What are the symptoms of adult ADHD?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a condition that appears in childhood. Children with ADHD:

  • Act impulsively
  • Have difficulty paying attention
  • Are often overly active

Researchers estimate that from 10% to 60% of children with ADHD continue to have symptoms when they are adults. Around 4.5% of adults have ADHD.

Adults with ADHD had the condition as children, although some were never diagnosed. Adult ADHD can cause problems at work and at home and can be hard on relationships. Symptoms may worsen during times of stress

The symptoms of adult ADHD are like those of childhood ADHD but may present differently. For example, adults rarely exhibit hyperactivity but may complain of feeling restless. Adults with ADHD often have trouble:

  • Getting started on tasks
  • Sticking with tasks that take time to complete
  • Controlling their impulses
  • Paying attention to details
  • Getting organized
  • Setting priorities
  • Overcoming feelings of frustration

What problems can ADHD cause for adults?

Adults with ADHD have a harder time completing high school and higher education. They often have trouble keeping jobs. They are also are at an increased risk for:

  • Divorce
  • Substance abuse
  • Money problems
  • Gambling
  • Automobile accidents
  • Legal problems

Those with ADHD often have other psychiatric conditions such as anxiety, mood disorders, and personality disorders.

Is medication or therapy best for adult ADHD?

Most experts regard medication as the first step in treating adult ADHD. The preferred medication is methylphenidate, commonly known as Ritalin. Some people do not respond to the medication, and there is a second group who should not take methylphenidate for some reason. Psychotherapy may help these individuals. 

If you are on medication for ADHD, you may still benefit from therapy. Medication treats the core symptoms of ADHD: short attention span, poor impulse control, and lack of focus. ADHD therapy can teach helpful habits, interpersonal skills, and the regulation of emotions.   

What kind of therapy is best?

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is the type most used for ADHD and is especially well-suited for adults. Behavioral therapy is simply therapy that helps you change your behavior. Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps you change your behavior by changing your thought processes. 

Unhelpful thought processes include:

  • All or Nothing Thinking. "I got turned down when I asked for a second date. I'll never find a girlfriend."
  • Negative Focus. "I can't seem to keep up with the housework, the laundry, and the cooking. I can't do anything right."
  • Catastrophizing. "The meeting was going well until I made that stupid comment. I'm going to get fired."
  • Personalization. "I'm the one who overestimated sales. If the company goes under, it will be my fault."

Cognitive-behavioral therapy can help you see things in a more balanced, positive way. You can learn to appreciate the things you do well and engage in self-praise. CBT that is developed especially for those with ADHD can also help you learn specific skills like time management, organization, and long-term planning. 

Are other kinds of therapy helpful?

Research suggests that other types of therapy may also be helpful for adults with ADHD. Some people do best with a combination of CBT, other therapy, and medication. Types of therapy that may help include. 

Schema Therapy. This type of therapy looks at underlying causes of behavior patterns. Since many children with ADHD get into trouble at school and home, they may have poor self-esteem and anxiety that lasts into adulthood. Schema therapy can help you understand your history so you can switch to more positive ways of coping.

Talk Therapy. This traditional form of therapy can help you get rid of the emotional baggage that often comes with ADHD. It can help you deal with feelings of shame, embarrassment, and resentment. 

Marriage and Family Therapy. If you have ADHD, you may make poor decisions that hurt your marriage and family relationships. Family therapy can help your family members understand ADHD. As a team, you can develop better ways of communicating and coping.

How can you find the right therapist?

You should choose a licensed therapist who can do the type of therapy you have decided upon. It's also important to find one that you feel safe with so you can build a connection. Look for someone who 

  • Seems to care about you.
  • Accepts you as you are.
  • Understands you. 
  • Makes you feel heard.

Successful therapy requires that you be honest and open. If you don't have a good relationship with your therapist, that may not be possible.

What else is helpful for adult ADHD?

You can do a lot on your own to improve your ADHD symptoms. You can benefit from simple measures such as:

  • Exercise. Movement can help you burn off excess energy. It also releases helpful brain chemicals like serotonin that can improve focus.
  • Relaxation. Practicing meditation or yoga can relieve the symptoms of ADHD and the anxiety and depression that sometimes go along with it.
  • Healthful Diet. Try not to go too long without eating. Avoid junk food. Some experts believe that food additives may worsen the symptoms of ADHD.
  • Restful Sleep. Take steps to improve the quality of your sleep.  Have a regular bedtime, avoid caffeine, turn off electronics early, and keep your bedroom dark.

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Medically Reviewed on 11/16/2021
References
SOURCES:

American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy: "Adult ADHD."

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "What is ADHD?"

Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: "Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy."

HelpGuide: "Finding a Therapist Who Can Help You Heal," "Treatment for Adult ADHD."

Journal of Neurology and Neuromedicine: "New psychotherapeutic approaches in adult ADHD – acknowledging biographical factors."

National Institute of Mental Health: "Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder."

Psychiatry (Edgmont): "Psychotherapy for the patient with adult ADHD."