What Does ADHD Look Like in Women? Many Doctors Are Still Getting It Wrong
What does ADHD look like in women? Depressive feelings and chronic anxiety are common signs of undiagnosed ADHD in women – symptoms doctors often misinterpret and misdiagnose.
“I’m nearing the end of my rope,” said Michelle, a 38-year-old mother of two, to her internist. “I leave and then return to our apartment three times to retrieve everything I’ve forgotten. I don’t plan meals. I can’t keep up with meetings at school, doctors’ appointments, or sports practices. I’m not sleeping well and I’m anxious all the time about just getting through my day without a catastrophe.”
“Michelle, you’re clearly depressed and anxious,” said her internist. She prescribed a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), a type of antidepressant.
Michelle left the office feeling heard and pleased with what seemed a reasonable diagnosis and treatment plan. Except for one thing: It was wrong. Michelle’s symptoms of frustration, worry, underachievement, depressive feelings, and chronic anxiety were not signs of depression or anxiety; they were signs of ADHD in women — misinterpreted and misdiagnosed.
Why Clinicians Miss ADHD in Women
What happened to Michelle, a fictional character, happens to many women with inattentive symptoms of ADHD. The fact is that most professionals, from medical doctors to psychologists, have little training in ADHD and do not know how to recognize it outside of hyperactive children. People with inattentive ADHD report symptoms of depression (because they are having trouble achieving their goals) and anxiety (because they fear dropping the many balls they are juggling).
Practitioners of all stripes know that SSRIs are good for treating depression and anxiety, so the prescription seems to fit the bill. Except that these women with undiagnosed ADHD are “depressed” largely because they are underachieving, falling behind, and feeling ashamed about it. And they are “anxious” because they never know what bad thing will happen next. SSRIs won’t help this.
The Importance of an ADHD Diagnosis
What will help the thousands of Michelles out there? Just knowing the diagnosis puts a person of any age on the right track. An education in ADHD — its neurological underpinnings, various manifestations, and common challenges — can be cathartic and therapeutic. Coaching is also helpful to develop new habits and routines, as well as a trial of a stimulant. These medications work about 80% of the time — and the effects can feel life-altering.
Of course, none of this is possible or likely until medical practitioners learn about ADHD, especially as it occurs in adult women. An untold number of lives could improve dramatically with greater understanding of ADHD in girls and women. It could spark a mental health revolution, and that’s no exaggeration.
How to begin? Here are three early steps for practitioners and patients:
- Read A Radical Guide for Women with ADHD, by Sari Solden and Michelle Frank, Psy.D.
- Listen to “Why ADHD Is Different for Women,” a webinar led by Ellen Littman, Ph.D.
- Take the ADHD Symptom Test for Women
Once a patient understands her diagnosis, she can tap into the strengths and talents associated with ADHD. I tell people that an ADHD diagnosis is not the prerequisite to treating a disorder; it is the prerequisite to unwrapping their gifts.
What Does ADHD Look Like in Women?: Next Steps
- Get: The ADDitude Newsletter for Women
- Read: ADHD Looks Different in Women. Here’s How — and Why.
- Read: “That Explains Everything!” Discovering My ADHD in Adulthood
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