brain but I can actually choose to ignore it. One of the more surprising things I noticed when I first started ADHD medication was that for the first time, I could still hold a conversation (and pay attention to what was being said) even when music was playing in the background. I’m not usually able to do that if I’m unmedicated.
Transitions are Less Dreadful
When I get really in to something that I’m doing, it often feels like my brain is a train barreling full steam down a track. Transitioning feels like trying to get the train to come to a sudden, full stop in under 2 seconds. It’s disorienting and doesn’t usually work very well.
When I’m not taking ADHD medication, I often can’t get myself to transition at all. I either have to complete what I’m doing/saying or I can’t stop thinking about it. ADHD medication has helped me transition a bit easier. It still feels like my brain is barreling down the train track but maybe it’s not going quite as fast so when it has to come to a stop and go in a different direction, it can. It’s still uncomfortable and difficult, but more manageable.
Better Emotional Control
Having better control over your thoughts often also helps with emotion regulation. For those of us with ADHD, a single emotions can overwhelm our brain and shut it down. Just like we struggle regulating our attention, we often struggle to regulate our emotions, too. They are, after all, similar areas of the brain.
For me, the two biggest emotions I’ve had the hardest time regulating are anxiety and anger. When I get anxious off of my medication, I tend to fixate on the thing I’m anxious about and can’t shift my thoughts from it at all. Similarly with anger, once I get angry about something it feels impossible to shift my attention, which causes the anger to steadily build. I am one of those people with a very long fuse but once my temper ignites, it feels consuming. Anger often gives me a headache and a stomach ache.
When I take my ADHD medication, I have better control over both anxiety and anger because I can shift my thoughts a bit easier. Instead of ruminating on the thing I’m anxious about for days, I get really anxious for the 15-30 minutes leading up to the thing I’m nervous about. Instead of ruminating on the thing I’m angry about and watching my anger steadily build, I can shift my attention to more helpful thoughts and work through the anger quicker and more effectively.
Related: ADHD or HSP? Or both…
Doing Things I Don’t Want To Do is Less Overwhelming
Don’t get me wrong, Medication or no medication, I still don’t want to do them. Clean the house? File my taxes? Go to the Grocery store? Any kind of paperwork?! I still have a hard time getting myself to do them. But when I’m not on my medication, those things often feel completely overwhelming. Sometimes even thinking about them brings a sense of panic.
Taking ADHD medication has not suddenly made me want to do all of those terribly boring things. I still do not want to do them. But they are less overwhelming. They feel within the realm of possibility. I may still put them off, but they don’t bring the sense of panic anymore. Which brings me to an important point: ADHD medication does not suddenly make you motivated to do things you don’t want to do. It just makes it easier to do them, in my experience anyway.
Less Skin Picking and Nail Biting
I’m bad with both of these. Especially nail biting. People often don’t realize that these behaviors are often found in those of us with ADHD, but they are. Most people associate them with anxiety but have no idea that they are just as common in ADHD. Since I was little, I’ve always struggled with biting my nails. And the skin around my nails. It happens when I’m anxious and when I’m not. Often it happens when I’m trying to concentrate. It’s been such a big problem that my nail are usually tiny nubs with bloody areas. Yes, it’s that bad.
I still bite my nails. But it really surprised me to realize that most of the time, I only bite my nails once my medication has worn off. When my medication is in effect, I’m much less likely to do so. I’m not entirely sure why this is the case–my guess is it’s somehow related to attention regulation and/or impulse control. Regardless, this was a fascinating benefit that I was definitely not expecting.
Better Impulse Control
I’m not a super impulsive person–that’s not the area of ADHD I struggle with most of the time. However, there is one impulse that has gotten the better of me in the past that medication has helped to greatly improve. When I hear someone speak in an interesting accent or say a word in a way that I’m not expecting (or if they have a distinct laugh), I have a habit of mimicking them on impulse.
I don’t mean it as rudely as it comes across. I do it because I get curious if I can make the same sound or not. But most people seem to interpret it as mocking them or making fun of them. It’s not well received, understandably, and it’s made things hella-awkward at times. Thank God ADHD medication has helped me take better control over this impulse.
We’re known for doing and saying things before thinking about them. When your brain is moving as quickly as ours tends to, awkward things are bound to happen. Slowing thoughts down seems to help give space between the impulse to do something and actually acting on that impulse. That small space is enough room to help us gain better control over what comes next.
Better, More Useful Energy Levels
Stimulant medication changes your energy– at least, it has mine. For me, however, the energy change isn’t always consistent or predictable. Sometimes it feels like it gives me a bit more energy than I would otherwise have. Other times it seems to actually make me more tired. Regardless of how it impacts me on any given day, there are a few reliable, consistent changes to my energy levels when taking medication.
When I am unmedicated, I often feel more like moving around. I’m somewhat restless and fidgety and don’t want to sit still very long unless I’m sitting still doing something I’m really interested in. Physically, I may have energy but mentally I’m hazy, going too fast, and tired.
Taking ADHD medication seems to create a sensible level of energy for me that isn’t too high or too low. It’s enough energy to do what I need to do but calmer and more productive or focused than it otherwise would be without the meds. It’s a bit challenging to accurately describe because I wouldn’t say it gives me more or less physical energy. Rather, it makes it more useful for me.
Mental and Emotional energy, however, are more reliably calmed when I’m taking ADHD medication. Internal restlessness or anxious feelings that aren’t actually anxiety are much more likely to feel calmer.
The Cons of Taking ADHD Medication (when you have ADHD)
There have been some major pros for me in taking my ADHD medication. It’s why I’ve continued taking them. But there have been some downsides, too. And I promised honesty so here it is.
The Comedown Really SUCKS
This might be my least favorite part of taking medication for ADHD. Thankfully it doesn’t always happen. But sometimes when the medication starts to wear off at the end of the day, there’s a transition period between being medicated and unmedicated that is much worse than no medication at all. I call it the comedown and I really hate it.
For me, the comedown is a period of time in which my brain is so fatigued that I can barely think. I ramble. I can’t remember what I’m talking about. Thinking literally hurts my brain; I usually have a headache while this is happening. Sometimes thinking (and everything else, really) just feels like too much work in that moment. This transition usually lasts for roughly an hour for me.
Over time, I’ve learned that there are a few things that make this rough come down more or less likely to happen. Being dehydrated (which I have a tough time keeping up with), not eating enough (especially not eating protein when I take my medication), drinking caffeine, and returning from a medication break. Each of these are more likely to cause a rough come down when the dose wears off.
Beginning Medication Often Means Annoying Side Effects
Most people have to adjust to taking stimulant medication and in that adjustment period, there are some challenging side effects. Like most medications, that looks different from person to person. Having tried different stimulant medication, I’ve learned that different meds (even in the same class) will cause different side effects. And extended release medication often cause different side effects than Immediate release medications.
Some of the side effects I had the hardest time with in the beginning were headaches, heart palpitations, light headedness, stomach upset, nausea, heat intolerance, and difficulty sleeping. Some of these side effects were primarily with one medication that I ended up needing me switched off of. Others improved once I stopped drinking caffeine with my medication. Now that my body has adjusted (and I’m on the right medication), I can drink small amounts of caffeine without issue and side effects are largely gone.
Most of the side effects I experienced dissipated in the first week. Others took more time to fully resolve. It took a couple months of consistently using my medication for my body to adjust well enough to tolerate caffeine at all.
Taking a Medication Break Can be Tricky
I periodically take a medication break for one reason or another. Whether I’m sick and don’t feel like taking meds, I want to drink more coffee with real caffeine (I don’t care what people say, it tastes better when it has caffeine), or something else, med breaks happen. The downside I’ve noticed is that any side effects that I had in the beginning with my medication are more likely to resurface for a few days after my medication break ends.
For me that usually means
- the come down period tends to be worse on the days following the end of a med break.
- Headaches are more likely. Caffeine is more likely to make me feel rough.
- Sometimes I’m more likely to feel tired for the first day or two of taking it again.
- My heart rate tends to be a bit higher
Not everyone will experience this or experience it the exact same way that I do, or even at all. But many of us to experience some version of this if we take breaks from meds.
Trial and Error Finding Medications
Finding the right medication for any challenge you are experiencing is usually a bit of trial and error. In general, I think that’s frustrating, though unavoidable. My first experience with medication for ADHD made me worried that I was having a heart attack. Much later, I realized it was because I was drinking caffeine with my medication, which tends to worsen side effects. But I didn’t know that at the time.
The next medication I tried made me feel chronically lightheaded, badly disrupted my sleep, and irritable/sad/anxious. It helped with my concentration but after a while I couldn’t tolerate how it made me feel. I was lucky throughout this process to have a doctor that understood the ADHD medication and wasn’t afraid of prescribing or adjusting it. But some doctors start to get concerned after one or two medications that “if the meds aren’t working, you don’t have ADHD” and that’s not helpful or necessarily true.
The Creativity Tradeoff
I’ve noticed on ADHD medication I am less creative. While that’s a con, the trade off is that I can better act on the creative thoughts and ideas I do have when I take ADHD medication. My theory is that this happens because medication helps slow down those wild and fast, loosely related thoughts that those of us with ADHD tend to be intimately familiar with. Those thoughts, in and of themselves, are associated with mental creativity.
When our thoughts are free to roam, we make more creative connections. And when we take medication that keeps those thoughts from interrupting each other by slowing them down just a little, the trade off, for me, is less creativity. Along similar lines, my husband says my personality is a little less playful and silly on my meds. That’s not to say that my personality or creativity is fundamentally changed or gone, it’s just muted a bit.
This tradeoff is sometimes what inspires me to take a medication break. I take a day or two, try to write down the creative thoughts that I want to be able to pursue, then start working on them when I take my meds again. It’s not perfect, but it’s worked for me.
This list is not exhaustive, but is the best overview I can give in an already long blog post. And it represents my favorite and least favorite aspects of taking ADHD medication. While your list will be unique to you, many of these pros and cons are experienced in one degree or another, one way or another, by most of us.
Despite the frustrating cons of ADHD medication, I continue taking them because I’ve found it to be worth it for me. I’m more comfortable driving when I take my medication (understandably, since paying attention is an important part of driving). I don’t get lost on the road. I don’t zone out and miss my turn, or a stop sign…
What medication pros and cons have you experienced? Has medication been worth it for you? Comment below so we can help each other!