Actor Bree Peters' message to women with ADHD: 'You're not too loud or too much'

Bree Peters
Bree Peters has acting credits in The Almighty Johnsons, Home and Away and The Wilds. Photo credit: Supplied

Bree Peters is encouraging women with ADHD to push through their condition and the stigma associated with it, saying it can provide a "pathway to excel".

The New Zealand actor opened up about the challenges of unknowingly growing up with ADHD and her surprise adult diagnosis in the latest episode of New Zealand mental health podcast Are You Mental?, released on Sunday.

The former Shortland Street actor says her life has been "really tough" at times as she's tried to make sense of the ways she differs from her peers.

Peters says the diagnosis has allowed her to be kinder to herself and encourages other women who have ADHD to allow the diagnosis to free them from the shame of thinking there's something wrong with them.

I was in trouble a lot, and never knew why

Looking back on her childhood, Peters reflects that she was always full-on; she had energy, enthusiasm and emotion in abundance, and always needed to be watched.

If you turned your back on her for a moment, she was gone, running across the road or drinking the dregs from someone's beer can. She was regularly in trouble.

"Having ADHD, you're very sensitive to things - that's sort of like our superpower. So I'd feel everything deeply and emotional regulation was harder," Peters told Are You Mental? host Mick Andrews.

"I was always trying to be a good girl, but I was getting in trouble - and that would hurt me a lot… you'd never know when you were going to get in trouble for just being you."

Like many people with ADHD, Peters found it easy to focus when it came time to do tasks and activities that she was good at or that stimulated her. But boring or difficult tasks felt impossible.

"I could read one paragraph 12 times and just start crying. Maths was an issue for me, and I felt terrible at it, and I couldn't even look at it. And I would freak out," she recalls.

"I thought everybody had voices in their head saying that there are pieces of shit. You just keep thinking, 'you're bad, you're shit', and then you could flip a table, and you're a nine-year-old who's crying in class at a maths test. And everyone's like, 'Oh, what's her problem?'"

Auckland psychologist Nettie Cullen says in people with ADHD, crucial parts of the brain - particularly the prefrontal cortex - have developed differently to a more typical brain.

These differences are related to how we deal with planning and organisation, filtering and controlling attention, impulse control, emotional regulation, judgement, and time management and prioritising, Cullen says.

"What's often observed is difficulty paying attention, a lack of focus, poor time management, and weak impulse control - so that really impulsive behaviour, intense and perhaps exaggerated emotions, maybe dysregulated emotional experience and expression," she told Are You Mental?.

"There's also the hyperfocus, when a person can be extremely focused on a task or an activity far longer than somebody else might typically be - the crucial element being that it's a topic that's particularly interesting."

Cullen says people with ADHD tend to be quite good under pressure. In fact, they may actually need to be under pressure to perform the task at hand.

"A person with ADHD might talk about how when they're in the zone they can go forever, focusing on a topic that is motivating for them. And it'll be motivating because it's intensely interesting or there's a lot of time pressure - a crisis or competition can be quite motivating."

On the other hand, a lack of interest in the task can make it "extraordinarily difficult to find any motivation whatsoever to give it any attention at all".

Congratulations, you have ADHD

It wasn't until the COVID-19 lockdown, when Peters' mother heard Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick speaking about her own ADHD diagnosis on TV, that they talked about whether she may have the condition too.

Peters started reading about ADHD, messaged her doctor, and did a preliminary test. Then, when she was convinced she did in fact have the condition, she went to a psychiatrist for confirmation and treatment.

"She asked me questions about when I was little and how I am in situations, and I just rattled along, and at the end she was like, 'Congratulations, you do have ADHD'. And I just laughed," Peters said.

"And then she talked about medication and what kind of dosage to start on."

Three weeks after starting medication, Peters began rehearsals for a play, and it was in this environment that the change in her behaviour was first noticed. A close friend and fellow actress couldn't believe what she was seeing.

Bree Peters on The Project.
Bree Peters on The Project. Photo credit: Warner Bros. Discovery ANZ

"She just was like, it's so different the way you are, the way you speak to people, the way you take direction and criticism.

"At the end of it, she said to me, 'because of how you are now, it means I can be a different friend too - I can be softer, I don't have to walk around on eggshells as much with you'. I felt really proud of that, that it was easier to be my friend."

Cullen says a lot of people will have a similar experience to Peters - they will notice a marked, positive difference after starting ADHD medication.

"Some people go so far as to say it's completely changed their life and they're functioning in a way that they've never been able to function before. So there seems to be very clear evidence for the efficacy of medication for a lot of people."

But she warns that medication on its own is not as beneficial for people with ADHD as it is alongside other interventions, such as education, behaviour and therapy.

"Medication will only do a certain amount. There are a lot of other things going on, with relationships, self-esteem, basic self awareness and understanding of why I'm experiencing the world and people the way I am [that comes with ADHD].

"Medication will help with the capacity for paying attention, it'll help with the capacity to regulate attention and emotion and behaviour. But it won't help process the emotional components that are going to be part of the whole experience."

Cullen says there are lots of behavioural interventions and practical techniques that can support and create routines and habits that can be really beneficial for a person with ADHD.

"Recognising how to roll with this particular way that the nervous system functions, rather than fight against it, can be a really useful approach, as well as recognising the things that motivate you and weaving them into the daily activities you might otherwise struggle to do," she says.

"The other wonderful thing about the ADHD brain is it's got a wonderful capacity for creativity and imagination. So gamifying an activity to make it stimulating, interesting and engaging can be a really useful strategy."

'Women have a stigma about being too much

For Peters, an ADHD diagnosis was a godsend.

"My life is better now, knowing it, because I'm kinder to myself. You've got all these things that you thought were wrong with you - that you are lazy, or that you just can't do certain things - and now you know why."

She says there's a growing community of women with ADHD, and encourages others to come to terms with the realities of having the condition. She says accepting it can be healing and help you "find your pathway to excel".

"It [an ADHD diagnosis] isn't showing you all the things that you can't do. It's showing you the best place for you to shine, and the things that can help you and the things that you find hard.

"If anybody's feeling that 'my life is going to be shit', you're the same person you were yesterday. It's easier knowing [you have ADHD] than not. You can put things in place to help you succeed, and you figure out there's nothing wrong with you.

"Women have that sort of stigma around it, about being too loud and too much and whatever. And so if I can just say something to them, it's that you're not too loud, you're not too much - you're just the right amount."

More about ADHD as well as other mental health issues is explored in the Are You Mental? podcast, which can be streamed via all major platforms.