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Signs and symptoms of adult ADD / ADHD
In adults, attention deficit disorder often looks quite different than it does in children—and its symptoms are unique for each individual. The following categories highlight common symptoms of adult ADD/ADHD. Do your best to identify the areas where you experience difficulty. Once you pinpoint your most problematic symptoms, you can start to work on strategies for dealing with them.
Common adult ADD / ADHD symptoms: Trouble concentrating and staying focused
Adults with ADD/ADHD often have difficulty staying focused and attending to daily, mundane tasks. For example, you may be easily distracted by irrelevant sights and sounds, quickly bounce from one activity to another, or become bored quickly. Symptoms in this category are sometimes overlooked because they are less outwardly disruptive than the ADD/ADHD symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity—but they can be every bit as troublesome. The symptoms of inattention and concentration difficulties include:
“zoning out” without realizing it, even in the middle of a conversation
extreme distractibility; wandering attention makes it hard to stay on track
difficulty paying attention or focusing, such as when reading or listening to others
struggling to complete tasks, even ones that seem simple
tendency to overlook details, leading to errors or incomplete work
poor listening skills; hard time remembering conversations and following directions
Common adult ADD / ADHD symptoms: Hyperfocus
While you’re probably aware that people with ADD/ADHD have trouble focusing on tasks that aren’t interesting to them, you may not know that there’s another side: a tendency to become absorbed in tasks that are stimulating and rewarding. This paradoxical symptom is called hyperfocus.
Hyperfocus is actually a coping mechanism for distraction—a way of tuning out the chaos. It can be so strong that you become oblivious to everything going on around you. For example, you may be so engrossed in a book, a TV show, or your computer that you completely lose track of time and neglect the things you’re supposed to be doing. Hyperfocus can be an asset when channeled into productive activities, but it can also lead to work and relationship problems if left unchecked.
Common adult ADD / ADHD symptoms: Disorganization and forgetfulness
When you have adult ADD/ADHD, life often seems chaotic and out of control. Staying organized and on top of things can be extremely challenging—as is sorting out what information is relevant for the task at hand, prioritizing the things you need to do, keeping track of tasks and responsibilities, and managing your time. Common symptoms of disorganization and forgetfulness include:
poor organizational skills (home, office, desk, or car is extremely messy and cluttered)
tendency to procrastinate
trouble starting and finishing projects
frequently forgetting appointments, commitments, and deadlines
constantly losing or misplacing things (keys, wallet, phone, documents, bills)
underestimating the time it will take you to complete tasks
Common adult ADD / ADHD symptoms: Impulsivity
If you suffer from symptoms in this category, you may have trouble inhibiting your behaviors, comments, and responses. You might act before thinking, or react without considering consequences. You may find yourself interrupting others, blurting out comments, and rushing through tasks without reading instructions. If you have impulse problems, being patient is extremely difficult. For better or for worse, you may go headlong into situations and find yourself in potentially risky circumstances. You may struggle with controlling impulses if you:
frequently interrupt others or talk over them
have poor self-control
blurt out thoughts that are rude or inappropriate without thinking
have addictive tendencies
act recklessly or spontaneously without regard for consequences
have trouble behaving in socially appropriate ways (such as sitting still during a long meeting)
Common adult ADD / ADHD symptoms: Emotional difficulties
Many adults with ADD/ADHD have a hard time managing their feelings, especially when it comes to emotions like anger or frustration. Common emotional symptoms of adult ADD/ADHD include:
sense of underachievement
doesn’t deal well with frustration
easily flustered and stressed out
irritability or mood swings
trouble staying motivated
hypersensitivity to criticism
short, often explosive, temper
low self-esteem and sense of insecurity
Common adult ADD / ADHD symptoms: Hyperactivity or restlessness
Hyperactivity in adults with ADD/ADHD can look the same as it does in kids. You may be highly energetic and perpetually “on the go” as if driven by a motor. For many people with ADD/ADHD, however, the symptoms of hyperactivity become more subtle and internal as they grow older. Common symptoms of hyperactivity in adults include:
feelings of inner restlessness, agitation
tendency to take risks
getting bored easily
trouble sitting still; constant fidgeting
craving for excitement
doing a million things at once
You don’t have to be hyperactive to have ADD / ADHD
Adults with ADD/ADHD are much less likely to be hyperactive than their younger counterparts. Only a small slice of adults with ADD/ADHD, in fact, suffer from prominent symptoms of hyperactivity. Remember that names can be deceiving and you may very well have ADD/ADHD if you have one or more of the symptoms above—even if you lack hyperactivity.
Effects of adult ADD / ADHD
If you are just discovering you have adult ADD/ADHD, chances are you’ve suffered over the years for the unrecognized problem. People may have labeled you “lazy” or “stupid” because of your forgetfulness or difficulty completing tasks, and you may have begun to think of yourself in these negative terms as well.
Untreated ADD/ADHD has wide-reaching effects
ADD/ADHD that is undiagnosed and untreated can cause problems in virtually every area of your life.
Physical and mental health problems. The symptoms of ADD/ADHD can contribute to a variety of health problems, including compulsive eating, substance abuse, anxiety, chronic stress and tension, and low self-esteem. You may also run into trouble due to neglecting important check-ups, skipping doctor appointments, ignoring medical instructions, and forgetting to take vital medications.
Work and financial difficulties. Adults with ADD/ADHD often experience career difficulties and feel a strong sense of underachievement. You may have trouble keeping a job, following corporate rules, meeting deadlines, and sticking to a 9-to-5 routine. Managing finances may also be a problem: you may struggle with unpaid bills, lost paperwork, late fees, or debt due to impulsive spending.
Relationship problems. The symptoms of ADD/ADHD can put a strain on your work, love, and family relationships. You may be fed up with constant nagging from loved ones to tidy up, listen more closely, or get organized. Those close to you, on the other hand, may feel hurt and resentful over your perceived “irresponsibility” or “insensitivity.”
The wide-reaching effects of ADD/ADHD can lead to embarrassment, frustration, hopelessness, disappointment, and loss of confidence. You may feel like you’ll never be able to get your life under control. That’s why a diagnosis of adult ADD/ADHD can be an enormous source of relief and hope. It helps you understand what you’re up against for the first time and realize that you’re not to blame. The difficulties you’ve had are symptoms of attention deficit disorder—not the result of personal weakness or a character flaw.
Adult ADD/ADHD doesn’t have to hold you back
When you have ADD/ADHD, it’s easy to end up thinking that there’s something wrong with you. But it’s okay to be different. ADD/ADHD isn’t an indicator of intelligence or capability. Certain things may be more difficult for you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find your niche and achieve success. The key is to find out what your strengths are and capitalize on them.
It can be helpful to think about attention deficit disorder as a collection of traits that are both positive and negative—just like any other set of qualities you might possess. Along with the impulsivity and disorganization of ADD/ADHD, for example, often come incredible creativity, passion, energy, out-of-the-box thinking, and a constant flow of original ideas. Figure out what you’re good at and set up your environment to support those strengths.
Self-help for adult ADD / ADHD
Armed with an understanding of ADD/ADHD’s challenges and the help of structured strategies, you can make real changes in your life. Many adults with attention deficit disorder have found meaningful ways to manage their symptoms, take advantage of their gifts, and lead productive and satisfying lives. You don’t necessarily need outside intervention—at least not right away. There is a lot you can do to help yourself and get your symptoms under control.
Exercise and eat right. Exercise vigorously and regularly—it helps work off excess energy and aggression in a positive way and soothes and calms the body. Eat a wide variety of healthy foods and limit sugary foods in order to even out mood swings.
Get plenty of sleep. When you’re tired, it’s even more difficult to focus, manage stress, stay productive, and keep on top of your responsibilities. Support yourself by getting between 7-8 hours of sleep every night.
Practice better time management. Set deadlines for everything, even for seemingly small tasks. Use timers and alarms to stay on track. Take breaks at regular intervals. Avoid piles of paperwork or procrastination by dealing with each item as it comes in. Prioritize time-sensitive tasks and write down every assignment, message, or important thought.
Work on your relationships. Schedule activities with friends and keep your engagements. Be vigilant in conversation: listen when others are speaking and try not to speak too quickly yourself. Cultivate relationships with people who are sympathetic and understanding of your struggles with ADD/ADHD.
Create a supportive work environment. Make frequent use of lists, color-coding, reminders, notes-to-self, rituals, and files. If possible, choose work that motivates and interests you. Notice how and when you work best and apply these conditions to your working environment as best you can. It can help to team up with less creative, more organized people—a partnership that can be mutually beneficial.
When to seek outside help for adult ADD / ADHD
If the symptoms of ADD/ADHD are still getting in the way of your life, despite self-help efforts to manage them, it may be time to seek outside support. Adults with ADD/ADHD can benefit from a number of treatments, including behavioral coaching, individual therapy, self-help groups, vocational counseling, educational assistance, and medication.
Treatment for adults with attention deficit disorder, like treatment for kids, should involve a team of professionals, along with the person’s family members and spouse.
Professionals trained in ADD/ADHD can help you:
control impulsive behaviors
manage your time and money
get and stay organized
boost productivity at home and work
manage stress and anger
communicate more clearly
Treatment for Adult ADD / ADHD
Are you struggling with adult ADD/ADHD? There are many safe, effective treatments that can help—and treatment doesn’t necessarily mean pills or doctors’ offices. Any action you take to manage your symptoms can be considered treatment. And while you may want to seek professional help along the way, ultimately, you are the one in charge. You don’t have to wait for a diagnosis or rely on professionals. There’s a lot you can do to help yourself—and you can start today.
Medication is a tool, not a cure for adult ADHD
When you think about treatment for ADD/ADHD, do you immediately jump to Ritalin? Many people equate ADD/ADHD treatment with medication. But it’s important to understand that medication for ADD/ADHD doesn’t work for everyone, and even when it does work, it won’t solve all problems or completely eliminate symptoms.
In fact, while medication for ADD/ADHD often improves attention and concentration, it typically does very little to help symptoms of disorganization, poor time management, forgetfulness, and procrastination—the very issues that cause the most problems for many adults with ADD/ADHD.
What you need to know about medication for ADD / ADHD
Medication for ADD/ADHD is more effective when combined with other treatments. You will get much more out of your medication if you also take advantage of other treatments that address emotional and behavioral issues and teach you new coping skills.
Everyone responds differently to ADD/ADHD medication. Some people experience dramatic improvement while others experience little to no relief. The side effects also differ from person to person and, for some, they far outweigh the benefits. Because everyone responds differently, finding the right medication and dose takes time.
ADD/ADHD medication should always be closely monitored. Medication treatment for ADD/ADHD involves more than just taking a pill and forgetting about it. You and your doctor will need to monitor side effects, keep tabs on how you’re feeling, and adjust the dosage accordingly. When medication for ADD/ADHD is not carefully monitored, it is less effective and more risky.
If you choose to take medication for ADD/ADHD, that doesn’t mean you have to stay on it forever.Although it isn’t safe to bounce off and on any drug repeatedly, you can safely decide to stop treating your ADD/ADHD with medication if things aren’t going well. If you want to stop taking medication, be sure to let your doctor know your plans and work with him or her to taper off your medication slowly.
Regular exercise is a powerful treatment for adult ADHD
Exercising regularly is one of the easiest and most effective ways to reduce the symptoms of ADD/ADHD and improve concentration, motivation, memory, and mood.
Physical activity immediately boosts the brain’s dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin levels—all of which affect focus and attention. In this way, exercise and medications for ADD/ADHD such as Ritalin and Adderall work similarly. But unlike ADD/ADHD medication, exercise doesn’t require a prescription and it’s side effect free.
Try to exercise on most days. You don’t have to go to the gym. A 30-minute walk four times a week is enough to provide benefits. Thirty minutes of activity every day is even better.
Pick something enjoyable, so you’ll stick with it. Choose activities that play to your physical strengths or that you find challenging yet fun. Team sports can be a good choice because the social element keeps them interesting.
Get out into nature. Studies show that spending time in nature can reduce the symptoms of ADD/ADHD. Double up on the benefits by combining “green time” with exercise. Try hiking, trail running, or walking in a local park or scenic area.
The importance of sleep in adult ADHD treatment
Many adults with ADD/ADHD have sleep difficulties. The most common problems include:
Trouble getting to sleep at night, often because racing thoughts are keeping you up.
Restless sleep. You may toss and turn throughout the night, tear the covers apart, and wake up at any little noise.
Difficulty waking up in the morning. Waking up is a daily struggle. You may sleep through multiple alarms and feel groggy and irritable for hours after getting up.
Poor quality sleep makes the symptoms of ADD/ADHD worse, so getting on a regular sleep schedule is essential. Improving the quality of your sleep can make a big difference in your attention, focus, and mood.
Tips for getting better sleep
Have a set bedtime and stick to it, and get up at the same time each morning, even if you’re tired.
Make sure your bedroom is completely dark and keep electronics out (even the dim light from digital clocks or your cellphone can disrupt sleep).
Avoid caffeine later in the day, or consider cutting it out entirely.
Implement a quiet hour or two before bed. Try to turn off all screens (TV, computer, smartphone, etc.) at least an hour before bedtime.
If your medication is keeping you up at night, talk with your doctor about taking a lower dose or taking it earlier in the day.
Eating right can help you regulate adult ADHD symptoms
When it comes to diet, managing ADD/ADHD is more a matter of how you eat than what you eat. Most of the nutritional problems among adults with ADD/ADHD are the result of impulsiveness and poor planning. Your goal is to be mindful of your eating habits. That means planning and shopping for healthy meals, scheduling meal times, preparing food before you’re already starving, and keeping healthful, easy snacks on hand so you don’t have to run to the vending machine or grab dinner at Burger King.
Schedule regular meals or snacks no more than three hours apart. Many people with ADD/ADHD eat erratically—often going without a meal for hours and then binging on whatever is around. This isn’t good for your symptoms of ADD/ADHD or your emotional and physical health.
Make sure you’re getting enough zinc, iron, and magnesium in your diet. Consider a daily multivitamin if you’re unsure.
Try to include a little protein and complex carbohydrates at each meal or snack. These foods will help you feel more alert while decreasing hyperactivity. They will also give you steady, lasting energy.
Add more omega-3 fatty acids to your diet. A growing number of studies show that omega-3s improve mental focus in people with ADD/ADHD. Omega-3s are found in salmon, tuna, sardines, and some fortified eggs and milk products. Fish oil supplements are an easy way to boost your intake.
Choosing a fish oil supplement
The two main types of omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil: EPA and DHA. Supplements differ in the ratio of each. Your best bet for relieving the symptoms of ADD/ADHD is a supplement that has at least 2-3 times the amount of EPA to DHA.
Relaxation techniques: An effective treatment for adult ADHD
Many of the symptoms of ADD/ADHD can be mitigated by relaxation techniques such as meditation, autogenic training and yoga. When practiced consistently, these calming therapies work to increase attention and focus and decrease impulsivity, anxiety, and depression.
Meditation is a form of focused contemplation that relaxes the mind and the body and centers your thoughts. Researchers say that in the long run, meditation increases activity in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for attention, planning, and impulse control.
In a way, meditation is the opposite of ADD/ADHD. The goal of meditation is to train yourself to focus your attention with the goal of achieving insight. So it’s a workout for your attention span that also might help you understand and work out problems.
Yoga and related activities such as tai chi combine the physiological benefits of exercise with the psychological effects of meditation. You learn deep breathing and other relaxation techniques that help you become centered and mentally aware. By holding different postures for extended periods, you can cultivate balance and stillness. When you feel overwhelmed or out of control, you can turn to yoga techniques to refresh you and put you back in mental balance.
Autogenic training is a relaxation technique developed by the German psychiatrist Johannes Heinrich Schultz and first published in 1932. The technique involves the daily practice of sessions that last around 15 minutes, usually in the morning, at lunch time, and in the evening. During each session, the practitioner will repeat a set of visualisations that induce a state of relaxation. Each session can be practiced in a position chosen amongst a set of recommended postures (for example, lying down, sitting meditation, sitting like a rag doll). The technique can be used to alleviate many stress-induced psychosomatic disorders.
Autogenic training restores the balance between the activity of the sympathetic (flight or fight) and the parasympathetic (rest and digest) branches of theautonomic nervous system. This has important health benefits, as the parasympathetic activity promotes digestion and bowel movements, lowers the blood pressure, slows the heart rate, and promotes the functions of the immune system.
Therapy for adult ADHD can teach you better coping skills
Treatment for ADD/ADHD can also mean seeking outside help. Professionals trained in ADD/ADHD can help you learn new skills to cope with symptoms and change habits that are causing problems.
Some therapies focus on managing stress and anger or controlling impulsive behaviors, while others teach you how to handle time and money better and improve your organizational skills.
Therapy treatment options for adults with ADD / ADHD
Talk therapy. Adults with ADD/ADHD often struggle with issues stemming from longstanding patterns of underachievement, failure, academic difficulties, job turnover, and relationship conflict. Individual talk therapy can help you deal with this emotional baggage, including low self-esteem, the feelings of embarrassment and shame you may have experienced as a child and teenager, and resentment at the nagging and criticism you receive from people close to you.
Marriage and family therapy. Marriage and family therapy addresses the problems ADD/ADHD can create in your relationships and family life, such as conflicts over money problems, forgotten commitments, responsibilities in the home, and impulsive decisions. Therapy can help you and your loved ones explore these issues and focus on constructive ways of dealing with them and communicating with each other. Therapy can also improve your relationships by educating your partner and family members about ADD/ADHD.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy. Cognitive-behavioral therapy encourages you to identify and change the negative beliefs and behaviors that are causing problems in your life. Since many individuals with ADD/ADHD are demoralized from years of struggle and unmet expectations, one of the main goals of cognitive-behavioral therapy is to transform this negative outlook into a more hopeful, realistic view. Cognitive-behavioral therapy also focuses on the practical issues that often come with ADD/ADHD, such as disorganization, work performance problems, and poor time management.
Coaches and professional organizers for adult ADHD
In addition to physicians and therapists, there a number of other professionals who can help you overcome the challenges of adult ADD/ADHD.
Behavioral coaching for adult ADD/ADHD
Coaching is not a traditional form of therapy, but it can be a valuable part of ADD/ADHD treatment. In contrast to traditional therapists who help people work through emotional problems, coaches focus solely on practical solutions to problems in everyday life. Behavioral coaches teach you strategies for organizing your home and work environment, structuring your day, prioritizing tasks, and managing your money. ADD/ADHD coaches may come to your home or talk with you on the phone rather than meet with you in an office; many coach-client relationships are long-distance.
Professional organizers for adult ADD/ADHD
A professional organizer can be very helpful if you have difficulty organizing your belongings or your time. Organizers can help you reduce clutter, develop better organizational systems, and learn to manage your time efficiently. A professional organizer comes to your home or workplace, looks at how you have things organized (or not organized), and then suggests changes. In addition to helping you to organize your paperwork and bill paying, a professional organizer has recommendations for memory and planning tools, filing systems, and more. A professional organizer also helps with time-management: your tasks, your to-do list, and your calendar.