Learn the signs and symptoms of adult ADHD

by Kaiser Permanente |
Person multitasking with laptop and notebook

Everyone loses focus from time to time. It's normal to occasionally zone out in a meeting, forget your keys, or miss what a friend just said. But for some people, focusing on daily tasks is a constant battle. How do you know if your lack of focus is due to stress, information overload, or a more serious health issue like ADHD?

What is ADHD?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common mental health condition. It’s linked to trouble focusing, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. See examples of these symptoms below, under "the most common symptoms of ADHD."

ADHD affects both children and adults, but it’s important to know that ADHD starts in childhood — not adulthood. You can be diagnosed with ADHD for the first time as an adult. But if you just started having trouble paying attention, it's probably not ADHD.

While symptoms of ADHD usually start in childhood, they may look different as an adult. For example, adults don’t always experience the "H" in ADHD — which stands for hyperactivity. According to Ashley Zucker, MD, who serves as chief of psychiatry for Kaiser Permanente in San Bernardino County, "Adults tend to have less of the hyperactive component of ADHD, but they definitely can still have struggles with impulsivity, attention issues, restlessness, and other symptoms. " 

There are a wide variety of ADHD symptoms in adults, some more well known than others.

The most common symptoms of ADHD

There are 2 symptoms that are most common in adults who have ADHD: difficulty paying attention and impulsiveness.

Attention problems

If you’re an adult with ADHD, you may often find it hard to:

  • Finish tasks that don't interest you or aren't easy.
  • Focus attention on conversations, reading materials, or jobs. For example, you may change jobs a lot.
  • Remember things. You may misplace or lose things.
  • Pay attention. You can be easily distracted and have trouble focusing on one task.

Impulsivity 

Adults with ADHD may:

  • Act without thinking. You may make quick decisions without thinking about the consequences.
  • Talk excessively. You may blurt things out, interrupt or even finish people’s sentences for them.
  • Find it hard to relax. You may feel restless and find it hard to do quiet things like read or watch TV.
  • Get easily bored. The moment something loses your attention, you may switch gears without a second thought.
  • Find it hard to keep jobs or relationships. You may speak without a filter or have trouble following rules.

Lesser-known symptoms

Each person is different — some symptoms may be more present or severe. There are also symptoms of adult ADHD that aren’t as well known. Here are 3 symptoms that may not be familiar to you. 

Hyperfocus

Most people with ADHD have trouble paying attention, but some have the opposite problem — they can't stop paying attention. It’s called "hyperfocus," and it happens when someone is so completely absorbed in one activity that they can’t focus on anything else. "You tend to see it with things that are highly stimulating, like video games," says Dr. Zucker. 

Spending all your time focused on one activity can get in the way of daily life. This is especially true if it’s an activity that causes you to lose sight of everything around you. To break the hold of hyperfocus, try to set reminders to take breaks. 

Mood swings

One of the major symptoms of ADHD is impulsivity, which can lead to mood swings. Impulsivity is when you act without thinking first. This can look like abrupt emotional reactions. 

Dr. Zucker says, "For most people, if you’re upset about something, you pause and think: ‘Should I do this? Should I not do this? What are the consequences?’ But for folks with ADHD, that doesn't always exist. They immediately respond." 

A good way to manage mood swings is through exercise. Exercising can help boost your mood, sharpen your thinking, and help you better handle stress — making you feel healthier and happier.

Insomnia and trouble sleeping

When you have adult ADHD, it can be difficult to sleep. As Dr. Zucker puts it, "It’s hard to shut off at night, the brain just keeps going." Often, you’ll find yourself trying to sleep but jumping from thought to thought. Or you may be awake, continuing to hyperfocus on something interesting. 

A good way to deal with this restlessness is to find a practice that calms your body and mind. That may mean stretching before bed, doing a meditation, or even putting on background noises — like a sleep story from a self-care app

When to talk to your doctor

It can be difficult to diagnose adult ADHD, as almost everyone has experienced these symptoms at some point. In some cases, depression and anxiety are to blame. 

ADHD, depression, and anxiety can all coexist — but just because you're depressed doesn't mean you have ADHD. The only way to know for sure if you have adult ADHD is to talk to your doctor. If you’re noticing a disruption to your everyday life, it’s time to make an appointment.

Dr. Zucker says, "If you feel like these symptoms are causing trouble in your relationships; if you’re having trouble at work or at school; if you’re struggling with low self-esteem, or recognizing some depression and anxiety symptoms related to your inability to focus — then that’s a good indication to talk to your doctor about whether you have ADHD or not."

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