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ADHD Symptoms in Adults: Signs, Risk Factors, and Treatment Options

Adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD) is a specific neurological condition that impacts over 4% of the adult population. Although it's often cited as a childhood disorder, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) has updated criteria showing its impact on adulthood.

Unfortunately, many adults don't receive a diagnosis for their ADHD. Instead, they live with ADHD symptoms without knowing how to cope with them.

Knowing the risk factors, signs, and treatment options can help you cope with this mental health condition.

Understanding Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

ADHD occurs when the brain and central nervous system experience dysregulation within executive functions. ADHD can compromise skills related to attention, working memory, and task execution.

In recent years, mental health advocates have challenged some of the pervasive myths about mental illness, emphasizing that ADHD is a neurodevelopmental condition. In other words, nothing is inherently wrong with someone with ADHD. Their brain simply processes and integrates information differently than someone with a neurotypical brain.

ADHD symptoms in adults are similar to symptoms in childhood ADHD. However, the intensity of such symptoms does tend to dissipate over time.

Predominantly Inattentive Type

Someone with an inattentive type of ADHD primarily struggles with concentration, focus, and planning. They may present as easily forgetful or careless. As an adult, this pattern can affect relationships, work, and school. As much as you want to pay attention to something, you become easily distracted.

Predominantly Hyperactivity Impulsivity Type

Someone with a predominantly hyperactive presentation often feels restless and antsy. You may find it very hard to sit still or relax. You might feel like you're constantly "on the go," which can be exhausting to both you and your loved ones.

Combined Type

Some people have symptoms from both types equally. In addition, some adults with ADHD have one type that's more dominant during childhood, but it transitions to the other type during adulthood.

ADHD Risk Factors

Experts have not distinguished an exact cause for ADHD. Instead, like other mental disorders, attention deficit disorder likely comes from a variety of genetic and environmental factors, including:

Family history of ADHD: Having a blood relative with ADHD or another related mental health disorder may increase your chance of having ADHD.

Exposure to environmental toxins: Some research shows a high correlation between lead exposure and ADHD symptoms. These environmental factors may impact brain development.

Maternal drug use: Some data suggests that children with ADHD are more likely to have mothers who consumed alcohol or use drugs during pregnancy.

Premature birth: There appears to be a link between premature birth and some mental health conditions, including ADHD.

9 Adult ADHD Symptoms

Adult symptoms may look different from the classic, telltale childhood ADHD presentation. Sometimes, childhood symptoms of ADHD present as extremely disruptive. This is especially true if they're paired with other learning disabilities or another developmental disorder.

Here are nine symptoms of ADHD in adults:

Trouble Focusing

People with ADHD often feel easily distracted. Staying on task can be difficult, particularly if you don't enjoy the task at hand. This difficulty in paying attention often coincides with poor listening skills and making careless mistakes.

Mood Swings

Adults with ADHD may feel like their moods oscillate quickly. As a result, they may struggle with intense emotions and poor regulation skills. Because ADHD also goes hand-in-hand with other mental disorders, including depression and anxiety, it's possible for other symptoms to exacerbate moodiness.

Poor Time Management

ADHD coincides with trouble paying attention, and people often struggle to prioritize time-sensitive tasks. You might procrastinate or regularly put too much on your plate (while underestimating how much time completing those tasks will take).

Extreme Restlessness

Adults with ADHD may present with hyperactivity impulsivity. This symptom makes it challenging to sit still or relax. Even if you are in a "calm state," you may feel like your mind is constantly racing.

Impulsive Behavior

Adults with ADHD may be more prone to impulsive behavior. There does appear to be a connection between ADHD, substance abuse, and eating disorders. This may be due to the dopamine response cycle. Research has shown that people with ADHD tend to have lower levels of the neurotransmitter, dopamine. As a result, you may be prone to seek out excessive amounts of pleasure.

Executive Dysfunction

Executive functioning refers to accurately focusing, planning, and managing daily tasks. It often includes both critical thinking and interpersonal skills. People with ADHD often struggle with executive functioning. It's not because of a lack of willpower or motivation. It's because ADHD symptoms often interrupt the thought process needed to carry out those responsibilities.

Sleep Problems

Research shows that anywhere from 25-50% of adults with ADHD experience sleep disorders, including insomnia and hypersomnia. Poor sleep can cause problems with all areas of your functioning, and it can aggravate other mental health symptoms. In addition, you may experience more difficulty paying attention when you're fatigued.

Low Self-Esteem

ADHD symptoms may exacerbate feelings of incompetence, inadequacy, guilt, or shame. These feelings can make it difficult to feel confident in your daily functioning. Over time, low self-esteem affects self-worth and relationships. It can also lead to more psychiatric problems.

Co-Occurring Mental Health Disorders

Adults with ADHD are significantly more likely to have an anxiety or mood disorder. They're also at a higher risk for substance misuse, learning disabilities, and eating disorders. It's common for certain mental health issues to share similar symptoms. However, in some cases, both conditions may aggravate each other.

Adult ADHD Treatment

It's important to treat ADHD. A mental health professional can diagnose ADHD using both the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) and specific ADHD standardized behavior rating scales. They will evaluate several symptoms before making an official ADHD diagnosis.

Keep in mind that ADHD is chronic and pervasive. It's not enough to just feel restless at work or insecure in your relationship. To meet the criteria for this mental health disorder, you need to experience issues in two or more settings.

Here are some of the primary ways professionals recommend treating ADHD:

ADHD Medications

ADHD medication can make a significant difference in improving how you feel. Along with behavioral treatments, it can drastically reduce the more intrusive symptoms of ADHD.

Adult ADHD stimulants are often the first recommendation for adult ADHD. Stimulant medication falls into two categories (methylphenidates and amphetamines). Stimulants work by increasing dopamine in the brain. They also improve concentration and focus.

That said, stimulant medications like Ritalin, Adderall, or Vyvanse are controversial in the medical community. Stimulants have intense side effects (sleep problems, headaches, appetite changes). They can exacerbate feelings of aggression, hostility, or paranoia.

Finally, stimulant abuse is a well-known problem, especially among young adults. Anyone with a history of substance misuse should be cautious or avoid stimulants altogether.

Other medications include:

  • Strattera

  • Clonidine (off-label)

  • Tenex (off-label)

  • Welbutrin (effective for people with both ADHD and depression)

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT can help adults with ADHD recognize unhelpful thought patterns and develop more realistic thoughts. CBT is a structured therapy that focuses on the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. As you learn more about negative coping strategies, you can restructure how you react to triggers and respond in healthier ways. CBT may also include other behavioral treatments like mindfulness, visualization, homework, and goal-setting.

Healthy Lifestyle Changes

Adults with ADHD can benefit from implementing holistic changes into their daily routines. Along with medication and therapy, you should consider the following priorities:

Adequate rest: High-quality sleep (at least 7-9 hours) can improve concentration and reduce mood swings throughout the day. Aim to have a consistent bedtime and avoid caffeine in the evening.

Well-rounded diet: No single food causes ADHD. However, the mind and body are undoubtedly connected. What you eat plays a significant role in your energy levels, mood, and overall well-being. Make sure you are consuming plenty of healthy fats, protein, and leafy vegetables.

Physical activity: Exercise acts as a natural boost for dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. These feel-good hormones also improve your mood. Try to implement consistent and regular exercise into your daily routine.

Make small goals: ADHD treatment isn't linear, and managing your symptoms takes time and effort. Set reasonable goals for yourself and celebrate your successes along the way.

Life Coaching

ADHD symptoms can make daily functioning challenging. A life coach can help with setting goals and holding yourself accountable for completing essential day-to-day responsibilities like going to work and paying bills.

How We Help Treat ADHD: Adults and Other Considerations

Living with a mental health disorder can be stressful and draining. But living with untreated adult ADHD symptoms can aggravate relationship problems, low self-esteem, and symptoms in other disorders.

At Mental Health Transitions, we treat ADHD and can help you feel more empowered in your everyday life. Regardless of your current circumstances, we are here for you. Contact us today to learn more!

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