You’ve felt a little different your entire life and are disappointed in how things are going.
Maybe you always have trouble focusing on work or following through on daily tasks. Maybe you make hasty decisions or can’t stay motivated to complete important things you’re not interested in.
Although this can make you feel demoralized and frustrated, you’re not alone.
These experiences are common for adults living with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), says Mark Stein, a professor of psychiatry at University of Washington School of Medicine.
ADHD is often a contributing factor to these issues and, unfortunately, is often not identified.
“Some of the confusion comes from the fact that symptoms such as difficulty concentrating and acting before thinking are also part of everyday life and can occur for a variety of reasons besides ADHD, including with other psychiatric or medical conditions that should be ruled out,” Stein explains.
What is adult ADHD?
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder is a common psychiatric disorder that usually begins in childhood but can be diagnosed at any age. It’s often characterized by attention problems as well as overactivity and impulsivity.
Although ADHD is most commonly noted in children, about 10 million adults in the United States are also known to be living with the condition.
The symptoms often change over time and may be less obvious in adults, but the impact they have on your life can continue.
What causes adult ADHD?
Although there may be multiple causes for ADHD, experts believe genetics play a huge part.
Stein and his colleagues have been studying the parents of children with ADHD and, in many cases, the parents are unaware they also have the disorder.
“If a child is diagnosed with ADHD, 20% to 30% of the time, the parent also has ADHD,” Stein says.
Other biological factors, like being born premature or being exposed to certain illnesses during pregnancy, may also contribute to your ADHD risk.
With adult ADHD, symptoms are usually present in childhood but are either not identified or attributed to other factors, Stein explains. There are also instances where your ADHD symptoms may simply be less obvious.
If you weren’t diagnosed with ADHD as a child, though, you might be wondering why your ADHD suddenly popped up after all these years. Well, chances are, it didn’t.
“If you grow up in a highly structured school environment with lots of supports, including a helicopter parent who is making sure you turn in homework on time, you might not even realize you have ADHD until you leave home and it’s a whole different world,” he says.
What are the signs and symptoms of adult ADHD?
ADHD symptoms are split into two different clusters: those related to attention and those related to overactivity or impulsivity.
Attention-related signs may include a short attention span, disorganization, poor time management and difficulty concentrating or focusing, while overactivity ones may show up as restlessness or impulsive decision-making. Difficulty regulating your emotions and irritability are also common features, especially when you feel overwhelmed or stressed.
While everyone has moments like this — hello, every bad choice we made in our 20s — people with ADHD will notice a consistent pattern of these behaviors throughout their lives, although they may show up in different ways as you get older.
When you were a child, maybe you had trouble sitting still or not interrupting. Or maybe you were constantly told you didn’t apply yourself enough in school.
Then as an adult, you find yourself struggling to stay in a job or to stick with your relationships. You may even notice a pattern of making questionable choices about who you hang out with or participating in dangerous activities. Many adults with ADHD also develop other problems, such as low self-esteem, anxiety or substance abuse disorders.
“You may also notice more issues if you’re in a job that’s not well suited for the issues you’re experiencing,” Stein adds.
There are also gender differences related to ADHD symptoms and their associated problems. In fact, this may be why more males are diagnosed in childhood.
“Behavioral issues due to ADHD are more common in boys, and they’re usually referred between 6 and 8,” Stein notes. “For girls, we tend to see more academic underachievement and low self-esteem, which is harder to attribute to ADHD. Girls are typically 10 or older when they’re referred.”
How do you treat adult ADHD?
If you suspect you have ADHD, first talk with your doctor who can guide you on next steps.
Once diagnosed, Stein says, education is the first step followed by developing an effective treatment plan — whether that’s medication, behavioral therapy or all of the above — that works for you.
“ADHD is different for every patient and treatment needs to be individualized,” he explains. “Medication might be really helpful for someone during school, but other people might do well without medication depending on their supports, occupation and lifestyle. It’s also important to look at skills that you can work on and improve, like organization, time management, relationship building or tolerating stress and change.”
In essence, there is no one-size-fits-all treatment for ADHD. But together with a psychologist or other ADHD specialist, you can figure out what options may be a good fit for your unique situation.
“We need to look at the entire picture,” Stein explains. “There is a long list of problems associated with ADHD, ranging from eating disorders, sleep problems, anxiety and low self-esteem to marital and family problems. A good treatment plan for ADHD should help prioritize problems and interventions while developing a strategy for monitoring and adjusting treatments as needed.
The bottom line
“ADHD is not just a childhood disorder,” Stein notes. “It can cause significant difficulties in life as you get older, but once it’s identified, it can make a huge difference in how someone views their past struggles and in planning for future accomplishments.”
Adults with undiagnosed ADHD often suffer in silence, but it doesn’t have to be that way, he adds. Once diagnosed, ADHD is highly treatable.
“One of the things I love about ADHD is that you can help people reinterpret and frame their lives more positively by emphasizing their individual strengths as well as understanding their weaknesses and risk factors,” Stein says. “It’s great to then see what happens next as they use this information and begin moving forward in their individual stories.”