Reviewed by Lauren Guilbeault
Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a common disorder frequently associated with children. Though the disorder is likely easier to diagnose at an early age, and while some children grow out of it, many adults struggle with ADHD as well.
Moreover, girls and women with ADHD frequently go undiagnosed. Given that for years, studies only took into account the symptoms that young boys were exemplifying, it has been an uphill battle for healthcare workers to identify and validate the different ways in which ADHD affects women. When it comes to ADHD, women may end up struggling in silence, undiagnosed.
What Is ADHD?
Many people misunderstand ADHD as a disorder in which a person suffers from a short attention span. However, a person with ADHD more likely struggles with a lack of control over their focus
To state it simply: ADHD is a neurological defect that affects a person’s ability to focus, regulate their moods and/or stay organized. Though it is not a dangerous disorder, when ADHD is prevalent enough, it can have a severe and even debilitating effect on a person’s daily life.
Truthfully though, there is a lot more to understand about ADHD and the brain.
The frontal lobe, which sits at the front of the brain and is the most recently developed part of the human brain, is the home to many neurological functions including:
- Problem Solving
- Speech and Language
- Voluntary Physical Movement
- Impulse Control
- Reward Center
- Regulating Emotion
- Social Behavior
Though these are just a few of the frontal lobe’s main responsibilities, it’s evident that its functions play a major role in the makeup of a person’s personality.
ADHD directly affects the frontal lobe and its functions.
Neurotransmitters are responsible for sending messages between neurons and/or to and from muscles, informing the brain how to act and respond.
As information about ADHD has grown, it’s become clearer that the neurotransmitter, norepinephrine (mobilization of the brain), and by proxy, dopamine (the pleasure center), can become imbalanced by ADHD.
That said, there is still a lot that scientists do not yet know or understand about ADHD.
We Do Know: in short, the brain’s messages from these neurotransmitters do not always get sent in the ways we are used to seeing them in a neurotypical brain.
Who Struggles From ADHD?
ADHD is seemingly primarily genetic, although the environment and early developmental issues can also affect ADHD causes.
Typically, ADHD is diagnosed before the age of 12, and in undiagnosed adults, symptoms are usually ones that have existed since childhood.
The CDC (Center for Disease Control) reported that 6.1 million children in the US have been diagnosed with ADHD, with more boys being diagnosed than girls.
What’s important to note is how symptoms vary between men and women. Though diagnoses are more common in males, it’s arguably because the symptoms of ADHD in females often go unnoticed.
What Are The Symptoms of ADHD in Women?
There are three main ways to break down the symptoms of ADHD.
- Inattention: Often prevalent in a school or work environment.
- Wandering mind and difficulty focusing
- Difficulty staying organized
- Struggles with instruction
- Misplacing or losing items
- Silly mistakes or struggles with attention to detail
- Hyperactivity & Impulsivity: Noticeable, especially in social environments.
- “Fidgety” or constantly moving
- Excessive talking or interruptions
- Acting on impulsive thoughts or feelings
- Struggles with relaxing activities
- Drastic constant shifts in mood
- Eating issues
- Combination: Signs of both hyperactivity and inattention can be identified in the person.
To be clear, these are just some of the common symptoms. ADHD manifests itself differently in different people.
For example, boys might experience and exemplify the fidgety, disruptive, seemingly careless behavior while girls might experience and exemplify a much more internal struggle to suppress the symptoms for the sake of “fitting in.”
Likewise, childlike behaviors can change with age. For example, an adult with ADHD might just be considered “forgetful” or “unsettled.” ADHD symptoms in women might even be called “annoying,” “flakey,” or “too much,” depending on how the ADHD has manifested itself.
Another common sign of ADHD is called stimming. This term is frequently used when diagnosing ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), but some of the more common examples of stimming are seen in ADHD patients as well.
Stimming (self-stimulatory behavior) is essentially a visual, audible, or tactical stimulus that a person with ADHD might use as a coping mechanism while processing information, or as a way to release energy or just something to do when bored.
Common Examples of Stimming:
- Biting your nails
- Twirling your hair
- Bouncing a pen on your desk
- Tapping your foot
- Shaking your leg
- Scratching or rubbing your arm
- Staring off “into space.”
Evidently, there’s no added risk to stimming behavior in ADHD. Truthfully, many of the behaviors are ones any average person can experience from time to time.
With age, and more practice developing social skills, many adults with ADHD, and especially adult women, take their social cues by copying those around them. Signs of stimming or other ADHD symptoms might not be as obvious, but the underlying struggle to manage those tendencies still exists.
Stimming is important to recognize as soon as possible. Many parents struggle to make the distinction between ASD, ADHD, and still – ADD. Let’s review the differences between ADHD and ADD.
ADHD vs. ADD
Attention Deficit Disorder and Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder are different, here’s why it matters.
ADD is the former term for someone with ADHD – inattentive type. While these disorders are now being categorized under a broader umbrella, it’s important to note that a person can be ADHD inattentive type, or ADHD hyperactive-impulsive type, or ADHD combination type, as addressed in the symptoms section.
ADHD In Adult Women
A parent with ADHD has a 50% chance of passing that genetic marker to their child. Therefore, many mothers who went undiagnosed as girls are likely to identify ADHD in themselves after their child gets diagnosed.
Oftentimes, women with ADHD are instead diagnosed with depression or anxiety. The sheer societal pressure to “fix” the way they operate can lead to signs of depression and anxiety without ever knowing or addressing the problem’s root.
Because of the general lack of knowledge, and understanding about ADHD, it’s very common for people with ADHD to accept these societal stigmas, and develop low self-esteem or negative connotations with their condition.
Especially as it pertains to child development, normalizing how every type of brain operates is important.
People with ADHD can often be subject to ridicule or discrimination for not functioning or acting expectedly. As children, they are also often ostracized and teased for their differences.
Because of these factors, ADHD in adult women can have detrimental risks when unaddressed.
Because of the impulsivity component, teenagers with ADHD are more at risk for drug and alcohol addictions, teenage pregnancy, and can be more prone to accidents or injury.
Though the circumstances change with age, the issues don’t necessarily change with unaddressed ADHD. Women who enter adulthood with unaddressed ADHD can experience similar problems such as:
- Trouble with money
- Substance abuse
- Marital strife or divorce
- Unplanned pregnancy
- Eating disorders
- Trouble finishing a higher education
The subsequent effects of ADHD in adult women can lead to anxiety, and depression, just as seen in young undiagnosed girls.
Another disorder that can frequently be associated with or addressed because of ADHD is called the Executive Functioning Disorder.
Collateral Effects – The Executive Functioning Disorder
People with executive functioning disorder can experience difficulties with planning tasks, problem-solving, time-management, and organization.
This is different from ADHD and is not yet an official disorder to diagnose/treat, but is a medical condition that can frequently afflict those with ADHD.
For those who experience executive dysfunction, there is usually an underlying problem. This can be but is not limited t, ADHD.
Executive Dysfunction is essentially an inability to plan, organize, and regulate tasks such as managing time, keeping attention, and memorization. A person with executive functioning issues might also have difficulty having a flexible mindset, transitioning between tasks, and managing emotions.
One thing that also can make daily life difficult for those with executive dysfunction is the weakness or lack of working memory.
Working Memory & Executive Dysfunction
Most people are familiar with short term and long term memory. Working memory is even shorter than the short term and is usually less significant information that most people only hold onto for a very brief period of time.
For example, most people can repeat an address or phone number to remember it before using the information. Likewise, remembering an instruction or details of a conversation comes easier to those without executive dysfunction.
Most people can also think about something else or finish a different task while temporarily keeping that working memory.
However, those with executive functioning issues have almost no working memory.
In severe cases, a person with executive functioning issues might not even remember a teacher saying “turn the page” after two seconds of being told to do so.
Like ADHD, executive functioning issues can manifest differently for those it affects. Generally speaking, it will often take longer to complete goal-oriented tasks, and it will be more difficult to process simple information or decisions.
ADHD often affects executive functioning abilities, but executive functioning issues are not necessarily indicative of ADHD.
The issues of the frontal lobe are categorized under a massive umbrella. Therefore, it can be confusing, and stressful, to address ADHD and it’s collateral consequences.
The good news: treatment and management methods are widely available. If you think you are experiencing either of these issues, seek assistance from a licensed medical professional.
You don’t have to go through this alone.
What To Do
Depending on what type of ADHD you have, management methods will vary.
Adult women with ADHD might have already accepted that they are incapable of being organized. That’s not true.
Here Are Some Things You Can Try To Manage ADHD:
- Lists: It sounds obvious, but instead of trying to keep a list in your head, write it down. And then dispose immediately upon completion.
- Reminders: Set similar reminders in your phone for days when you are on the go.
- Timers: To stay on task, or even to manage your downtime, set a timer to avoid getting lost in an activity.
- Colors: To prioritize your “to do’s,” use colored pens, highlighters, or markers to give your brain a secondary way to categorize and organize your day.
- Journal: Keep a “big ideas” journal. When a thought seems like it might take over your day or your next few hours, pull out your big ideas journal and return to it later. This way, you know you’ve addressed your idea and given it a place to live while you finish your daily tasks.
- Say No: This might be the most difficult for someone with ADHD. Remember, when you say yes to everything, you’re often saying no to self-care. It’s tempting to say yes, and with impulsivity as a driver, it can be nearly impossible to say no. If you have said yes to something that you know will be too overwhelming, impossible to complete, or will get in the way of your self-care, you can always backtrack. Don’t be afraid to return to the person, obligation, or event and express that you might have committed prematurely. Ask for help, and start being honest with yourself. Learn to say no when necessary.
Of course, all of these management tools are easier said than done. Assistance is always an option for a person with ADHD at any age.
ADHD can be treated with a combination of medication and support from a licensed mental health professional. However, every person is different and therefore deserves individualized care. For all guidance regarding treatment, please consult a licensed medical professional.
If you think you might be struggling with ADHD, help is available. Click the link below to take a short, free assessment and get more insight into whether or not you might have ADHD.
If desired, contact a licensed counselor or medical professional afterward for additional advice, or questions.