How do ADHD symptoms commonly present in women?
Women with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) often live undiagnosed. This diagnosis gap happens partly because it’s a condition that was traditionally thought to affect mostly men, but also because women tend to have less obvious or socially disruptive symptoms than men.
This article discusses how ADHD symptoms may differ in women and why these symptoms are often overlooked. It also covers the ways that these symptoms might impact daily life.
How Symptoms Differ in Women
One of the reasons why ADHD frequently goes undiagnosed in women and girls is that their symptoms often differ from those of men and boys. ADHD comes in three presentations: inattentive, hyperactive/impulsive, or a combination of the two.
Men and boys tend to have hyperactive/impulsive ADHD, which may cause them to be fidgety, always on the go, disruptive, restless, talkative, impulsive, impatient, and have mood swings.
Women, on the other hand, have a tendency to exhibit inattentive ADHD, which makes it hard to focus, pay attention to details, stay organized, listen, and remember things.
Some of the characteristics of inattentive ADHD, such as being shy or impulsive, are often viewed as personality traits rather than symptoms.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that boys are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than girls (12.9% vs. 5.6%).3 However, research suggests that this disparity is not because boys are more susceptible but instead because girls are consistently underdiagnosed.2
Studies generally show that while men and women with ADHD are more alike than different, there are a few small differences. During adolescence, girls tend to have fewer coping strategies and worse self-efficacy than boys. Girls and women also have fewer externalizing symptoms such as aggression than men, but higher levels of depression and anxiety.
Why ADHD Symptoms in Women Are Often Explained Away
ADHD symptoms in girls are often viewed as character traits rather than symptoms of a condition. For example, a girl might be described as spacey, forgetful, or chatty. Later in life, a woman might reach out for help for her symptoms, only to be diagnosed with depression or anxiety instead.1
The good news is that there is an increasing awareness about ADHD symptoms in women, which means more women are able to get the help they need.
Women with ADHD face the same feelings of being overwhelmed and exhausted as men with ADHD commonly feel.
Psychological distress, feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, and chronic stress are common. Often, women with ADHD feel that their lives are out of control or in chaos, and daily tasks may seem impossibly huge.
Our culture commonly expects women to fill the caretaker role. When things feel out of control and it’s difficult to organize and plan because of ADHD, taking care of others can feel nearly impossible. This societal pressure also may greatly increase a woman’s feelings of inadequacy.
Common Signs of ADHD in Women
You may notice signs of ADHD in many different areas of your life. Some of these symptoms may be worse or more noticeable in certain contexts, such as at work or school. You may find that you spend a lot of time and effort to appear “normal.”
You may wish you were able to be a better friend, partner, or mom, and that you could do the things that other people do. For example, you may wish you could remember birthdays, bake cookies, and arrive on time for a date.
Because you’re not able to do the things that society expects women to do, people may think you don’t care.
Growing up, you may have been described as a tomboy because you had so much energy and liked to be busy. As an adult, friendships can be difficult to navigate because social rules seem complicated. People may say that you talk more than anyone else they know.
While you may be talkative, you may dislike going to parties and other social gatherings because they make you feel overwhelmed and shy. Your mind drifts during conversations unless you’re the one talking or it’s a topic you find very interesting.
Being at the office feels difficult. The noise and people make it hard to get work done. You may choose to stay late or come in early because the only time you can work effectively is when everyone else has left and it’s quiet.
Your desk at work is piled high with papers. Even when you make a big effort to tidy it, it only stays clear for a day or two.
In school, ADHD symptoms in girls may get overlooked because women are more likely to have inattentive ADHD, which doesn’t have the visible behavior problems that hyperactive/impulsive ADHD usually does.1 Girls with ADHD may also hyperfocus on things that interest them, which may lead teachers and parents to overlook the possibility of ADHD.
As an adult, you may feel frustrated that people you went to school with pass you by with their achievements, even though you know you’re just as smart.
With ADHD, it may feel like each day is spent responding to requests and limiting disasters rather than moving forward with your goals. You may feel crushing sadness and frustration that you haven’t met your potential. Other daily struggles may include:
- Paper clutter: It often feels like you’re drowning in paper. At work, home, in your car, and even in your purse. You have an uneasy feeling that unpaid bills and forgotten projects are hiding under all the paper. You don’t feel organized with money and are usually behind with bills.
- Overspending: You often overspend to compensate for other problems. For example, when you don’t have a clean outfit to wear for an office party, you buy a new one. Or when you forget someone’s birthday, you buy an expensive present to make up for it. Shopping trips make you feel better in the moment, but you feel regretful later when the credit card bill arrives.
- Disorganization: You may spend a lot of time, money, and research on products to help you be more organized, but then you don’t use them. You may feel embarrassed to have guests visit your home because it’s so cluttered and disorganized.
- Indecision: Grocery stores overwhelm you, and you may find it hard to make decisions about what to buy. You often forget a key ingredient for a meal even though you take longer in the store than most people do.
Relaxing is often difficult for people with ADHD. Little things can push you over the top and you may become emotional.
Many women are relieved to learn that behaviors they have been struggling with for as long as they can remember are because of ADHD.
Other conditions can also be present along with ADHD. When you have more than one condition, they are called comorbid conditions or coexisting conditions. Here are some conditions that women often have in addition to their ADHD:1
- Substance use disorders, such as addiction to alcohol or drugs
- Anxiety disorders, such as social anxiety disorder (SAD) or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Sleep disorders
- Eating disorders, such as anorexia or bulimia
- Mood disorders, like depression or bipolar disorder
It’s good to be aware of these coexisting conditions because they can cause symptoms that look similar to ADHD. This, in turn, can make diagnosing ADHD more complex. However, an experienced clinician will be aware of this challenge.
If you think you might have ADHD, it’s important to be diagnosed by a healthcare professional. An accurate diagnosis the resulting treatment plan will allow you to get relief from your symptoms and greatly improve the quality of your life. Talk to a mental health professional or your doctor about the symptoms you are experiencing for a more accurate evaluation.