Identifying and treating adult ADHD can be life-changing.
Signs of ADHD in children might be more obvious (can’t sit still in class, can’t focus on doing homework, acts like a non-stop ball of energy), but it’s easy to forget that many children with ADHD grow up to be adults with ADHD. Symptoms of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder are not quite so clear in adults, especially if they weren’t formally diagnosed as children.
Adults might have use coping strategies to help them deal with the ways ADHD takes a toll on their lives, such as relying on an assistant at work to maintain appointments, using a cleaning service at home, or delegating certain organizational tasks (food shopping, budgeting, etc.) to a partner. For these reasons, many adults don’t realize they have ADHD until it starts taking a significant toll on their ability to work or manage their personal life. It’s not uncommon, in fact, for some adults not to be diagnosed until their child gets an ADHD diagnosis and they then recognize the symptoms in themself.
“When adults are diagnosed with ADHD, it is often a sense of ‘aha!’,” says psychiatrist Khadijah Watkins, MD, a psychiatrist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell Medicine. Learning you have ADHD as an adult often answers questions about why they may have struggled in school, with relationships, succeeding at work, or managing their home.
Recognizing the Signs of Adult ADHD
There are three types of ADHD with different symptoms.
- Hyperactive/impulsive ADHD: Classic symptoms include feeling fidgety, being unable to sit still, and jumping from topic to topic. Impulsivity in adults often show up as making rash decisions or exhibiting risky behavior.
- Inattentive ADHD: This lesser-known type of ADHD causes difficulty focusing and paying attention. (Learn more about inattentive ADHD here.)
- Combined ADHD: This third type of ADHD has symptoms of both hyperactive and inattentive ADHD.
Treating Adult ADHD
If an adult is diagnosed with ADHD after doing a comprehensive assessment, treatment typically includes a combination of medication and therapy. Doctors treat ADHD by targeting neurotransmitters in the brain, specifically dopamine and norepinephrine, according to Susan Samuels, MD, a psychiatrist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell Medicine.
The two types of medications that treat ADHD are stimulants (which target dopamine and norepinephrine) and non-stimulants (which work with other neurotransmitters). Besides medication, adults with ADHD may also benefit from psychotherapy and organization skills therapy.
Treatment for ADHD can have life-changing results and help you take control of your daily living. If you show signs of ADHD, reach out to a doctor to learn what steps to take.
Dr. Hartstein is the owner of Hartstein Psychological Services, a group psychotherapy practice in New York City.Susan Samuels
Dr. Samuels is an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry and clinical pediatrics at Weill Cornell Medicine and an assistant attending psychiatrist at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.Khadijah Watkins
Dr. Watkins is an assistant professor of psychiatry in the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine and an assistant attending psychiatrist at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.
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ADHD is an executive functioning disorder,
which essentially means that your planning
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and organization are not to
the point where they should be.
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As an adult,
we need to plan how to save money.
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We need to plan our meals.
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We need to plan to pick up
our children from soccer.
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And so, if that area of our brain is not
functioning to the best of its ability,
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we might miss out on some
of those opportunities, or
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not do them well.
There are three main types of ADHD
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that we talk about.
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Hyperactive/impulsive is one type,
inattentive is one type, and
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combined is the third type that
involves all three of those domains.
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So hyperactivity, they're fidgety.
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They can't sit still.
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They might jump from topic to topic.
The impulsivity piece comes in when
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things are happening that
might be somewhat risky,
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things that are done without much thought.
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And then the inattention
piece is as it sounds.
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A real difficulty with focusing and
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attending to the thing that's
right in front of you.
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ADHD, much like most mental health
disorders, is genetically based.
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So we think about imbalances in certain
brain chemicals called neurotransmitters,
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in particular norepinephrine and dopamine.
So I think adults go and
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seek a diagnosis because they notice that
they're not being as effective in their
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lives as they would like to be.
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Or their relationships are really
struggling because their partner is
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can you do these three things?
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And one thing gets done because
they got distracted by something
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an adult to have a diagnosis of ADHD,
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they would have a comprehensive evaluation
with a mental health professional.
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And they'd be asked all sorts of questions
about hyperactivity, impulsivity, and
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And how those things might affect their
personal life, their work life, and
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other parts of their life.
When I was told that I had ADHD,
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it was actually a huge relief
because I had an answer.
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Living life without an answer,
you internalize it and
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think there's something wrong with you.
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And that just spirals you into
a whole negative space, and so
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I felt like there was hope for once.
When adults are diagnosed with ADHD,
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it is often a sense of, aha,
this is why school was such a struggle.
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This is why managing my
home is such a struggle.
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This is why I've had so
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much trouble with relationships.
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treated with medication very effectively.
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So there are two main classes
of medications for ADHD.
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One would be the stimulants
that work on the dopamine and
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norepinephrine imbalance in the brain.
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There are other medications that
we refer to as non-stimulants.
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And those medications work on
other neurotransmitters in
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a different way.
Therapy can always be helpful in
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treatment of ADHD.
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And organizational skills training
would be very helpful for
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an adult to learn how to organize and
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How to not lose the keys, or how to
keep track of deadlines and projects.
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So one patient that I had, she made
this comment once she started treatment.
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She said, you know,
I'm walking around the city, and
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I never realized that I was
walking around in a fog.
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And after starting treatment I
walked down the same blocks, or
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go to the same museums, and it's like
I'm seeing things for the first time.
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About ADHD. Lanham, MD: CHADD. (Accessed on January 15, 2021 at http://www.chadd.org/Understanding-ADHD/About-ADHD.aspx.)
ADHD symptom test for adults: ADD checklist. New York, NY: ADDitude Mag. (Accessed on January 15, 2021 at https://www.additudemag.com/adult-test-for-add-adhd/.)
Medication management. Lanham, MD: CHADD. (Accessed on January 15, 2021 at http://www.chadd.org/Understanding-ADHD/For-Adults/Treatment/Medication-Management.aspx.)