Every one of us have misplaced something, like our keys. We’ve been fidgety, distracted, and procrastinated by focusing on things we find more engaging or entertaining than whatever task demands our attention. That’s normal.
But when this happens consistently and it begins to affect learning, work, or relationships, they might be symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
ADHD is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders in childhood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People with ADHD can be inattentive, impulsive, and hyperactive. They can exhibit one, two, or all three of these behaviors depending on which type of ADHD they have. Their behavior can also change over time.
Most people think about ADHD as it relates to children. Kids with ADHD are prone to:
- Talking too much
- Not sharing
- Moving from their seats
- Indulging in temptations
- Fidgeting and squirming more than typical
- Leaving lessons incomplete
The symptoms can appear in children as young as three years old and continue into adulthood. These behaviors have been mistaken for emotional or disciplinary problems according to the National Institute for Mental Health. But even quiet, well-behaved children can have ADHD, since one type only affects their ability to focus and doesn’t make them impulsive or hyperactive.
ADHD in Adults
More than 10 million Americans have ADHD. As they move into adulthood from adolescence, they may lose some of the hyperactivity. Struggles with impulsiveness, restlessness, and focus could remain as no one grows out of ADHD. Left undiagnosed and untreated it can lead to unstable relationships, poor work or school performance, low self-esteem, and other problems.
Psychological or developmental disorders can occur with ADHD, making treatment even more challenging. Adults with ADHD can have depression or bipolar disorder. These are not caused by ADHD but result from repeated failures and frustrations. Anxiety can be amplified by these same setbacks.
Adults with ADHD face a greater risk of personality disorders, substance use disorders, and occasional explosive behavior. They may also score lower on academic tests than their peers and have difficulty understanding and communicating.
It’s still unclear what causes ADHD, though the popular myths of too much sugar, too much screen time, and unstable environments have been ruled out. Scientists are studying genetic factors as well as risk factors including:
- Brain injury
- Early exposure to things like lead
- Alcohol or tobacco use during pregnancy
- Premature delivery
- Low birth weight
One Adult’s Struggle
Pilar was diagnosed with ADHD a few months before her 22nd birthday. It is common for women to be diagnosed after childhood since ADHD often manifests differently in girls than it does in boys. Instead of being fidgety, constantly tapping her feet, or drumming fingers on a desk, Pilar was unfocused. She had problems starting tasks, or she would misplace things within minutes of setting them down. But who doesn’t? She assumed what she was experiencing was normal, given the demands of her academic life.
“I was high-functioning,” says Pilar, a straight-A college student. “I just thought I needed better habits.”
Pilar developed a strong fear of rejection. She said she was continually worried that her mistakes would lead to harsh judgments or people thinking less of her. It sometimes kept her from developing friendships.
By her junior year of college, she was burning out. Pilar was constantly anxious about her ability to get work done and becoming increasingly worried about holding down a job. It all felt like too much to be normal, and Pilar sought medical attention. “A psychiatrist had me take a series of tests, and the results showed I have ADHD.”
Pilar was prescribed Concerta and Ritalin, the most common ADHD treatments. Both stimulate the central nervous system. Concerta lasts for 12 hours while Ritalin lasts for four to six. The Ritalin provides a “boost” for when she needs to focus into the evening.
“I wish I had known sooner that I had ADHD,” she said.
Multiple Approaches to Treatment
Safe, effective treatment is available to help those with ADHD. For children under the age of six, the first line of treatment is behavior management – which includes training for caregivers to help them look for and manage certain behaviors. Children older than six may benefit from a program that includes both behavior training and medication. Prescription medications like Adderall and Ritalin have been successfully used for decades: in fact, they’re so effective, they work for 70% - 80% of patients. However, like many potent drugs, ADHD drugs can be abused so patients should strictly follow prescription orders.
For patients who aren’t diagnosed until they’re adults, it may also be beneficial to seek counseling for anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues related to undiagnosed ADHD. Adults can also get skills training (e.g., time management, organization, communication) to help them better cope or manage their condition.
It Starts with Diagnosis
It’s time to seek help when the behaviors listed affect the educational and social development of your child or directly disrupt your life as an adult. A medical doctor or psychiatrist can help determine if ADHD is the issue and provide viable solutions to help cope.
AltaMed has medical and behavioral health specialists available to help with the diagnosis and treatment of ADHD, whether the patient is a child or an adult. You can learn more about our services by calling (855) 425-1777.