The Night Watchman Theory for ADHD Symptoms


My sleeping pattern is dreadful. I drop off at 2 a.m., only to wake up promptly at 4:22 a.m. to fret about unsolved problems for 30 minutes before either nodding off again or staring at the alarm until it goes off. If in a strange or new environment, I will wake up every time the curtain flaps. I am quite a restless one-night stand.

This makes the next day or two a bit tough, usually right when I need to be more awake to drive or to work, which is actually fine because my ADHD energy leaves me no choice but to keep going until the job’s done. However, my sleep deterioration also correlates to my stress levels and causes a vicious long-term cycle when the stressor is unresolved. For example, I once slept for only one hour for an entire week because I was being threatened with exportation by an utterly revolting pig of a manager three months into a job in Indonesia. So, why can everyone else sleep, but we with ADHD minds can’t?

I recently got thinking about a lot of the positive and useful attributes of ADHD. It’s true that we’re impulsive, always switched on, prone to overstimulation, and known to wake up our partners at 2 a.m. for a chat or with our phones if we’re not snoring. But we also simultaneously have a gift that, in many contexts, is actually very useful and gives us an edge on the neurotypical competition.

So why do more than 70% of people with ADHD have such a messed up and stress-responsive circadian rhythm?

It’s Evolution, Baby

The Watchman Theory posits that our hyperfocus and ability to give equal attention to every element in our environment is actually honed by evolution. The theory is that people with ADHD are wired to be the perfect night watchmen and hunters of our tribes and that most of our current advantages and disadvantages trace back to this vital role wherein our “symptoms” would have saved lives.

[Read This Next: Uncomfortable Truths About the ADHD Nervous System]

I like this theory because it explains a lot, like why we get overstimulated by busy environments and why we’re so alert at night. We tend to be prone to anxiety — a stress response to a perceived yet unknown threat — and we go from 0 to 100 (“action mode”) faster than a Ducati when threats become real. We can create responsive plans and strategies in milliseconds, but also hone in on detailed problems and strategies through hyperfocus, which is a really useful set of instincts and switches when another tribe conducts a dawn raid, presenting multiple threats simultaneously.

We speak fast, especially when we’re excited, conveying masses of unfiltered information in a short space of time. Time itself is also broadly irrelevant at night, which explains why we generally operate to a broader time margin. We don’t do well with predictable 9-5 work like farming or accounting either (not that we can’t do that, too) because it’s not stimulating and too predictable (it almost gave me a mental breakdown). We are also often the most effective actors when everything is on fire and everyone else is losing their heads – it’s almost relaxing.

Socially speaking, it makes sense too. We are fiercely protective and loyal to anyone who shows us respect and kindness, but we don’t have the social instincts needed to blend into group environments like neurotypicals do. We make great leaders when we’re in our element, with a disproportionate number of us being entrepreneurs and creatives. But It’s also why we’re so ridiculously hard on ourselves when we fail, especially when that failure leads to hurt for the people we care about or feel somehow responsible for; 10,000 years ago, an overlooked threat could have doomed our tribe.

Outside the Lines

They say that ADHD types are happiest in nature. It’s true. When I go camping, there’s always this moment once the fire dies down when the people around me are sleeping and I feel very protective (I do this in the long taxi ride home from a night out, too). I stay awake whether I like it or not, super alert to everything around me.

[Additional Reading: “How My ADHD Makes Me a More Dynamic, Resourceful, Passionate Leader”]

The challenging calm is cracked by a thousand little noises, my brain sits there and assesses every single one of them for distance and threat while I make out shapes in the darkness around me, imagining fantastical things and reflecting on everything else in life, or quietly taking us where we need to be on the long night drives. It’s the right kind of quiet not for me to relax, but to feel at peace and have a place therein. It feels strangely purposeful. This is notably enhanced when I sleep beside someone for whom I have strong feelings (I’m going to be a very tired father if I ever have a baby) – every beautiful snuffle wakes me up with a start.

The Watchman Theory would also explain why ADHD has snuck under psychology professionals’ radar for so long (aside from the fact that symptoms are easily mistaken for other things). When a person with ADHD is in the right job for them, often helping other people, they really rock at it, so you don’t see the ADHD symptoms because they contribute to success.

But finding that place is something that most of us struggle with much more than neurotypicals do. Maybe that’s because our most evolutionarily important role is increasingly obsolete and undervalued now, phased out by technological advances and changing societal values, our hunter instincts relegated to treadmills and weekends away when we can afford them, and now we’re all just trying to create and find new ways to be essential in a society that prizes neurotypical traits above ours.

Watchmen Theory: Next Steps

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Updated on May 30, 2021

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