You might think that Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is mainly a condition children deal with, and mainly boys. But the National Institute of Mental Health reports that 3.2% of U.S. women aged 18 to 44 have ADHD, although it can often be overlooked or misdiagnosed. That's why it's important to arm yourself with correct information, especially if you're noticing any signs or symptoms of ADHD.
What is ADHD?
According to the Mayo Clinic, ADHD in adults is a mental health disorder characterized by a cluster of persistent issues, like trouble concentrating, acting impulsively or feeling restless. “ADHD is best described as an inconsistent ability to focus on what you really want to,” says Lesley Cook, PSY.D, a licensed clinical psychologist in Fredericksburg, Virginia who raises awareness about ADHD on TikTok at @Lesleypsyd. This can lead to problems with being organized and can manifest as impatience and anger – like really losing it if the grocery store checkout line’s too slow. “Women with ADHD may be misdiagnosed with a mood or anxiety disorder,” says David Goodman, MD, LFAPA, associate professor of clinical and behavioral psychiatry at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland.
What are the signs of ADHD in women?
Men are diagnosed with ADHD at nearly double the rate women are. In males, signs of the disorder range from trouble focusing to hyperactivity to learning problems to bad behavior, according to a study from King’s College in London. However, “for gender-assigned females at birth, inattentive symptoms, not hyperactive symptoms, are what we see,” says Cook. Specifically, common ADHD symptoms in women include:
- Not paying attention to details, which leads to mistakes
- A hard time maintaining focus and listening to others
- Trouble following instructions
- Being distracted easily
“We don’t know exactly why there is a gender split with ADHD symptoms,” says Dr. Cook. “It could have to do with socialization – women are often encouraged from childhood not to be disruptive. There could also be a genetic component, but more studies are needed to really find that out.”
How can having ADHD impact a woman’s life?
ADHD can lead to different kinds of struggles in a woman’s life. “Women with undiagnosed ADHD are consistently inconsistent at completing tasks,” says Dr. Goodman. “This is evident in running late, forgetting appointments, misplacing your keys or phone, or being late picking up your children from school.” If paying a bill slips your mind once or twice, this doesn’t mean you have ADHD, though. Rather, ADHD symptoms can be traced through your life. “For women with ADHD, it helps to see a long-standing pattern,” says Dr. Cook. “If symptoms like a lack of focus don’t emerge suddenly–say, after hitting your head after a car accident–look back and see if these symptoms have impacted your life negatively.”
You might be way too familiar with people calling you unreliable or erratic, too. “Women with ADHD may often not even realize they have a treatable disorder, “ Dr. Goodman adds. “After several decades of listening to criticism, they may conclude ‘This is just who I am.’ In turn, this kind of thinking can lower your self-esteem, and even contribute to depression–it can be a tough cycle to break.
What to do if you think you might have ADHD?
Getting a diagnosis is crucial. “Once your symptoms are effectively reduced, you’ll understand that what you have – ADHD – is different from who you are as a person,” says Dr. Goodman. “Your self-confidence will rise. Seeing a healthcare provider who is trained and experienced with ADHD in adults is the best way to be accurately evaluated. Because 70% of adults with ADHD have another psychiatric condition, a comprehensive evaluation includes a long list of questions to consider the presence or absence of several psychiatric disorders beyond just ADHD.”
Start by going to your PCP. “You can ask for a basic ADHD screening, which is often covered by insurance,” says Dr. Cook. “You can also see a clinical psychologist. Be aware, however, that this kind of screening will take 1-5 hours, can cost as much as $3000, and is often not covered by insurance. An alternative would be to go to a community mental health clinic.”
Once you have a diagnosis, treatment consists of psychotherapy, medication, or both. Although you will always have ADHD, you can learn to manage it extremely effectively, and feel great about yourself and your potential. The key to success? “Think of the people in your life as your team,” says Dr. Cook. “Your team can include your doctor, your psychologist, your family, your friends, your boss. It can be hard to share that you have ADHD – shame and guilt can be part of the condition. You don’t deserve to feel that way! Allow others to give you the support you do deserve, and that you need.”
Lisa is an internationally established health writer whose credits include Good Housekeeping, Prevention, Oprah Daily, Woman’s Day, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Parade, Health, Self, Family Circle and Seventeen. She is the author of eight best-selling books, including The Essentials of Theater.