Suffering in Silence: Undiagnosed ADHD in Women

Why anxiety and mood disorders may not be the answer

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Misunderstandings about the differences in ADHD symptoms in males and females have gone on since the initial clinical studies of the 1970s. Really hyperactive young boys were taken to clinics and the diagnostic criteria were based on those studies – making it difficult to diagnose girls unless they behave like hyperactive boys. As boys age their symptoms often decrease, however, as girls move through puberty their hormone changes often magnify the symptoms. Often, symptoms do not appear until the college years or later.

As a result adult women are often misdiagnosed with anxiety or mood disorders over ADHD. Of those women being treated with anxiety disorders, the benzodiazepine class of medication often prescribed elicits confusion, depression, and memory loss in its users, amplifying the effects of ADHD the person is already experiencing.

Basic differences:

  • Males tend to be more hyperactive and impulsive.
  • Females tend to be scattered, disorganized, forgetful and introverted.

Instead of understanding the source of their problems women often become anxious or depressed. Their inability to keep it all together causes long-term low self-esteem and shame over their character failures. Women with ADHD are often more reactive than proactive because of their low confidence. As women age they often distance themselves from friends and partners, believing in their unworthiness and amplifying their personal insecurities. Hopelessness and impulsivity put this undiagnosed group at greater risks for accidents and self-harm.

Dr. Ellen Littman, author of Understanding Girls with ADHD, has studied high-IQ adults and adolescents with the disorder for more than 25 years and investigates the emotional cost of high-IQ girls with ADHD, particularly for those undiagnosed. Confused and ashamed by their struggles, girls will internalize their inability to meet social expectations. Sari Solden, a therapist and author of Women and Attention Deficit Disorder, says, “For a long time, these girls see their trouble prioritizing, organizing, coordinating, and paying attention as character flaws. No one told them it’s neurobiological.”

Common symptoms of women with ADHD:

· Inattentive symptoms
· Internalizing symptoms
· Forgetfulness
· Emotional dysregulation
· Low self-esteem
· Eating dysregulation
· Chronic anxiety
· Chronic relationship problems
· Perfectionistic behavior
· Sensory hypersensitivities
· Chronic restlessness and sleep disorders
· Reluctance to read
· Episodes of rage or tears
· Frequent irritability
· Picking behaviors
· Intense premenstrual symptoms
· Late adolescent onset
· Substance dependence
· Increased use of caffeine

Recognizing symptoms and acknowledging them is half the battle. If you connect with most of these symptoms or know someone who does, a visit to the doctor to discuss medication and talk therapy may be life-changing.

Additionally, making lifestyle changes that naturally increases dopamine and norepinephrine levels are important:

· Try something new
· Make a list of small tasks and complete them
· Listen to music you enjoy
· Avoid foods with excess fat and sugar
· Exercise regularly
· Meditate and do yoga

Originally published at

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