What does ADHD look like in women?

by Dr. Melissa Shepard, MD

by Dr. Melissa Shepard, MD

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WOMEN* ARE THOUGHT TO BE JUST AS LIKELY TO HAVE ADHD...

…but are more likely than their male counterparts to go undiagnosed. We don’t know exactly why this discrepancy exists, but there are probably a few contributing factors. Some research has suggested that women are more likely to have the inattentive subtype of ADHD, while men are more likely to have the hyperactive subtype of ADHD. The hyperactive subtype of ADHD is usually more disruptive to others (i.e., teachers and parents), and therefore detected earlier.

 

Second, women are often socialized to be “people pleasers.” They may work hard to meet societal expectations by masking or compensating for some of their ADHD symptoms.

 

Finally, ADHD is traditionally considered a disorder that primarily affects men, so many patients, families, teachers, and mental health practitioners don’t even consider the diagnosis a possibility in women.

"Women are often socialized to be 'people pleasers.' They may work hard to meet societal expectations by masking or compensating for some of their ADHD symptoms."

Here are a few symptoms of ADHD that are commonly overlooked in women:

 

Difficulty with organization and time-management

Women with ADHD often have trouble keeping their schedules straight, sorting through records and emails, or they may have to rely excessively on others to keep track of things for them. Women with ADHD might be labeled as “lazy” or “slobs” or accused of not being a good parent or not trying hard enough at work. Many women with ADHD develop low self-esteem because they see these ADHD symptoms as a character flaw rather than a sign of ADHD.

 

Unstable mood and sensitivity to criticism

People with ADHD may be much more sensitive to criticism and rejection than people who do not have ADHD. “Rejection sensitive dysphoria” is defined by an extreme sensitivity to rejection and is a common symptom of ADHD. People with ADHD may also struggle with intense anger or sadness and difficulty regulating their emotions. Emotional dysregulation can be misdiagnosed as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or personality disorders. Sometimes women are labeled as “moody” or “dramatic” when they have these symptoms, and they may even have trouble fitting in with others.

Woman loks overwhelmed while two children and a dog run around a messy house 

Feeling easily overstimulated

Women with ADHD often have difficulty tuning out environmental stimulation. Someone with ADHD might be extremely distracted by the humming of a fan, whereas someone without ADHD may not even notice the noise. People with ADHD commonly struggle with sensory processing sensitivities. But instead of understanding sensory processing issues as a component of ADHD, these women are often accused of just being “too sensitive.”

 
Imposter Syndrome

Women with ADHD are constantly feeling like they aren’t good enough. Many women have been criticized for symptoms that they cannot control, and on top of that, they are more sensitive to criticism than the average person would be. Even when women with ADHD can keep up with other people at work or home, it may require more effort than the average person. This leads women with ADHD to feel like they are faking success and simply hiding their shortcomings with hard work.

 

If you experience these (or other) symptoms of ADHD, it is important to get evaluated by a mental health professional who is experienced in working with people who have ADHD. This is because we need to rule out other disorders that might cause similar symptoms. If you are diagnosed with ADHD, there are many ways to cope, and an experienced mental health professional can help you figure out what works best for you. Medications, therapy, executive functioning coaching, and other resources can be very helpful. There are also several great books that can help you learn more about being a woman with ADHD, and how you can manage your symptoms (see resources section to learn more and find links to these books).

 

*When referring to “women” in this post, we are typically talking about people who self-identify as women. In some cases, researchers may know the person’s assigned sex at birth, but not always. Unfortunately, there has not been a lot of research on how ADHD presents in people who are cisgender versus transgender, people who are non-binary, or those who identify as something other than the sex they were assigned at birth.

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