ADHD in Women: A Comprehensive Guide to Understanding and Managing Symptoms

10 min read
Evidence based
Psychiatrist and Sensa consultant dr. Monisha Vasa
By Monisha Vasa, MD Updated on 2024 Jan 22
An illustration of a woman with ADHD

In the complex landscape of human experiences, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) still often remains a male-only affair. However, being one of the common neurodevelopmental disorders, ADHD stretches across all genders, impacting lives in distinct and diverse ways.

While it, too, affects girls and women, ADHD historically is mainly associated with young boys and adolescents.

This comprehensive guide helps the multifaceted nature of ADHD in women, exploring its nuanced manifestations, the challenges it presents, and empowering strategies to navigate its complexities.

Understanding ADHD in Women: More Than Meets the Eye

ADHD is a relatively common neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by attention difficulties, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. Previously believed to be a condition that was nine times more common in boys, the gap is now closing as more girls get diagnosed with ADHD.

Still, a problem persists – even if the recognized internal symptoms appear in girls and women, ADHD in boys is diagnosed more often due to being more observable. Hence, it’s important to value both hyperactive and inattentive symptoms to diagnose ADHD.

Lack of research on women with ADHD

Nevertheless, with more research on types and their different presentations, getting ADHD diagnosed becomes easier and more accessible with less room for error.

But even today, getting an accurate diagnosis for girls and women can be problematic, as most research on ADHD was previously done on males.

It’s essential to recognize that ADHD in women and girls usually differs from the standard male presentation but is also not limited to its conventional portrayal of inattentiveness.

Why ADHD in women is often overlooked

In the shadows of traditional attention deficit hyperactivity disorder perceptions, the experiences of women often remain obscured. Women frequently exhibit symptoms that don’t fit the stereotypical narrative, such as inattentiveness, internalized emotional turmoil, and adept masking of their struggles.

Moreover, a longitudinal study on girls with ADHD revealed that young girls face many of the same problems as boys, even some extra ones. However, their struggles were often overlooked or misinterpreted due to more internalized behaviors than their male peers.

The study revealed that symptoms in girls were more likely to be misdiagnosed as depression or anxiety.

How ADHD symptoms manifest differently in women

The misdiagnosis often happens due to different presentations – a helpful report in BMC Psychiatry suggests some gender differences in ADHD presentation. More specifically, females tend to present more inattentive and less hyperactive symptoms than males.

As for many women, ADHD tends to be more subtle – forgetfulness, disorganization, and difficulties with planning and prioritization, which may not be recognized as easily as the overt hyperactive-impulsive symptoms and are often overlooked.

However, this by no means implies that men do not have inattentive type ADHD or that women don’t display hyperactivity and impulsivity. ADHD’s expression varies across individuals, leading to distinct presentations. Additionally, it’s important to note that there might still be a gender bias when diagnosing ADHD in women.

A list of common symptoms of ADHD in women

Unveiling the Signs: ADHD Symptoms Specific to Women

All ADHD symptoms exist in both males and females – none appear exclusively in women. However, knowing that the inattentive type is more prevalent, certain symptoms can signify that a woman might have ADHD.

More specifically, emotional regulation and mood swings, racing thoughts, and inattention can be defined as common symptoms in women with ADHD.

However, both men and women are diagnosed based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) by the American Psychiatric Association (APA).

Cognitive and emotional symptoms

For women with ADHD, the internal dialogue often dances between cognitive burdens and emotional disruptions.

Focusing on tasks, managing time, and maintaining organization can be a constant struggle, amplifying stress and sowing seeds of self-doubt.

Additionally, undiagnosed ADHD can increase the risk of other disorders and issues, such as low self-esteem, depression, or anxiety, possibly leading to more serious concerns, such as self-harm and suicide attempts.

Overlooked symptoms

Due to the nature of gender expectations in society, women also tend to have more emotional expressivity. Hence, emotional sensitivity and, thus, mood swings can further complicate matters, making it challenging to navigate one’s own thoughts and relationships.

Some symptoms of ADHD in women can also be missed – for example, talking excessively, overly social behavior and even difficulty completing tasks can be mistaken as cultural expectations, character traits, or attributed to other causes.

Impact on relationships and social life

However, symptoms for women often spill beyond struggles with concentration and inner battles. Understanding ADHD can assist with building relationships and social interactions.

Women with ADHD might find it arduous to nurture connections due to their internal struggles, potentially leading to feelings of isolation.

Additionally, hyperactive symptoms, such as racing thoughts and impulse control, can decrease one’s ability to form intimate bonds and negotiate.

The result of other symptoms – low self-esteem, depression, or anxiety – can also interfere with relationships and building general life management skills.

Beyond ADHD: Co-Occurring Conditions in Women

Comorbid conditions often accompany ADHD, making the journey for women navigating this condition more complicated. It’s vital to treat co-occurring mental health conditions alongside ADHD symptoms to improve quality of life and general health.

Anxiety and depression

Combined with anxiety and feelings of depression, the tendency to overthink can lead to imagining catastrophic scenarios, low self-esteem, difficulties forming relationships, having worse grades at school, or poorer performance at work due to making careless mistakes.

Having anxiety or depression can aggravate already high emotional sensitivity, making it a lot harder to cope with emotions and worsening other ADHD symptoms, such as impulse control, time management, and attention.

Often, depression and anxiety resulting from untreated ADHD are treated without getting to the root problem due to an existing gender bias.

Eating disorders and ADHD

Disordered eating also shows up alongside ADHD, especially in women, due to societal norms where appearance plays a massive role in one’s ability to connect with others and be successful.

Emotional, impulsive, or binge eating to handle emotional outbursts, completely forgetting to eat, or ignoring hunger cues due to lack of attention are common signs of eating disorders caused by attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Managing ADHD in women involves a comprehensive approach, considering their unique experiences and challenges.

Due to gender differences, women with ADHD may exhibit symptoms differently from men, often displaying more internalized behaviors like daydreaming or inattention symptoms. Although females tend to present differently, various treatment options are available to help girls and adult women effectively cope with their symptoms.

Therapeutic interventions

Therapeutic interventions play a crucial role in managing ADHD in women. Most women tend to feel overwhelmed due to hyperactive brains, forgetfulness, and being easily distracted. This thinking can lead to depression, the tendency to isolate, and feeling incompetent.

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Since ADHD is a neurological disorder, working with your brain and thought processes is the way to go. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a widely used approach that helps individuals identify negative thought patterns and behaviors, replacing them with more positive ones.

In the case of inattentive ADHD, which is more frequent in women, CBT can help identify disruptive behaviors and reveal unhealthy relationships with people, food, work, and other areas.

CBT can teach coping strategies, time management skills, and organizational techniques. This therapy empowers women to better manage their symptoms by equipping them with practical tools to navigate daily life challenges.

Medication and ADHD in women

Pharmaceuticals can be effective in easing ADHD symptoms in women. Stimulant medications, such as Adderall, are commonly prescribed to help concentrate for those with difficulty paying attention.

  • Non-stimulant medications also play a significant role in treatment, particularly for women who may be sensitive to stimulant side effects or have other medical considerations.
  • Non-stimulant medications primarily target different neurotransmitters and brain circuits than stimulants and can help enhance attention for those with difficulty focusing and ease impulsivity symptoms.

Potential risks

However, it’s crucial to note that decisions about medication should be made in consultation with a healthcare professional.

Some people report experiencing adverse effects from taking medications, such as headaches, stomach aches, and sleep problems. Other people might be unable to take stimulant drugs due to other medical considerations.

Factors such as pregnancy, breastfeeding, hormone fluctuations, and others must be carefully considered, as some medications may pose negative consequences to the fetus or nursing infant.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that more data is required to ensure the safety of taking ADHD medications while pregnant or nursing; thus, a consultation with a medical professional is needed in each case.

Digital tools: Sensa

Sensa, a CBT-based application, offers a valuable resource for all to explore and understand their symptoms.

Sensa assists users in improving well-being and learning coping techniques. Users can develop skills to manage impulsivity, enhance focus, and organize tasks through interactive daily lessons, mindfulness resources, and other helpful tools.

Sensa’s comprehensive approach empowers women to take charge of their ADHD and navigate their daily lives more effectively. Sensa offers solutions for managing both inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive symptoms.

Empowerment and ADHD: Coping Strategies for Women

Managing ADHD in women is within reach through various strategies and therapies. By recognizing their strengths and challenges, girls and women can develop coping mechanisms tailored to their needs.

Time management techniques, mindfulness practices, and regular exercise can improve symptom control. It’s crucial for women to advocate for themselves and seek the support they require, thus fostering a sense of empowerment in managing their ADHD.

Self-care techniques for managing ADHD

Self-care is essential for women with ADHD to maintain their well-being. Adequate sleep, a balanced diet, and regular physical activity can positively impact symptom severity.

Additionally, understanding how the menstrual cycle can influence ADHD symptoms is essential. Some women experience heightened symptoms during certain phases of their cycle.

Research suggests that ADHD symptoms vary in severity during a woman’s cycle and can be more severe during the early luteal and follicular phases due to hormone changes. Being mindful of these fluctuations and adjusting strategies accordingly can contribute to better symptom management.

Building strong support networks

Creating a strong support network is vital for navigating ADHD challenges for any gender.

Family, friends, or a support group can provide understanding and encouragement. Open communication about ADHD with loved ones helps foster empathy and collaboration. Support groups can help feel less isolated when combatting attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, as professional support from a therapist, an ADHD coach, or a medical professional also plays a crucial role in helping women with ADHD effectively manage their symptoms.

Unraveling the Hidden Diagnosis of ADHD

Unfortunately, even with more research and inclusivity, women with ADHD tend to be left out because their struggles are often overlooked. However, embracing the array of self-help and medical strategies empowers women with ADHD to lead enriched and purposeful lives.

Nevertheless, it’s vital to seek help if ADHD is causing trouble in daily functioning – it can be successfully managed through therapeutic and pharmaceutical means.

Bringing in science-based self-help tools like Sensa, building support groups, and exploring healthy coping mechanisms can provide relief and enhance well-being despite the challenges along the way.


Psychiatrist and Sensa consultant dr. Monisha Vasa

Dr. Monisha Vasa is a board-certified psychiatrist and wellness consultant with a thriving private practice in Newport Beach, California. She’s actively engaged in supporting physician mental health at UC Irvine and City of Hope National Cancer Center.