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Content reviewed and updated: 3/4/22

ADHD in Women

Both men and women can have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But only one woman is diagnosed with ADHD for every two men diagnosed. Why? For starters, ADHD research has focused on males and hyperactive, impulsive symptoms. ADHD in women often presents with different symptoms than it does in men. These symptoms don’t match ADHD stereotypes and are often confused for other conditions.

It is important to note that ADHD can affect a person no matter where they fall on the gender spectrum. Given the current research on ADHD in women, this article refers to gender in the binary sense. Read on to learn more about ADHD in women.

Women often do not fit ADHD stereotypes

Don’t be fooled by the common misconception that ADHD only affects young boys.  ADHD is about 4 times more common in males than in females, but many girls and women still grapple with ADHD. Unfortunately, many of the criteria used today to diagnose ADHD are still based on observations of young boys. The studies that test these criteria have historically included more boys and men than girls and women. Fortunately, research on ADHD in women is expanding.

Instead of bouncing off the walls, ADHD in girls and women often involves daydreaming. Distractions can lead to her not finishing her work. A parent, teacher, or provider may miss these signs of ADHD in women. A woman with ADHD may seem like a chatterbox. Many will assume that’s simply her personality. But for some women, talking nonstop is a symptom of ADHD. The nuances of ADHD in women vs men can lead to women not receiving the specialist referrals or diagnoses they need. 

There are 3 types of ADHD: hyperactive-impulsive, inattentive, and combined. Young boys with ADHD are often diagnosed with the hyperactive-impulsive type. But, girls and women are two times more likely to be diagnosed with the inattentive type of ADHD. Up to 65% of children diagnosed with ADHD have symptoms well into adulthood. For women and men alike, these symptoms can be debilitating.

Symptoms of ADHD in women

ADHD symptoms in women are usually more subtle than the symptoms in men. Women can show symptoms of hyperactive-impulsive, inattentive, or combined ADHD. ADHD symptoms are defined in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). Providers use this manual to help diagnose ADHD and other conditions.

ADHD symptoms in women generally include:

  • Being easily distracted while doing school or work tasks 
  • Being quiet or withdrawn in social situations
  • Being extremely talkative or interruptive during conversations
  • Having difficulty remembering important information or peoples’ names
  • Having trouble paying attention during conversations with friends, family, or coworkers
  • Having trouble relaxing
  • Having a cluttered home and/or personal workspace
  • Missing work deadlines
  • Having difficulty organizing materials for school or work
  • Having trouble working in an office environment because of noise or other distractions
  • Staying late at work to finish projects that piled up throughout the day
  • Having sudden urges to spend money or go on shopping sprees in order to cope with stress
  • Feeling frustrated with not being able to make important decisions or reach certain goals

It’s no surprise that adult female ADHD symptoms can make things hard to accomplish. Societal expectations based on gender can make things worse. For example, women are often expected to take on the bulk of household duties. These often require executive functioning (managing thoughts, time, and productivity).

Tasks that require executive functioning can be challenging for someone with ADHD. When overwhelmed with these responsibilities, female ADHD symptoms can worsen. This can then lead to feeling inadequate or having low self-esteem. Constantly feeling this way can lead to depression or anxiety.

Diagnosing ADHD in women

Many women with ADHD are diagnosed later in life during times of stress. Due to a lack of awareness, women might not seek help until their symptoms become more severe. By then, their lives might feel out of control. For example, women starting a new career may experience increased stress and symptoms.

Hormones also play a role in ADHD symptoms. Changes in estrogen and progesterone levels can affect attention, memory, and executive functioning.  Women may find their symptoms increase during menstruation or pregnancy. This may lead to a later in life diagnosis.

ADHD can also be genetic. Often a mother will only consider that they have ADHD after their child is diagnosed. If a woman’s family members have ADHD, it is possible she could have it as well.

Getting Assessed for ADHD

A mental health provider can help diagnose ADHD through a clinical assessment. This may include a questionnaire about your daily habits, social life, and work, such as:

  • How often are you distracted by your external environment or random, disruptive thoughts?
  • How often do you have trouble listening during conversations with coworkers or friends?
  • Do you tend to forget appointments, important dates, or bill payments?
  • Do you often misplace important items like your keys?

Your provider might try to rule out other mental or physical conditions. Anxiety and hyperthyroidism are examples of conditions that have similar symptoms to ADHD. A well-versed provider will be able to discern the root cause of your symptoms.

Conditions associated with ADHD in women

Women with ADHD may be prone to other mental health issues, or comorbid conditions. These conditions are often associated with ADHD in women:

  • Anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social phobia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Mood disorders, such as major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder
  • Sleep disorders, such as insomnia
  • Substance use disorders, such as alcohol or drug abuse
  • Eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia, or compulsive eating

Some of these conditions have symptoms that overlap with ADHD. For example, anxiety can lead to trouble concentrating or planning. Because of this overlap, women with ADHD can be misdiagnosed with an anxiety or mood disorder.

ADHD symptoms can lead to hurting relationships with loved ones or making mistakes at work. For example, issues with executive functioning could lead to forgetting a birthday or missing a meeting. Women with ADHD can feel like they aren’t living up to the expectations set by society or themselves. As a result, they may withdraw from others. These feelings can lead to sleep and mood problems. In extreme cases, women with ADHD may also be at increased risk of attempting suicide.

Prompt and effective treatment of ADHD may help prevent worsening mental health conditions. An accurate diagnosis by a licensed provider is important to ensure prompt and appropriate treatment.

Treating ADHD in women

Without a proper diagnosis, a woman may go years without addressing her struggles. ADHD treatment can help improve her quality of life. She may find that she has more cognitive energy or is succeeding at work. 

After diagnosis, treatment options often include medication or talk therapy.  Organizational habits can reduce stress and help achieve goals. A provider can also help a person navigate their feelings of shame or low self-esteem.

For many women, medication is a vital part of their ADHD treatment plan. Both stimulant medications and nonstimulant medications can be effective for treating symptoms of ADHD in women. Antidepressants might also work for women who have depression along with their ADHD. Online treatment is a convenient and popular option for many patients.

Online communities and support groups can also be helpful for women with ADHD. Talking with others who face similar struggles can make a world of difference. The Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA) has many online resources for patients.

Getting the care you deserve

If you’re a woman who has struggled to find help for your executive dysfunction or other ADHD symptoms, you are not alone. Your symptoms are not personal failures or character flaws. They are a product of real differences in your brain’s neurological wiring.

The greatest benefit of treatment is seeing your life improve. Treatment helps you accept and understand your symptoms. Explore your treatment options and get the support you need to start on the clearer path to a calmer mind.

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