Understanding ADHD in women
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common neurodevelopmental disorder that interferes with daily functioning and can cause problems at work, school, and in your relationships. In women and adolescent girls, the symptoms of ADHD commonly involve more inattentiveness than the “classic” ADHD symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity often displayed by men and boys. Women with ADHD also tend to report more symptoms of anxiety and depression.
As a woman with ADHD, you may find that you often misplace things, forget details or instructions, or have a hard time staying focused and organized. But you're likely also better at masking your symptoms and finding ways to cover up for your lapses in concentration. You might put in extra hours at work or school, for example, and compensate for your lack of focus by appearing to be highly conscientious or a perfectionist. You may rely on apps and other productivity tools to make up for your poor organization and time-management skills.
Rather than stand out because of your ADHD symptoms, you also try to copy what others are doing as a model for how to act in certain situations. Many women even resort to unhealthy ways of coping, such as excessive alcohol and substance use, especially in adolescence.
In some cases, you may not recognize how ADHD is creating issues for you. Life can seem so stressful overall that feeling anxious, unfocused, and disorganized just seems “normal.” All of these factors can impact your self-confidence, make it harder for others to notice that you’re struggling, and delay an accurate diagnosis.
The good news is that gender disparities in ADHD are now more clearly understood, and improvements in diagnosis and treatment options for women are being addressed. The challenges of ADHD don’t have to impair your functioning or your quality of life. If you’re a woman or adolescent girl with ADHD, there is hope, help, and support available. And there are tools you can utilize to manage your ADHD symptoms and live a more fulfilling and productive life.
Symptoms of ADHD in women
Although symptoms of ADHD usually begin in childhood, for many women they may not be recognized until adolescence or adulthood. Perhaps your child has recently been diagnosed and you recognize the same symptoms in yourself. Or maybe the frustrations caused by living with an untreated disorder have simply become too much to ignore.
As with girls, women with ADHD may not appear as hyperactive, impulsive, or disruptive as males with ADHD, meaning the symptoms can often be missed or misdiagnosed. However, that doesn’t mean that these symptoms aren’t sometimes present in women.
[Read: ADHD in Adults]
Difficulty following through with tasks. ADHD can make it difficult to complete tasks at school or work, or to be productive and function as a team player. You might frequently make careless mistakes or overlook important details.
Time management problems. You struggle to be punctual for school, work, or social engagements, or underestimate how long it takes to get to places or complete tasks. You often forget appointments, spend a lot of time procrastinating, or have trouble meeting deadlines.
Constantly losing or misplacing things. Your forgetfulness and poor organizational skills can result in a cluttered home, car, and office, and a tendency to frequently lose things you need for work or school. You might get frustrated when you can’t find things you regularly use, like your wallet, phone, or car keys.
Having trouble listening when spoken to directly. You have difficulty focusing on what’s being said, or quickly lose track of what you’re being told. This can make it hard to follow conversations, remember instructions, or build solid work and social relationships.
Being easily distracted. You frequently find it hard to focus, regularly daydream, or get easily bored, especially during mundane or unstimulating tasks. You might compulsively check your social media feeds when you’re struggling to focus at work or school. In turn, the constant barrage of information makes it even harder to maintain your focus.
Overconcentrating on certain tasks. This is the flip side to inattention. You can become totally absorbed or “hyperfocus” on something you find stimulating, and find it hard to stop and concentrate on other, more important tasks.
In women, hyperactive symptoms may not be as obvious as in children with ADHD, but can include:
Restlessness. Fidgeting, having trouble sitting still, feeling agitated, being impatient about waiting in line or on-hold.
Racing thoughts. Having lots of different thoughts all at once, speeding through your mind, making it difficult to focus on any single one.
Talking excessively. Trying to express lots of different thoughts at once.
Obsessive social media use. Repeatedly checking and responding to social media posts, texts, or messaging apps.
Becoming easily bored. Switching from one activity to another, craving stimulation or excitement, even embarking on risky behavior.
Impulsive behavior includes saying or doing things without considering the possible negative consequences.
- Impulsive shopping, for example, can result in financial problems, and make it harder to manage your money wisely.
- Impulsively interrupting other people when they’re talking, or blurting out answers before someone has finished asking a question can put a strain on your relationships.
- If you’re an adolescent girl with ADHD, you may find yourself the target of bullying as a result of impulsive remarks or behavior.
- You may embark on risky sexual behavior, increasing your risk of an unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease.
- Impulsiveness while driving or using machinery can compromise your safety.
Having trouble managing emotions can affect both men and women with ADHD, but may manifest in different ways. Men with ADHD are more likely to become aggressive or even physically violent. Women with ADHD, on the other hand, are more likely to become irritable, easily flustered, or sensitive to criticism.
As a woman with ADHD, your mood swings can often be misinterpreted by others, especially male partners or colleagues. Gender stereotyping can mean that you’re frequently misunderstood, and dismissed as unpredictable or an overly emotional woman. Justifiably, this only adds to your sense of frustration.
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ADHD symptoms and hormonal changes
While the symptoms of ADHD tend to decline as you get older, the types and severity of symptoms can also vary at different times of a woman’s life. For example, as a result of hormonal changes, some ADHD symptoms may worsen during your menstrual cycle, pregnancy, or menopause.
This can trigger or exacerbate emotional symptoms, such as irritability, mood swings, and general life dissatisfaction.
Having ADHD, especially when it’s undiagnosed and untreated, can leave you feeling worried and stressed out much of the time. This may account for why both anxiety and depression are more common in women with ADHD than men.
Anxiety. It’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference between anxiety and ADHD. Some of the symptoms overlap, such as difficulty concentrating, feeling restless, and having sleep problems. But there are also a number of distinct differences. The forgetfulness, disorganization, and fidgeting with ADHD are not usually present with anxiety. Similarly, the constant feelings of worry, dread, nervousness, and rapid breathing with anxiety disorders are not hallmarks of ADHD.
Depression. Depression and ADHD also have some similarities. Both conditions make you more forgetful, unmotivated, and unable to focus. The main difference is that depressive moods and symptoms are more severe and long lasting than ADHD symptoms.
Disordered eating. While both men and women with ADHD are at increased risk of developing eating disorders, women tend to have a higher incidence of anorexia and bulimia. Impulsive behavior may contribute to unhealthy eating habits. At the same time, unhealthy eating can make ADHD symptoms worse.
Non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) is also common in young girls and adolescents with ADHD. This can consist of self-cutting, burning, scratching, or similar behaviors. It can also be linked to other harmful behaviors, such as alcohol or substance abuse.
Coping and self-help tips
It’s empowering to take charge of your own health, and be your own advocate. You’re the one who is most familiar with your body, what you need to function better, and how you can feel more in control.
Whether or not you also pursue professional treatment options, there are important strategies you can use right now to begin managing your ADHD symptoms and make beneficial changes to your life.
[Read: Tips for Managing Adult ADHD]
Tip 1: Exercise and meditate to sharpen focus and concentration
As well as elevating your mood, physical activity can also help control ADHD symptoms. Getting regular exercise can release neurotransmitters such as dopamine which help boost attention and focus. Exercise can also burn off excess energy, and ease stress and anxiety, other common issues in women with ADHD.
Aim for 4 to 5 sessions a week of about 30 minutes each day. You don’t have to go to the gym. You can try aerobic or cardio workouts at home, or walk, run, swim, or bike outside. To make it a more social experience, try dancing, yoga, group classes such as Pilates, or playing team sports.
Add a mindfulness element to further improve your memory, attention span, and ability to focus. As you exercise, instead of focusing on music or watching TV, try focusing on your body as it moves—the way you swing your arms as you walk, for example, or the feeling the wind on your face. Stay in the present moment, and take the time to fully notice what you’re doing. Mindfulness is often incorporated into yoga and tai chi routines.
Mindfulness meditation for ADHD
Mindfulness meditation can be an extremely effective way to not only improve focus, attention, and your ability to resist distractions, but also reduce impulsivity and better manage your emotions.
[Listen: Mindful Breathing Meditation]
Since hyperactivity can make meditation challenging for some women with ADHD, try starting your practice with short meditations and gradually build up from there. The more you practice meditation, the better you’ll be able to incorporate mindfulness into your daily life to help calm your mind and body, block out distractions, and control impulsiveness.
Tip 2: Improve your diet to control impulsivity and hyperactivity
While your diet doesn’t cause ADHD, certain foods can make symptoms of impulsivity, distractibility, and restlessness better or worse.
- Aim for a balanced diet consisting of lots of fruits and vegetables, along with whole grains, healthy fats, and quality protein.
- Avoid foods that are high in sugar and simple carbohydrates, such as white bread, cakes, soda, candy, and most junk or processed food.
- Eating several small meals throughout the day rather than three large meals to maintain an even energy.
- Limit caffeine, which can make you more irritable, nervous, and anxious and may increase the side effects of stimulant medications for ADHD.
- There is some evidence that certain supplements may help curb symptoms of inattention and impulsiveness. These include omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, and magnesium.
Tip 3: Get better organized
While the thought of getting organized when you have ADHD can seem like an overwhelming undertaking, you don’t have to be a “neat freak” to start getting your life in order.
- Break down larger tasks into smaller, more manageable steps. For example, you can sort through one drawer in your desk or dresser at a time, or one section of your closet.
- Make a pile of items to discard that you’re no longer using, or clothes that you haven’t worn in a while. As you progress, you can begin to organize a room or office space by placing items into categories for storage, trash, or donations.
- Make to-do lists, or use planners or calendars to keep track of tasks you need to take care.
- Improve your time management by using smartphone apps that can serve as reminders for upcoming appointments and deadlines.
- Designate a time each day to deal with paperwork, so it doesn’t pile up and become an overwhelming task.
- Check your mail every day. Prioritize paying bills and responding to other time-sensitive correspondence right away, while it’s fresh in your mind.
- Going “paperless” is another great option to minimize clutter and avoid having to organize or dispose of mountains of paper.
Tip 4: Deal with insomnia and other sleep problems
Insomnia and other sleep issues are common in women with ADHD. They usually begin about the time of puberty and get worse with age. But feeling sleep deprived will only exacerbate symptoms such as irritability, inattention, and anxiety.
Practicing good sleep hygiene is invaluable for improving both the quantity and quality of your sleep.
- Establish a regular bedtime routine, doing something relaxing before bed such as listening to calming music or an audiobook, or meditating.
- Limit screen time at least an hour before bed, to allow your mind to calm.
- Sleep in a dark, cool room with minimal noise.
- Some people with ADHD find that using a weighted blanket helps to calm the mind and improve focus.
- If you have trouble waking up in the morning, expose yourself to sunlight as soon as you can or use a light therapy box.
Tip 5: Manage difficulties in the workplace
Whether you work remotely or commute to a workplace, having ADHD can present a host of challenges at work. Emails, phone calls, meetings, and other interruptions throughout the day can interfere with your concentration and attention span. Even just having to sit at a desk and focus on multiple projects can seem like an insurmountable burden when you have ADHD.
Whatever you find most challenging at work, try not to be hard on yourself or beat yourself up about any perceived shortcomings. You can often find that with just a few simple adjustments, you can make your workday more manageable and productive.
- Declutter your workspace and desk.
- Keep your office/home office door closed as much as possible.
- Use a headset to block out background noise.
- Work on each task individually and divide them into smaller bite-size chunks to make them seem less overwhelming.
- Use a planner, checklists, or post-it notes to keep track of deadlines.
- Take notes at meetings to help you remember important details.
- Take frequent breaks to move around and calm your mind.
Tip 6: Smooth relationship problems
ADHD symptoms can heighten frustration and misunderstandings in your relationships, whether they’re with a romantic partner, friends, family, or work colleagues. Your struggles with attention and focus, for example, can appear to others as disinterest, boredom, or even a lack of commitment to the relationship. While you as the person with ADHD may feel like others are always criticizing, micromanaging, or being disrespectful towards you.
But having ADHD doesn’t mean you can’t sustain healthy and fulfilling relationships with those closest to you. It takes time and patience to build solid relationships, but there are many solutions and resources to foster this process.
Understand the role ADHD plays in your relationships. It can help to look at how ignored or offended the other person may feel when you appear distracted or forgetful. Try to be honest with those closest to you about how you’re feeling and the struggles ADHD symptoms can present rather than simply putting the blame on the other person.
[Read: Adult ADHD and Relationships]
Improve your communication skills. Try to maintain eye contact when others are talking and avoid interrupting. When your focus starts to drift, repeat the person’s words in your head so you can better follow and remember what’s being said. Asking questions can also help convey to the other person that you’re paying attention.
Manage your emotions. Saying things impulsively you later regret or easily losing your temper can seriously damage any relationship. If strong emotions threaten to derail a conversation, especially one with your partner, take a time out to calm down and refocus before continuing. HelpGuide's free Emotional Intelligence Toolkit can teach you how to better control your emotions in times of stress.
Divide up tasks with your partner. If disorganization, clutter, or inattention create problems at home, work with your partner to share and divide up household chores. If you struggle to pay bills on time, for example, that may be a task best left to your partner while you agree to grocery shop instead.
Parenting when you have ADHD
Having problems with staying organized, concentrating, and managing your emotions can make parenting even more difficult, especially if your child also has ADHD. Struggling to help a child overcome the same issues you’re facing can seem overwhelming at times.
Managing your own ADHD symptoms will help relieve some of the family pressures. It can also help to:
Schedule regular times to spend with your child. Whether it’s to play together, help with homework, or simply chat over a meal, it’s important to avoid distractions and spend regular one-on-one time with your child.
Set consistent rules and consequences. If you struggle with impulsivity, any inconsistency on your part can be confusing for your children. With your partner, set clear rules so that everyone in the household understands what is acceptable—and what happens if the rules are broken.
Take a time out when you feel overwhelmed. When you have difficulty managing your own emotions, trying to deal with a misbehaving child or petulant teenager can lead to escalating conflict. Rather than impulsively say or do something you’ll later regret, take a few moments to step away and calm down.
Divide up parenting duties with your partner. If your struggles with organization make certain tasks more difficult for you, trade off responsibilities with your spouse or partner. They handle getting the kids ready for school on time in the morning, for example, while you make dinner in the evening. If you’re a single parent, reach out to family or loved ones for support.
There are a number of treatments for ADHD as an adult woman, including medication. Keep in mind, however, that stimulant or non-stimulant medications are not a cure for ADHD. Medication alone is not enough to correct problems with time management, organization, and relationship issues in your daily life. As a result, ADHD is usually managed with a combination of treatments.
[Read: Treatment of Adult ADHD]
It’s crucial to find the best treatments to accommodate your specific needs, stage in life, primary responsibilities, and type of symptoms. This process can be more complex for women because of hormone fluctuations throughout the menstrual cycle, during pregnancy, and menopause.
- Due to concerns about taking stimulant ADHD medication during pregnancy, for example, your doctor may recommend relying on other treatments to control your symptoms.
Last updated or reviewed on May 11, 2023
- Medications have side effects, so you and your doctor need to monitor it closely. It may take some time to find the right medication, dosage, and tolerance levels.