Reviewed by Lauren Guilbeault
Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder is a disorder most commonly associated with schoolchildren and their difficulties in focusing and attending to tasks. Less often discussed is adults with ADHD and the issues they face in work, relationships, and day-to-day functioning. Far from being an innocuous disorder, ADHD can have significant impacts on an adult’s ability to function in everyday situations; the hallmarks of ADHD include difficulty focusing, difficulty maintaining relationships, and impulse control issues—all of which can potentially wreak havoc in an adult’s life.
ADHD In Adulthood: Diagnosis And Outlook
Many diagnoses come with a warning or a source of comfort: early detection and subsequent action are key. This can be true of ADHD, which can be disheartening for people who do not realize their symptoms point to ADHD to those who were not allowed to receive a diagnosis until adulthood. Happily, there are treatment options and therapy modalities for adults with ADHD, even if they are not quite easy to access as resources intended for children.
Receiving a diagnosis often looks different for adults. Children are frequently evaluated in school after parents and teachers have identified struggle in academic settings. Still, adults do not have the same support methods and scrutiny in personal and work matters. A diagnosis, then, will not usually come from a school setting or a developmental professional but will more likely come from a mental health professional or primary care physician.
Some children are said to “grow out” of ADHD symptoms, but this is not the case in adulthood—and even in children, it is far less likely that children outgrow their symptoms and far more likely that they simply learn to manage them throughout their lives. Instead, adults will likely have to find ways to support focus and attention while minimizing symptoms through conventional routes (medication and therapy) or less typical routes (including alternative therapies and dietary and lifestyle interventions).
Treatment For Adult ADHD: Standard Methods
The most common, standard ADHD treatment method is the pharmaceutical intervention. Stimulants are usually the preferred type of treatment and are often given as the first defense against ADHD symptoms. Although stimulants can be quite effective for ADHD treatment—indeed, they remain the primary source of treatment and most widely-studied form of intervention—they can also bring along with them some very real side effects that people may struggle to deal with. For many, this type of intervention offers something of a trade-off: improved focus, but a loss of appetite, and increased attention, but a loss of energy. Although not everyone has a series of adverse effects from using the prescriptions most commonly given to treat ADHD, they are common enough that people of all ages and backgrounds often look to additional supports or alternative therapies to adequately treat their symptoms.
Adults with ADHD may also be encouraged to undergo simple talk therapy to talk through possible practical methods to ease some of the complications of ADHD. For instance, in relationships, people with ADHD may struggle to recognize their partner’s needs and may not communicate effectively. Tackling these issues in therapy can help alleviate some of the difficulties adults with ADHD experience in relationships. Creating practical methods to create goals, implement routines, and support focus in therapy can also be helpful and can provide some structure to the lives of adults with ADHD.
Treatment For Adult ADHD: Alternative Methods
Alternative treatment methods in adulthood typically fall within one of three camps: dietary changes, lifestyle changes, and alternative therapies. The first, dietary changes, is often one of the most significant, if not necessarily the easiest to nail down. For instance, some adults with ADHD find the stimulants in coffee and tea too overwhelming, and cutting caffeine (including chocolate) entirely helps reduce symptom severity. For others, though, the stimulant effect of caffeine improves attention and focus. Dietary changes are not typically an exact science offered by dietetics professionals or other medical practitioners, but a series of self-imposed restrictions and experiments to identify what foods can positively and negatively affect symptoms. This intervention is typically best to embark on with a health professional who can help identify any food sensitivities.
Lifestyle interventions can also help soothe symptoms of ADHD—though, again, these interventions do not usually follow any hard and fast rules. Engaging in regular exercise, working to develop a consistent sleeping schedule, and utilizing supplements to support general health and brain support can all constitute lifestyle interventions adults with ADHD might find useful in easing their symptoms. Some find the strenuous exercise useful in regulating behavior, while others find gentle walking and yoga more effective in modifying symptoms. Some might improve sleep habits by limiting stimulating drinks before bed, avoiding electronics for several hours, and using light to signal it is time to go to bed. Others might turn to other methods, such as melatonin supplements and meditation. Fish oil and herbs are common supplements used to improve neurological function and attention.
Alternative therapies are common sources of support for ADHD in adults. Treatment without drugs might include alternative therapies such as neurofeedback, EMDR, and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for ADHD, including chiropractic care, equine therapy, and acupuncture. Because alternative therapies rarely have a great deal of research to support their use to treat ADHD, many alternative therapies are undertaken to understand that they may not elicit significant results and are likely to have to come out of pocket. Nevertheless, many adults find that alternative therapies act as wonderful sources of support in a robust treatment plan and can better focus, maintain relationships, and pursue their goals with a multifaceted approach.
Unique Concerns: Differences In Adult ADHD
Because there is such a significant emphasis placed on ADHD in childhood, many adults with ADHD are overlooked or misunderstood, making receiving a diagnosis and subsequent treatment plan challenging. Children with ADHD are often given special accommodations and begin the important task of identifying treatment plans that work well with their wants and needs. Adults often have to feel out the process independently, with far less support and outside encouragement. Children with ADHD do not typically experience a great deal of struggle with insurance companies, while adults with ADHD may experience more difficulty in securing long-term therapies covered by insurance companies, largely due to the assumptions made about ADHD; namely, that ADHD is primarily problematic in academic situations, and not in daily life.
The erroneous assumptions made about ADHD can also make ADHD feel shameful or embarrassing in adulthood, further complicating treatment; adults may need to simultaneously tackle ADHD symptoms and the effects of anxiety, depression, and shame that can come along with an adulthood ADHD diagnosis. Some adults conclude that something has gone wrong after years of difficulty in school, work, and relationships. In contrast, others happen across an online ADHD test, take it on a whim, and find themselves staring at an overwhelmingly concerned result. The road ahead of an adult diagnosed with ADHD can be more difficult than the road of someone diagnosed in childhood. Still, there are treatment options available, and there is the possibility of leading a healthy, normal life.
Living With Adult ADHD
Adults with ADHD face unique challenges that children often do not, including decreased access to treatment. While many children enrolled in school can secure treatment and therapy from school-mandated options, adults cannot afford the same options in their workplaces or at home. Instead, adults typically must find their therapy sources and often rely on medication on their dime. This, in addition to the lack of understanding in many workplaces, can make a living with adult ADHD a difficult and isolating experience. Fortunately, there are resources available for adults with ADHD, including support groups. These provide sources of support that a child is unlikely to benefit from, but that can be powerful and meaningful aid sources in adulthood.
Knowing how to treat ADHD in adults can be more difficult than knowing how to treat ADHD in childhood; children are often given numerous avenues and instances in which to receive therapy, whether that is through applied therapy during class or designated occupational therapy sessions and adults are not given the same resources and possibilities. Fortunately, some avenues can be easier to access in adults, as adults can decide for themselves and maybe more willing to undergo therapy and receive help. Whether seeking out medication for adult ADHD, enlisting therapy such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or turning to alternative medicine such as acupuncture, adults are better equipped to weigh pros and cons than children or even their parents and more thoroughly understand what is stake. While it may be frustrating to feel as though you have lost out on a lifetime of potential treatment options, there can be some benefits to receiving an ADHD diagnosis in adulthood.