ADHD isn't just for kids. While attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder is now well recognized and commonly diagnosed in children, less attention has been focused on the fact that about half of these children carry some of the symptoms of ADHD into adulthood. What's more, there are many adults with ADHD who have never been diagnosed or treated. Many grew up in a time when kids who exhibited the hyperactivity, inattention, and impulsiveness that characterize ADHD were labeled troublemakers, dreamers, lazy, or just “bad.”
As a result, many adults with undiagnosed ADHD have endured years of disappointment and frustration in their professional lives and personal relationships. They may compensate for their symptoms by trying to create highly structured lives, often developing obsessive/compulsive tendencies—making lists, putting things in the same place, structuring their workdays—to make sure they don’t miss or forget things. But getting and staying organized is likely to be a challenge that affects all aspects of their lives. It is important for these adults and their friends and family to recognize their symptoms and identify ADHD if it is present. With diagnosis, they can receive appropriate treatment and learn coping strategies that will improve quality of life across the board.
ADHD often looks different in adults than it does in children. In particular, while the hyperactivity or “off-the-wall” behavior often associated with ADHD in kids may be similar in adults—characterized by high energy and a feeling of being driven by a motor—it is likely to be more subtle, manifested as fidgeting, agitation, and general restlessness. Other characteristics of the disorder in adults make it particularly difficult to be successful in the workplace. These include trouble concentrating and seeing a task through to completion, disorganization, forgetfulness, impulsive actions such as frequent interruptions, and keeping to a schedule or routine. These behaviors can make it hard to follow company rules, meet deadlines, and be on time.
Personal relationships often suffer as well. Adults with ADHD may have difficulty managing their emotions, particularly feelings of anger and frustration. They may be subject to irritability, mood swings, outbursts of temper, and low self-esteem. These symptoms can put a strain on relationships, causing family and friends to feel resentful and hurt by apparent inattentiveness and irresponsibility.
The most troubling thing for my patients with ADHD is that they learn they cannot trust themselves. On either exams or life decisions, sometimes choices are made impulsively or carelessly, and later this can be a source of regret. My patients often report answering test questions without reading the full set of answers or sending an email to a colleague without fully assessing the consequences. People also report frustration with themselves as they make plans and to-do lists but have trouble completing them. This can be quite disconcerting, and over time, can lead to a significant erosion of self-confidence and self-efficacy.
Only a professional can make a definitive diagnosis of ADHD. But in the presence of symptoms that may be indicative of ADHD, there are self-help strategies that can relieve stress and address the challenges that accompany the disorder.
- Eat right. Eat a wide variety of healthy foods with an emphasis on fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains. Limiting sugar-sweetened foods can help regulate mood swings.
- Exercise regularly. Vigorous exercise works off excess energy, reduces stress, and calms the body.
- Get plenty of sleep. No one functions well without adequate sleep. For those already prone to forgetfulness and difficulty focusing, lack of sleep can be an even more serious problem. Optimizing the sleep environment and adopting a regular bedtime routine can help pave the way to getting seven to eight hours a night of restful sleep.
- Create a structured routine and practice time management. Take notes, make lists, use a day planner or calendar, set alerts and alarms, set up a file system, avoid procrastination.
- Practice stress-reducing relaxation activities such as yoga and meditation.
If symptoms of ADHD are not relieved by self-help steps and continue to interfere with daily life, it may be time to consider outside help. A good first step is to review the “Adult ADHD Self-Report Scale (ASRS-v1.1) Symptom Checklist,” a questionnaire that describes behaviors that the individual rates on an “always-sometimes-never” scale and that serves as a screening tool. A score that suggests the presence of ADHD is an indicator for a more in-depth evaluation by a medical or mental health professional. The ASRS can be found online.
The most important thing for ADHD sufferers to realize is that the difficulties they are having are not due to a character flaw. ADHD can be treated and managed. Anyone who suspects that they may have undiagnosed ADHD should seek help so they can learn strategies to improve their quality of life.