ADHD is one of those pesky conditions that often gets brushed off as “life stuff” — especially for women.
Women are more likely than men to have undiagnosed ADHD, and those who do receive a diagnosis typically get it later in life. ADHD symptoms also manifest differently in women.
Throw in periods, hormones, and delightful female stereotypes and it’s no wonder women are more likely to confuse their ADHD symptoms for just another rough day.
The only real way to get a diagnosis is from your doctor. But the following details can help you get a sense of if, when, and how to have that conversation.
Before we get specific about ADHD’s effects on women, here’s an overview.
ADHD typically starts showing up in early childhood, but depending on the severity of the symptoms, it may not be noticeable until adulthood. Many people go decades without realizing they have it.
Typically, the disorder is characterized by a short attention span, difficulty focusing, restlessness, mood swings, and impulsiveness.
ADHD symptoms in children include:
- frequent fidgeting
- difficulty paying attention
- aggressiveness toward others
- disobedient behavior
- loud, disruptive personality
For adults, the symptoms are a bit different and can even be similar to those of burnout. Symptoms may include:
- poor time management
- short temper
- difficulty multitasking
- low tolerance for stress
While all this might sound scary and pretty debilitating, most people can manage their symptoms and be as productive, focused, and centered as they need to be.
Unfortunately, because women often shoulder a great deal of chronic stress, ADHD can show up for them in more persistent but less obvious ways.
According to the nonprofit group Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD), a woman may not recognize ADHD in herself until one of her children gets a diagnosis.
Symptoms in women can include:
- inattention to detail
- low self-esteem
- constant exhaustion
- difficulty sleeping
Rather than showing hyperactive characteristics, women with ADHD typically exhibit quieter inattentive qualities. They might forget to follow through with plans or have difficulty managing work and personal tasks at the same time.
As a result, they may feel bad about themselves and struggle with stress or anxiety related to their overwhelming responsibilities.
We live in a world that rewards productivity, often at the cost of emotional health. People don’t always seek help in managing stress due to stigma about how they’ll be perceived.
Women have the extra burden of social expectations that require them to balance family and work, often more so than men.
If left untreated, ADHD can significantly affect a woman’s health and happiness.
Even if she learns to manage her symptoms, she may deal with constant stress. This could lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, digestive problems, and other physical ailments, putting her long-term health at risk.
Let’s pause for a deep breath or two. All this is definitely a bit overwhelming — but that’s where a proper diagnosis comes in. Getting diagnosed will give you access to tools that can help you cope.
So, how do you know if you have ADHD? If the symptoms sound familiar, you might want to talk to your doctor. ADHD symptoms are sometimes dismissed as typical behavior, especially in women, who are often perceived as overly emotional and anxious.
Everyone goes through stressful times, but for people with ADHD, this stress goes deeper than just a difficult period at work — it’s a part of daily life.
ADHD symptoms can also vary throughout the menstrual cycle as hormone levels fluctuate.
During the premenstrual period, when estrogen is low, mood swings and depression-like symptoms will typically be worse. This can make the disorder even harder to diagnose in women, since ADHD symptoms may be mistaken for typical PMS effects.
If you feel like you’ve long had trouble accomplishing tasks without debilitating anxiety, it could be a result of ADHD or another mental health concern.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, about 50 percent of adults with ADHD also have an anxiety disorder.
Because the symptoms of ADHD go hand in hand with chronic anxiety, it can be difficult to discern when a person has ADHD in addition to other conditions.
Treatments for ADHD may conflict with treatments for anxiety and depression — and some ADHD medications could make anxiety worse. Work with a healthcare provider find the best treatment plan for your needs.
Many forms of treatment can help women manage their ADHD symptoms. In some cases, simple caffeine stimulants like coffee may be helpful.
Children can often manage symptoms with behavioral treatment, but for adults, medication may ultimately be the best option.
Stimulants that contain methylphenidate or amphetamines (such as Adderall or Ritalin) are the most commonly used prescription meds for treating ADHD. For many people, they can be lifesavers — but, like any medication, they may not be right for everyone.
It’s important to discuss all options with your doctor before deciding if this is the best course for you.
Antidepressants could also help. Their effects vary from person to person and may take longer to notice. Your doctor might also suggest non-stimulant drugs, like Strattera, if stimulants aren’t right for you.
It may take some experimentation to figure out what treatment works best for your body and your life. And it’s totally OK to speak up when something just doesn’t feel right.
Although cognitive behavioral therapy is most effective in children, counseling could also be a viable treatment option for adults.
While you learn actionable skills for managing your ADHD, it can also help you identify the root of your anxiety and performance stress so you can start to address it internally. Look for a therapist who specializes in treating ADHD — yes, they exist!