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Women and ADD: What You Need to Know About Attention Deficit Disorder

According to Sari Solden, in her book Women with Attention Deficit Disorder, “Almost all women find that life today is complex, upsetting, or frustrating, but they are still able to meet most of [life’s] demands reasonably well... For women with untreated Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), however, the demands of daily life can be crippling. It cripples their self-esteem, their families, their lives, their work, and their relationships.” ADD, also known as Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD), affects between 3 and 5 per cent
of the population. However, adult ADD, especially as it appears in women, often goes unrecognized. 

Characteristics of ADD in women

The symptoms of ADD are many. Some are more commonly seen in women and opposite the more recognized symptoms, making detection unlikely and diagnosis difficult. Each person’s experience with ADD is unique. While there is a multitude of characteristics, most women with the disorder don’t have every symptom. Instead, each woman has a mixture severe enough to impair some areas of life.

Mental vs. physical disorganization

For women struggling with this disorder, disorganization is common and often a serious
problem. They may be unable to organize their homes, offices, or lives. To outsiders, this disorganization is
not always visible. Women who lead professional lives may have assistants and/or cleaning services to assist them. Some may have a partner who compensates for their organizational dysfunction. Those without such assistance may have such clutter and disarray that others wonder how she manages.

Other women with ADD may find clutter and disorganization an incredible distraction. These distractions, coupled with the responsibilities of everyday life, lead to mental disorganization as the scattered brain struggles to store, weed out, and organize in a logical fashion. For these women, being tidy and organized equals survival. This trait, when coupled with difficulty shifting attention, may lead to over-organizing to the point that it engulfs one’s life.

Hyperactivity vs. hypoactivity

Women with ADD can be at either end of the spectrum: either hyperactive (overactive) or hypoactive (underactive). Hyperactive women may go at full speed until they crash from the overload. Family life can also suffer with a hyperactive mother. She may be unable
to sit and play games or read to her children unless she finds the activities stimulating. If a hyperactive mom does manage to sit for an activity, she may fidget or
feel anxious. Many women with ADD are at the other extreme. They’re hypoactive, unable to muster the energy to do much of anything. These women are often unable to keep up with life’s many demands such as maintaining a home, participating in family activities, staying in touch with friends, even holding down a
job; this symptom is often perceived as ‘laziness’ by outsiders and even family who may not understand. This misperception creates problems for the hypoactive woman and affects her self-esteem.

Inattention vs. hyperfocusing

Women with ADD struggle with the inability to regulate attention. This doesn’t mean they can never maintain attention. The ability to focus for most with ADD is based on interest and whether the activity
is stimulating. Many women daydreamed through school. Yet the subjects or activities they found fun and interesting didn’t pose such a problem; adult life may be the same.

Hyperfocusing, the opposite of inattention, also poses problems and can coexist with symptoms of inattention. While it may be difficult to focus on some things, a woman may hyperfocus on that which interests her and is unable to shift her attention. Hyperfocusing can last for hours, days, or longer, and makes it difficult to break for important matters. Meals are forgotten. Family members may carry on conversations with her and not be heard. Hyperfocusing puts a strain on the family. If a hyperfocused woman does manage to pull away, she may wander aimlessly and forget what she is doing.

Impatience and impulsivity

Standing in lines, sitting in waiting rooms, and
being placed on hold for lengthy waits drives some women with ADD to the brink, so they may avoid these situations altogether. These women may be impatient either visibly or internally, or act impulsively. Minor nuisances can cause major agitation. Other women with this disorder are able to maintain their composure, yet still feel anxious and annoyed.

Women with ADD may also be impatient about life and events. She may plan her whole education or life
in one day and need for it to happen immediately. She goes into things full swing rather than step-by-step. This can result in a change of heart after much investment or feeling spread too thin with too many goals to achieve.

Impulsiveness is seen when women with the disorder act or speak without thinking first. This often leads to trouble by spending impulsively or jumping into relationships
 and even marriage. Some struggle socially and interrupt conversations or blurt things out they later regret.


Mood swings, being overemotional, or easily frustrated is another problem. For some women, having ADD is like being on an emotional roller coaster. Extreme shifts in mood sometimes lead to a misdiagnosis of Bipolar Disorder, though the two can coexist. Women with ADD are frustrated by the slightest aggravations.
 A simple mistake seems a major ordeal and may result
in anger, storming off, and dropping a task altogether.
If interrupted in the midst of something, a woman may become irritable and annoyed.

Depression, although not a symptom of ADD, often coexists or is a result of ADD. Depression in the ADD woman may stem from lack of self-worth because she
is unable to hold down a job or adequately care for her family. It may result from not reaching her potential because of attention problems in school or an inability
to stick with anything. Sometimes, it also comes from feeling overwhelmed, a feeling that can dominate the life of a woman with this disorder.

The cause of ADD

Research indicates that ADD is a neurobiological disorder with a strong genetic link. According to the non-profit organization, Children and Adults with Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD), complications during pregnancy, labor and delivery, exposure to nicotine or alcohol during fetal development, or a number of other environmental factors may also play a role in the development of ADD.


Studies show the incidence of ADD in men and women are nearly identical, says Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D., co-author of Understanding Women with AD/HD.

The most common reasons that women with ADD don’t receive the diagnosis, she explains, include the following:

  • Their doctor diagnoses the depression that often accompanies ADD, but misses the ADD itself. Women, more often than men, have coexisting anxiety and depression that must be treated
 as well.

  • Women who are more hyperactive, hypertalkative, and impulsive may be misdiagnosed with Bipolar Disorder.

  • Many doctors still look for ADD signs typical of boys and don’t understand that ADD symptoms in females may not appear until puberty or later due to hormonal fluctuations. When girls enter puberty, during PMS, and as estrogen levels drop in perimenopause and menopause, the symptoms of ADD often worsen.

  • Girls tend to try harder in school, so their ADD patterns are masked or overlooked by teachers.

Treatment options

Several treatments are available for ADD. The most effective is prescription medication. A multitude of stimulant and nonstimulant medications are available.

Behavioral therapy may also be beneficial both for coming to terms with the lifelong disorder and to relieve negative coping behaviors. Coaching is useful for learning new skills and strategies for structuring life. Because ADD is neurobiological, therapy and coaching works best in conjunction with medication.

Several ineffective treatments for ADD are being marketed as well. Treatments that are suspect, according to CHADD, include dietary plans such as the Feingold Diet, vitamin and mineral supplements, anti motion- sickness medication, Candida yeast, EEG Biofeedback, Applied Kinesiology (also known as Neural Organization Technique), and Optometric Vision Training, to name
a few. Often, excessive claims are made about these treatments, citing a few favorable responses or studies that don’t hold up to scrutiny. 

Where to find help

An accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment is important to reducing symptoms so finding a qualified provider is essential. Before seeking a diagnosis, read recommended books for a better understanding of the disorder and the diagnosis and treatment process. Women with ADD are often misdiagnosed or the severity of their complaints is dismissed. Having a better understanding of the disorder will help in finding a qualified, knowledgeable provider.

Before spending much time in the diagnosis and treatment process, compile a list of questions to ask the provider to ensure they have a clear understanding of the disorder and appropriate treatments. If you don’t feel comfortable with a physician’s responses, seek
help elsewhere. 

Symptoms of ADD

Some of the symptoms commonly seen in women, partially taken from Attention Deficit Disorder in Adults, by Dr. Lynn Weiss, are as follows:

  • Difficulty completing tasks or following through on plans

  • Difficulty shifting attention

  • Excessively shifting from one activity to another

  • Difficulty concentrating on reading

  • Impatience

  • Frequent preoccupation in thoughts and not hearing when spoken to

  • Difficulty sitting still or excessive fidgeting

  • Sudden and unexpected mood swings

  • Interrupting in conversations, speaking without considering consequences

  • Hot tempered

  • Need for high stimulus

  • Forgetfulness

  • Low tolerance for frustration

  • Tendency toward substance abuse 

Kimberly is an author and freelance writer. Her articles have appeared in more than 200 newspapers, parenting and women’s magazines, and other publications. 




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