ADHD in adults

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Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is not just something you see in children.

If you were diagnosed with childhood ADHD (which used to be called attention deficit disorder or ADD), it’s likely that you’ve carried at least some of the symptoms into adulthood.

But even if you were never diagnosed with ADD/ADHD as a child, that doesn’t mean you can’t be affected by it as ADHD can go unrecognised through childhood. If your childhood symptoms were never recognised you may just have been seen as a bad student, a dreamer, a trouble-maker or just “away with the fairies”.

ADHD is worse than simply not being able to pay attention. It makes it difficult to manage your daily life, especially tasks that require organisation, planning and focus. It is often associated with alcohol, substance and drug abuse and on-going emotional and lifestyle difficulties.

The good news is that, no matter how it feels, the challenges of ADHD are beatable. With education and support you can learn to manage the symptoms of adult ADHD − even turning some of your weaknesses into strengths.

If you suspect you have ADHD it’s worth talking to your doctor. For many, just getting a diagnosis and understanding that there was a reason for many of their past difficulties can be an enormous relief.

What causes ADHD?

Even though a lot of research into ADHD has gone on around the world, the exact cause is still unknown. What is known is that ADHD is not caused by poor parenting, too much sugar or vaccines. Studies of brain scans show that children with ADHD seem to have brain circuits that are wired a little differently from other people's, so messages are harder to understand.

There is thought to be a genetic element to most ADHD, that is, it runs in families. Studies have shown that brothers or sisters of children with ADHD have two to three times the risk of having it as well.

Signs to look for (symptoms)

Common issues faced by those with ADHD can include:

Poor concentration and focus

ADHD is a problem with attention,you may be easily distracted by irrelevant sights and sounds, quickly bounce from one activity to another, or become bored quickly. This can make it hard to focus at work and study, creating added challenges to meeting targets and deadlines.

Too much concentration and focus

As strange as that sounds, people with ADHD have a tendency to become absorbed in tasks that are stimulating and rewarding to them, such as a new video game. When this happens you lose track of time or people around you and just focus on whatever task you are currently interested in.

Poor time keeping and prioritising

There are many reasons for this. First, you may be easily distracted on the way to work or to a social event, and may decide to clean the car, or finish an important home task before you go out. People with ADHD also tend to underestimate how much time it takes to finish a task. They can also incorrectly prioritise work projects and miss deadlines while being distracted elsewhere.

Poor listening skills

Problems with attention result in poor listening skills in many adults with ADHD, leading to a lot of missed appointments and misunderstandings. Trouble getting organised − problems with organisation for people with ADHD can mean the responsibilities of adulthood, such as bills, jobs, and appointments, are more problematic than in childhood.

Avoiding starting hard tasks

People with adult ADHD often avoid starting tasks that require a lot of attention. This procrastination often adds to existing problems, including relationship disagreements, workplace issues and problems with friends.

Restlessness, trouble relaxing

Unlike childhood ADHD where children are “hyperactive”, adults with ADHD are more likely to be restless or find they can’t relax. If you have adult ADHD, others might describe you as edgy or tense.

Hard to control emotions

Often people with adult ADHD can be impatient, tactless, interrupt other people and finishes other’s sentences. They may be quick to explode over minor issues. Many times, their anger fades as quickly as it flared, long before the people who dealt with the outburst have gotten over the incident.

Relationship issues

Having problems in a relationship is hardly new, but having ADHD can make things harder still. Often, the partners of people with undiagnosed ADHD see poor listening skills and an inability to meet commitments as a sign that their partner doesn’t care. If you’re the person with ADHD, you may not understand why your partner is upset, and you may feel you’re being nagged or blamed for something that’s not your fault.

How does your doctor determine if you have ADHD (diagnosis)

There is no test to determine if you have ADHD, unless of course you were diagnosed with it as a child.  The diagnosis needs to be made by a mental health professional with experience in treating ADHD. They will talk to you about your symptoms, your life history and ask if they can speak with your family to help build a complete picture. They will also check to see if you have any additional conditions that need addressing.

A diagnosis is made based on whether you have some or all of the typical symptoms, and the length of time you have had them. For a diagnosis of ADHD, some of the typical symptoms must have been present for at least the last six months.

Treatment options

If you or a loved one is diagnosed with adult ADHD, you’ll need to work together with your doctor to come up with the best treatment plan. It’s a complicated condition, generally best managed by a mixed treatment programme, which may include the following components:

Medication

Stimulants are the main kind of medication used in the treatment of ADHD. These are designed to help you concentrate better, be less impulsive, feel calmer and be able to function in the workplace and at home.

If you are prescribed medication you are entitled to know:

  • the names of the medicines
  • what symptoms they are supposed to treat
  • how long it will be before they take effect
  • how long you will have to take them for and what their side effects are (short and long term).

Talking therapies and counselling

These treatments are talk-based therapies that look at your thinking, behaviour, relationships and environment. For ADHD, these treatments include behaviour management and social skills training to help support you socially, at work and at home.  Vocational counselling can also be a valuable tool in supporting those experiencing ADHD.

Family counselling can also play an important part in helping everyone in the family understand the condition and support you, providing the counsellor has good knowledge of ADHD. Check this with the counsellor before starting.

Any therapy/counselling should be provided in a manner that’s respectful of you, and with which you feel comfortable and free to ask questions.

Education

For many, just getting a diagnosis and understanding that there was a reason for many of their past difficulties can be enormously helpful. Finding out more information about this problem and what you can do to help is also important.

Join a support group

Some people find it is helpful to meet with others and share experiences and “what works”. 

Complementary therapies

The term complementary therapy is generally used to indicate therapies and treatments that differ from conventional western medicine and that may be used to complement and support it. Certain complementary therapies may enhance your life and help you to maintain wellbeing. In general mindfulness, hypnotherapy, yoga, exercise, relaxation, massage, mirimiri and aromatherapy have all been shown to have some effect in alleviating mental distress.

Physical health

It is also really important to look after your physical wellbeing. Make sure you get an annual checkup with your GP. Being in good physical health will also help your mental health.

Thanks to Janet Peters, registered psychologist, and Lisa Ducat, Like Minds, Like Mine mental health promoter, for reviewing this content. Date last reviewed: September, 2014.