Understanding ADHD for Adults: What It Is and How to Treat It


What ADHD Is

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by persistent patterns of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity that interfere with functioning or development. ADHD affects both children and adults, though it often manifests differently across age groups. Approximately 4.4% of adults in the United States have ADHD.  Key symptoms include:

  • Inattention: Difficulty sustaining attention, careless mistakes, not listening when spoken to, disorganization, and forgetfulness.
  • Hyperactivity: Fidgeting, inability to stay seated, excessive talking, and difficulty playing or engaging in activities quietly.
  • Impulsivity: Interrupting others, difficulty waiting for one’s turn, and acting without thinking.

What ADHD Isn’t

ADHD is often misunderstood and surrounded by myths. It’s important to clarify what it isn’t:

  • A Result of Poor Parenting: ADHD is a neurological condition, not a consequence of lack of discipline or poor parenting. ADHD involves genuine differences in brain function and structure, making it difficult for individuals to control certain behaviors without treatment.
  • Just a Phase: While some children may outgrow certain hyperactive behaviors, ADHD is a chronic condition that can persist into adulthood. While many symptoms may diminish with age, adults with ADHD continue to experience significant challenges related to it.
  • Laziness or Lack of Intelligence: Individuals with ADHD can be highly intelligent and capable. Their struggles are related to the disorder, not their abilities or character.
  • Distraction with too Many Demands: Distraction is a common experience that can occur due to a variety of reasons such as stress, lack of interest, or environmental factors, and does not necessarily indicate ADHD. We are more distracted these days due to the constant influx of information and notifications from digital devices, social media, work notifications, and constant task switching which compete for our attention and fragment our focus.

Differential Diagnoses

ADHD symptoms can overlap with other conditions, making accurate diagnosis crucial. Differential diagnoses include:

  • Anxiety Disorders: Both conditions can cause restlessness and difficulty concentrating, but anxiety disorders are characterized by excessive worry.
  • Depressive Disorders: Symptoms such as lack of focus and low motivation can resemble ADHD but are accompanied by persistent sadness and loss of interest in activities.
  • Learning Disabilities: Difficulties in specific academic areas might be mistaken for ADHD but are usually isolated to particular skills.
  • Bipolar Disorder: Manic phases can involve hyperactivity and impulsivity, but bipolar disorder includes distinct mood cycles.

How To Get Diagnosed 

Getting diagnosed with ADHD involves a comprehensive neuropsychological evaluation by a qualified healthcare professional, such as a psychologist, psychiatrist, or neurologist. This process typically includes a detailed medical and family history, interviews, questionnaires, behavioral assessments, and neuropsychological testing to accurately identify symptoms and rule out other potential causes. 

It’s crucial not to rely on brief online evaluations, as these often lack the depth and accuracy needed to diagnose ADHD accurately. Online tests may provide a preliminary indication but cannot replace a thorough clinical assessment, which considers differential diagnoses and nuances and complexities of the disorder to ensure an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment plan.

Treatments for ADHD

For adults, treatment often includes a combination of medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes. Many adults develop coping strategies and skills that help them manage their symptoms more effectively over time. However, a significant number of adults continue to experience challenges that require ongoing support and intervention.

Pharmacological Treatments

Medication is often the first line of treatment for ADHD. Common medications include:

  • Stimulants: Such as methylphenidate (Ritalin) and amphetamine-based drugs (Adderall), which increase dopamine and norepinephrine levels in the brain.
  • Non-Stimulants: Such as atomoxetine (Strattera) and guanfacine (Intuniv), which can be effective alternatives for those who do not respond well to stimulants.

Psychotherapy Methods

Psychotherapy can be an effective component of a comprehensive treatment plan for ADHD, particularly in managing symptoms and improving functioning.

1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT helps individuals with ADHD develop strategies to manage their symptoms. Key components include:

  • Time Management Skills: Learning to prioritize tasks and manage time effectively.
  • Organizational Skills: Developing systems for organizing tasks and responsibilities.
  • Behavioral Techniques: Addressing impulsivity and improving self-control and accountability.

2. Mindfulness-Based Interventions

Mindfulness practices help individuals increase awareness and acceptance of their thoughts and behaviors. Techniques include:

  • Meditation: Practicing mindfulness meditation to improve attention and reduce stress.
  • Mindful Breathing: Focusing on breath to calm the mind and enhance concentration.

ADHD is a complex and often misunderstood disorder that requires a nuanced approach to diagnosis and treatment. By dispelling myths and understanding the true nature of ADHD, individuals can seek appropriate help and support. With effective treatment, those with ADHD can lead successful and fulfilling lives, whether they are children or adults. At Birchwood Clinic in Chicago, we are able to offer in-person and virtual psychotherapy to help adults with ADHD. We work in conjunction with psychiatrists for medication management and psychologists who conduct neuropsychological testing.

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