Is ADHD Different for Women?
Everyday life can be so busy, filled with constant multitasking and seemingly endless assignments. Procrastination, disorganization, and unfinished projects can feel normal, but there might be an underlying cause: attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). And the condition is often overlooked for one group in particular: women.
Understanding ADHD Symptoms in Women
ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is manifested by inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity that can interfere with daily functioning and quality of life. While the exact causes of ADHD are not fully understood, there is a strong genetic component that may be influenced by environmental factors and stress. ADHD symptoms can vary among individuals, but they generally fall into three main categories:
- Inattention: Difficulty staying focused, being disorganized, forgetful, procrastinating, and often changing topics mid-conversation. Difficulty keeping track of schedules, appointments, and belongings, frequently losing or misplacing items, and needing help with time management.
- Hyperactivity: Restlessness (either observed or internally felt), always moving, fidgeting, difficulty relaxing, talking excessively,
- Impulsivity: Interrupting others while talking, making quick decisions without thinking, and engaging in certain risky behaviors.
Some other common characteristics include mood swings, irritability, hypersensitivity to criticism, difficulty handling stress and criticism, anxiety, and low frustration tolerance.
But diagnosing ADHD in women can be complicated. During childhood, teachers and parents may have biases that make it less likely for them to refer a girl for ADHD treatment. Women also may have symptoms that are “masked” or "fly under the radar," which can lead to underdiagnosis and delayed treatment. Some experts think that women may be more likely to have inattention than hyperactivity, and thus may not be noticed by others.
Women with ADHD may also have more anxious or depressive symptoms (which may either be related to ADHD or other independent psychiatric disorders), low self-esteem, chronic stress, and difficulties with relationships and social interactions. Symptoms may be exacerbated by hormonal changes during menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and menopause. Other common conditions found in women with ADHD include tics, eating disorders, and fibromyalgia.
It's important to note that not all women with ADHD will experience all of these symptoms, and some may have different symptoms altogether, so it is essential to get a thorough diagnosis by an experienced healthcare provider who can assess the person's symptoms, medical history, and functioning in different areas of life.
How Women Can Get Support and Treatment for ADHD
If you think you might have ADHD, don’t despair. Dr. Frances Levin, the Kennedy-Leavy Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University and the Chief of the Division on Substance Use Disorders at NYSPI/Columbia University, offers a few steps women can take to get help:
- Talk to your doctor. If you suspect that you may have ADHD, talk to your doctor to get a proper diagnosis and appropriate treatment options. An ADHD diagnosis requires a thorough evaluation and cannot be made from a brief assessment. While neuropsychological tests may provide important ancillary information, they do not, in and of themselves should be used to make the diagnosis of ADHD.
- Take Medication. Stimulants, non-stimulants, and antidepressants (which may be used but not FDA-approved for ADHD) may help manage ADHD symptoms, and your doctor can help you determine which medicine may be best for you.
- Get Therapy. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can help change negative thought patterns and behaviors. Therapy can also help with developing better-coping mechanisms and problem-solving strategies. Often, individuals with ADHD have not learned how to carry out complex tasks or how to organize tasks and may suffer from paralyzing procrastination. CBT can help with these aspects of ADHD.
- Join a Support Group. An excellent source of support for women with ADHD. These groups provide a safe space to share experiences and strategies with others who understand the challenges of living with ADHD; particularly as it applies to child-rearing and parenting.
- Make Lifestyle Changes. Certain lifestyle changes, such as exercise, a healthy diet, and enough sleep, can help manage ADHD symptoms.
- Create accommodations. Using a planner, breaking tasks into smaller steps, and creating a structured routine can help manage ADHD symptoms.
- Take care of yourself. It's important to practice self-care, including taking breaks, engaging in enjoyable activities, and prioritizing time for relaxation and stress reduction.
It’s important to keep in mind that people with ADHD often require a multi-pronged approach to help develop coping strategies and improve in managing their symptoms.
Taking the Next Step
ADHD can significantly impact academic performance, work productivity, relationships, and overall well-being. But remember, ADHD is a medical condition and not a result of laziness or a lack of discipline. With appropriate management strategies and support, individuals with ADHD can lead fulfilling and successful lives.
If you think you might have ADHD, reach out to one of our experts to schedule an appointment.