Attention Deficit – Adult

Everyone feels distracted and restless at times. For the most of us, the feelings pass and we can easily get back to work. Some people struggle with these problems for many years. Some don’t realize they have an illness until their child has similar problems and is diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Others don’t even realize that they have an illness—they assume their illness is “just who they are.”

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, is a mental illness that affects the way you act and focus. ADHD is usually diagnosed in school-aged children, but it can continue to cause problems into adulthood. About two-thirds of people living with ADHD continue to experience symptoms as an adult. As we learn more about the course of ADHD, it’s becoming more common for teens and adults to be diagnosed with the illness.

If you live with ADHD, you might have problems paying attention, concentrating on one task or organizing things. You might make careless mistakes at work or frequently forget things. This group of symptoms is called inattention. You might have a hard time sitting still, fidget all the time or feel very restless. This group of symptoms is called hyperactivity. Or you might have a hard time controlling urges and take a lot of risks. You might do things without considering the results or act before you think. This group of symptoms is called impulsivity. These symptoms last for a long time, don’t change in different places (such as at work and at home) and can cause a lot distress or problems.

Inattention symptoms in particular tend to affect adults, and may also make tasks like planning and setting priorities difficult. Impulsivity may be less frequent or obvious in adults than in children, but the impact of impulsive decisions can be very harmful. For example, adults may quit school, quit a job, get into car accidents or have problems with substance use.

You may be diagnosed as an adult with ADHD, but you must have experienced some ADHD symptoms as a child—there is no such thing as ADHD that starts when you’re an adult. Some people cope with symptoms when they were children, but the demands of adulthood make the symptoms more obvious and more troublesome. But if you are an adult and you suddenly begin to experience symptoms that look like ADHD, there is usually something else wrong.

ADHD can be harder to diagnose in adults for some of these reasons:

  • Other mental illnesses can cause problems with attention or behaviour.  For example, some mood disorders can cause problems with concentration, some anxiety disorders can cause problems with restlessness and some personality disorders can cause problems with impulsivity.
  • Clinicians may have less training to recognize ADHD in adults, although this is getting better.
  • Adults can develop coping strategies that “hide” symptoms. For example, an adult who feels very restless can choose a busy, fast-paced job or change jobs often.

Researchers aren’t sure what causes ADHD. Like other mental illnesses, it’s likely caused or influenced by many different things. Examples include your genes, the environment you live in, and your life experiences. We do know that researchers haven’t found a concrete link between ADHD and factors like parenting style or watching TV.

  • I have a hard time starting projects, especially if they require a lot of thinking or concentration;
  • I have a hard time finalizing small details once the challenging parts of a task are finished;
  • I often forget about meetings and other day-to-day obligations;
  • I have a hard time organizing things, such as projects at work or my finances;
  • I often fidget or feel very restless;
  • I often feel like I have to move or do something active;
  • I’ve experienced these symptoms since I was young.

Talk to your doctor if you feel that many of the above statements apply to you, happen often and cause a lot of problems.

ADHD is usually treated with a combination of medication, counselling and self-care.

  • Medication – Adults are often treated with the same kind of stimulant and non-stimulant ADHD medication as children. There is a non-stimulant ADHD medication option, which is a type of antidepressant. Other types of antidepressants may also be particularly helpful for adults who have depression or an anxiety disorder in addition to ADHD.  It’s important to remember that different medications may not be a good option for all people. It’s important to tell your doctor about your health conditions and health conditions in your family. For example, stimulant medications may not be a good option for people with heart, mood, sleep, anxiety or substance use problems.
  • Counselling – Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) teaches you the relationship between your thoughts, moods and behaviours. It has been adapted to help people living with ADHD. A therapist can also help you make changes in your behaviour. These changes help you replace negative behaviours with positive behaviours. This may help you cope with troubling symptoms and improve your relationships with other people. It’s also important to learn about ADHD. Learning about any mental illness is usually an important part of any type of counselling. Family therapy can help your entire family understand ADHD.
  • Self-help – Strategies like maintaining a consistent schedule and using notes, lists or charts to keep you on track may help. Your mental health practitioner can suggest specific strategies to help you cope with your symptoms. Many adults living with ADHD experience sleep problems, so good sleep habits are particularly important. Also, regular exercise, eating well, staying in touch with family and friends, joining a support group and doing things you enjoy are some things that help you cope with any mental illness.

Reach out for help

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder can cause a lot of distress. But proper diagnosis and treatment can help you feel better and gain control of your life. You can also contact the Canadian Mental Health Association – Calgary Region for more information at
(403) 297-1700 or email: info@cmha.calgary.ab.ca.