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Do I have adult ADHD?

Reviewed by Robert Bogenberger, PhD

A group of adults catch and organize geometric shapes

Are you wondering if you have attention-deficient hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)? It’s typically diagnosed in childhood, but sometimes it can go unrecognized until adulthood.

ADHD can be hard to pinpoint because symptoms are often mistaken for bad habits or a lack of motivation. It’s easy to dismiss your behavior as something you do to cope with everyday stress, but if it’s impacting your work, relationships, and daily life, it may be time to talk with a mental health professional.

How is adult ADHD different from childhood ADHD?

ADHD is a brain-based disorder that affects attention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. It’s the same disorder in children as it is in adults, but the symptoms may look different.

Symptoms tend to be easier to notice and identify in children because their brains and bodies are still developing. In kids, ADHD often manifests as impulsive behavior, hyperactivity, and trouble paying attention. In adults, it may present as disorganization, procrastination, and forgetfulness.

ADHD is more likely to be diagnosed in boys and missed in girls because of how differently they express symptoms.1 Some children outgrow their symptoms as they age, but others don’t. Those who don’t often learn coping mechanisms as they develop into their adult selves, so their symptoms may be more subtle than in childhood.

Types of adult ADHD and their symptoms

There are three different types of ADHD in adults: mostly inattentive, mostly hyperactive-impulsive, or a combination of the two.

Inattentive ADHD

Inattentive ADHD involves struggling to focus and follow through on tasks. Symptoms may include:

  • Trouble paying attention: You may find it hard to focus on work or conversations. Your mind may wander, and you may miss important details.
  • Trouble remembering details: You may forget to do things like pay bills or return calls. You may also have trouble following directions and keeping track of conversations.
  • Disorganization. You may have trouble completing tasks, meeting deadlines, and keeping track of your belongings. Your home and office may be cluttered, and you may feel like you’re always behind.
  • Procrastination. You may start projects but have trouble finishing them. You may put off tasks that you don’t want to do or that seem overwhelming.

Hyperactive-impulsive ADHD

Hyperactive-impulsive ADHD is characterized by impulsive and hyperactive behavior. Symptoms may include:

  • Restlessness: You may feel like you’re always on the go, even when you’re not. You may also have trouble sitting still for long periods of time and find it difficult to resist fidgeting.
  • Excessive talking: You may find yourself talking nonstop, even when it’s inappropriate or you’re not sure what you’re saying.
  • Trouble waiting your turn: You may have trouble waiting in line or taking your turn to speak. You may interrupt others or blurt out answers before people have finished asking a question.
  • Acting without thinking: You may do things without thinking about the consequences. You may make impulsive decisions, like buying something you don’t need or engaging in risky behavior.

Causes of adult ADHD

The exact cause of ADHD is unknown, but it’s thought to come from a combination of genetic and environmental factors. This disorder often runs in families, so you may be more likely to have it if your parents or siblings do.2

ADHD isn’t caused by poor parenting, eating too much sugar or processed food, playing a lot of video games, or watching too much TV. Certain brain injuries or problems with the structure or function of the brain may contribute to ADHD, though. For example, babies born prematurely have a higher risk of receiving an ADHD diagnosis in their lifetime.3

Environmental factors like exposure to toxins or stress may also play a role. An example of exposure to toxins would be parents who smoke and drink alcohol while pregnant. Those who do are more likely to have children with ADHD.4

How is adult ADHD diagnosed?

About 30 to 60% of children with ADHD continue to show significant symptoms of the disorder into adulthood.5 For any ADHD diagnosis, the symptoms must have started before age 12, although how it looks in any one person may change over the years.

Problems must appear in at least two settings (such as work, home, community, or school) and interfere with how you function in these settings.

Many different health care professionals can diagnose ADHD in adults, including:

  • Primary care doctors
  • Psychiatrists
  • Neurologists
  • Clinical psychologists
  • Nurse practitioners
  • Clinical social workers
  • Other licensed counselors or therapists

Your health care provider may gather information by:

  • Asking about your family history of mental health
  • Reviewing symptoms that started before age 12 (using self-reports, school records, etc.)
  • Ruling out other mental health conditions
  • Identifying how your symptoms affect work, community, or home functioning
  • Using ADHD screening tests

If you’re diagnosed with ADHD as an adult, your health care provider will work with you to develop a treatment plan.

Treating adult ADHD

There’s no cure for ADHD, but there are several treatment methods that can help you manage your symptoms effectively. These may include:

Medication: Stimulant medications such as methylphenidate (Ritalin) and amphetamines (Adderall) are commonly used to treat ADHD. These drugs can help improve focus, concentration, and impulsivity. Nonstimulant medications, such as bupropion (Wellbutrin), tricyclic antidepressants, and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), may also be used to treat ADHD.

Psychotherapy: Individual, group, or family therapy can help you identify and manage your symptoms, as well as improve your relationships with others. Counseling can also support you in developing problem-solving and coping skills.

Self-help or support groups: These groups provide social and emotional support from others with ADHD. They also provide an opportunity to share tips for managing symptoms, work through challenges, and gain insight into your condition. Many local Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD) chapters offer free or low-cost support groups for adults with ADHD.6

Complementary and alternative therapies: Some people find relief from symptoms of ADHD by using therapies such as neurofeedback, acupuncture, omega-3 supplements, and yoga. Please keep in mind that these therapies are not a replacement for evidence-based treatments like medication and psychotherapy.

No one treatment works for everyone, so it’s important to work with your health care provider to find a plan that’s right for you. In many cases, health care providers recommend a combination of medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes to manage adult ADHD.

Living with adult ADHD

If you’ve been diagnosed with adult ADHD, there are steps you can take to manage your symptoms and live a healthy, productive life. At work, these may include:

  • Clearing your workspace of distractions
  • Getting a visible clock and using timers for tasks
  • Creating a to-do list and using a planner
  • Creating checklists for projects, including how much time each step may take
  • Breaking up big tasks into smaller ones
  • Giving yourself more time than you think you need to complete tasks
  • Using an electronic filing system
  • Recording instructions or meetings, and asking for written instructions
  • Asking a colleague to be your “accountability buddy” to help each other stay on track
  • Finding a mentor to help you prioritize tasks

To manage adult ADHD at home, try the following:

  • Staying organized with lists and alerts on your phone or computer
  • Using a wall or digital calendar to keep up with appointments, events, and deadlines
  • Designing a daily routine and sticking to it as much as possible
  • Minimizing distractions by turning off the TV, radio, or social media when you need to focus on a task
  • Automating certain tasks like paying bills
  • Cleaning your home with a robotic vacuum
  • Asking for help from friends or family members with tasks like cooking, cleaning, and childcare
  • Exercising regularly to help relieve stress and improve focus
  • Getting enough sleep to help improve concentration and energy levels

With a proper treatment plan, many people with ADHD can lead productive, successful lives. If you think you may have adult ADHD, browse our directory to find a mental health professional who can help.

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