Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurological, mental health disorder in which individuals experience chronic issues with inattention, hyperactivity and/or impulsivity.1 Onset of ADHD starts in childhood, and typically persists throughout adulthood. Without treatment, adult ADHD symptoms can have severe consequences on social, academic, and/or occupational daily functioning.
14 Common Signs of ADHD In Adults
Unfortunately, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is often misdiagnosed or not recognized in childhood. ADHD is not curable, but the symptoms can be very well managed and controlled with psychoeducation, therapy, and medication. ADHD symptoms and signs revolve around periods of inattention and hyperactivity that interfere with daily life.
Tina Schneider, Ph.D. says, “Most of the common symptoms and signs of adult ADHD seem to be those associated with difficulties in organization, time management, work, relationships, goal-setting, and excessive procrastination in multiple environments. It seems most adults recognize their symptoms could be ADHD when their child is diagnosed, and they recognize similar symptoms in themselves. Other times, difficulties in the aforementioned areas significantly affect their lives to the point they or someone else prompts them to consider being evaluated.”
Those who deal with adults ADHD may experience the following signs or symptoms:
1. Lack of Focus
A lack of focus feels like difficulty concentrating. You may experience intrusive thoughts that cause frequent drifting or daydreaming and have difficulty paying attention in multiple settings. For example, it may be difficult for adults with ADHD to focus during important meetings, training, or presentations.
Adults with ADHD may be highly disorganized and experience difficulty keeping track of things no matter how important they may be. They can have a chronically messy room, car or office but also have difficulty organizing their thoughts. Disorganization can have severe consequences such as the mismanagement of finances.2
Frequent forgetfulness might feel like difficulty remembering important dates or tasks or where you put something. Forgetfulness can feel frustrating as people with ADHD may chronically have issues with both short- and long-term memory.
Those who are easily distracted may have difficulty following tasks like following a recipe, completing an assignment, or meeting a deadline. For people without ADHD, they do not struggle with time-sensitive or urgent needs as much as those with ADHD.
People with ADHD may seem and feel restless or fidgety. They may take many breaks from completing a work assignment or a task because being in one place for a certain amount of time may feel like an extreme amount of time for them.
The nervous, excited feeling due to being put in one place for an extended time leads to restlessness and the need to soothe tense feelings by moving around a lot more than what may be considered “normal.” ADHD restlessness may look like frequent pacing and jumping from one task to another without completion.
Adults can have temper tantrums, too. ADHD irritability in adults may look like frequent mood swings, displaced anger, or irrational reactions to seemingly simple issues. People with ADHD may be less inclined to think before they speak and have a short temper.
Similar to the symptoms of restlessness, adults with ADHD may go out and do something impulsive without thinking through the potential consequences of their actions. Examples of impulsivity include unwise spending or doing something physically risky to their own personal health and safety.
People with ADHD may have a tendency to get overly excited and have big emotional or behavioral reactions. For example, receiving a gift is a common thing to be intrigued by, but for those with ADHD, this excitement may look more intense than normal.
9. Low Frustration Tolerance
Adults with ADHD may have issues with tolerating big feelings once they reach a threshold. When something really frustrating or annoying is happening, they may shut down quickly or even blank out. They may also have difficulty tolerating conflict, which may take a toll on marital and romantic relationships.2
You may recall throughout your childhood feeling extremely bored, particularly in school. Adults in higher education who have ADHD, may experience the same challenges with inattentiveness that they experienced in primary school.2
11. Making Careless Mistakes
Difficulty with following details is a common symptom of ADHD. You may skim over important details or miss obvious mistakes because your brain is so distracted. Adults in higher education may experience frustration because they have a difficult time concentrating on their studies.
12. Poor Time Management
Adults with ADHD struggle to be on time, pay bills on time, go to sleep at a reasonable time, and wake up on time. People with ADHD may be chronically late due to poor planning or getting caught up in distractions (often called time blindness).
13. Poor Stress Management
Low stress management and tolerance is a symptom of ADHD in adults as they can have a harder time pivoting and quickly adapting to change.
14. Hot Temper
ADHD adults have a hard time with managing their anger because they are unable to focus and process one emotion quickly before the next, which can feel frustrating.
What Causes Adult ADHD?
The causes of ADHD include brain structure, brain chemicals, genetics, and environment. The use of an MRI or FMRI can be one way to identify ADHD in the brain as the brain physically looks different with ADHD. Additionally, there are specific chemical changes happening in the brains of individuals with ADHD. Those with ADHD have lower amounts of dopamine in their brains, which is central to reward and motivation. This can be why some of the symptoms of ADHD in adults include challenges with emotional regulation. ADHD also has a genetic component and can be passed down from adult to child. Environmental concerns such as pollution and substance exposure play a role as well as a low birth weight.
There are some risk factors to be aware of for developing ADHD, such as:3
- Low birth weight
- Parental use of alcohol or drugs in utero
- Exposure to lead
- Family history of ADHD
- Brain injury
Are ADHD Symptoms Different For Women?
Attitudes about ADHD can vary between men and women.3 Biological males are diagnosed with ADHD at higher rates than biological females, but gender bias may come into play with perception of what “normal behavior” (i.e., ADHD masking) should and shouldn’t look like for cis gendered people.
For instance, ADHD in women may have the tendency to internalize rather than externalize symptoms because of societal expectations of male vs. female behaviors, indicating the presence of a gender bias in the referral for treatment process.3
Characteristics of ADHD that are found to be increased in females include:3
- Low self-esteem
- Difficulty with interpersonal relationships
- Performance issues
- Comorbid diagnoses of major depression and anxiety
In addition, Schneider notes, “Adult women sometimes present differently in their symptoms of ADHD. Some of the most common symptoms seem to be an increased likelihood to be inattentive rather than hyperactive. They describe feelings of significant stress and overwhelm, particularly when it comes to organizing their time and physical belongings (i.e., remembering where they have placed keys). Women also seem to focus more on not having achieved their potential and feel like they have disappointed people in their lives such as family, friends, co-workers, bosses, and teachers.”
Getting a Diagnosis For Adult ADHD
ADHD can be diagnosed by doctors (MD or DO) or any licensed mental health professional, but ADHD testing is done by qualified psychologists, neuropsychologists, or psychiatrists. Testing can be time-intensive because it is so thorough and includes several questionnaires and may take several hours to complete.
When diagnosing adult ADHD, clinicians may also interview your spouse, partner, or a close family member who can share details about your behavior as those with ADHD may have difficulty recounting certain experiences. A differential diagnosis is also performed in order to rule out other similar diagnoses like types of anxiety disorders, depression, or bipolar disorder.
Many adults suffering from ADHD are unaware they have this disorder because their symptoms were never diagnosed in childhood. Seeking out a diagnosis can take courage because adults with ADHD may assume they have a flawed personality due to the severity of their symptoms and many adults feel that discussing their symptoms can be embarrassing and frustrating.2
Still, an accurate diagnosis can lead to effective treatment and a significant reduction in ADHD symptoms, even in adults.
Self Assessment Tools For Adult ADHD
The World Health Organization (WHO) created the Adult Self-Report Scale (ASRS) Screener that anyone can take online as a self-reported, preliminary survey.4 The ASRS is not an official diagnosis but you may bring your results to your doctor or therapist if you want to start the process for further evaluation.
If you suspect you might have adult ADHD, here are a few questions Schneider suggests asking yourself:
- How often do you find yourself having difficulties sustaining attention for an extended time?
- How often do you need to have information repeated to you?
- Do you often forget the names of new people within a few minutes after being introduced?
- Have you often been told, “You just need to try harder?”
- How often do you put off tasks until the last minute?
- How often do you have difficulties estimating the amount of time it will take to complete a task?
If you or someone you know has several of these symptoms, it is important to consult a mental health clinician or your physician in order to receive a proper referral for testing.
There are some common comorbidities with ADHD that include other mental health disorders. Many people diagnosed with ADHD are also diagnosed with other mental health conditions, such as the ones listed below. Speak with a therapist or physician to learn about what you may be dealing with and be aware that they can evaluate and diagnose these disorders.
Common comorbid disorders of ADHD include:5
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Social anxiety disorder
- Major depressive disorder
- Intermittent explosive disorder
- Oppositional defiant disorder
- Substance use disorders
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
How Is Adult ADHD Treated?
Both adult ADHD medication and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for ADHD are highly recommended forms of treatment for ADHD.
ADHD-focused CBT includes skill-building with routines, organization, time management and self-deprecating thoughts.5 Treatment goals may include addressing negative core beliefs about yourself and your capabilities and developing healthy coping strategies. Prescribing providers usually recommend stimulants, such as Adderall or Ritalin, but non-stimulant treatment options also exist.
Prior to taking medication, you should always consult with your prescribing physician to determine whether stimulants vs. non-stimulants are the right form of treatment for you.
Find a Therapist
Knowing how to choose a therapist may seem difficult, but an online therapist directory is a great place to start. While there is still stigma associated with ADHD (and other mental health disorders), therapy can help you reframe your thinking, build skills and address certain beliefs you hold about yourself.
Final Thoughts on Adult ADHD Symptoms
Detaching yourself from negative labels, such as “problematic,” is an important step in getting more in control of your symptoms and behaviors. Being diagnosed with ADHD as an adult can be confusing but also validating. Remember, you’re not alone.