Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects millions of individuals worldwide. In Canada, about 5-10% of children and about 2-5% of adults have been diagnosed with ADHD (CADDRA, CAADAC, CAMH). Despite being a relatively common mental health condition, ADHD is often misunderstood, misdiagnosed, and stigmatized. Living with ADHD can make areas of life challenging, such as school, work and relationships. But here’s the good news - if you or a loved one struggle with the effects of ADHD in your daily life, a wealth of evidence-based strategies and individual and family supports can help you thrive.
ADHD is a neurological disorder that impacts executive functioning - that is, the parts of the brain that help us plan, pay attention to, and follow through on tasks. Individuals coping with ADHD may experience some or all of the following symptoms:
These symptoms must be present from childhood and affect how an individual functions in important areas of life such as school, work, and/or relationships. Individuals with ADHD may struggle with, for example, managing time effectively, organizing space and materials, and efficiently completing tasks. This can lead to challenges with tasks like managing finances and paying bills, organizing and completing work or school tasks on time, and/or navigating relationship expectations. People with ADHD may also experience low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression, along with the practical challenges they face in daily life. In fact, about 50% of people with ADHD also struggle with another diagnosed mental health issue (Silver, 2022).
ADHD can look different in kids compared to adults, and even in men compared to women. Girls are less likely than boys to show obvious physical hyperactivity, making them less likely to be diagnosed in childhood. In adults, symptoms like restlessness, inattention and impulsivity might be more noticeable than hyperactivity. This can make it harder to identify, diagnose and treat ADHD later in life, even when the impacts on work, school or relationships are significant.
Trained health professionals (such as a family physician, psychologist or psychiatrist) can diagnose ADHD after learning more about an individual. An ADHD assessment typically involves behavioural and functional assessments, and a thorough review of medical history.
Sometimes the varying symptoms of ADHD can lead to misdiagnosis and/or a lack of understanding about the disorder. For example, some people believe ADHD symptoms are simply a lack of discipline or “willpower,” or a disorder in children only. However, neuroscience, brain imaging, and clinical research tell us a few important things about what ADHD is - and what it isn’t. First, ADHD is not a behavioural disorder or mental illness. Similarly, ADHD is not a learning disability (although its symptoms sometimes interfere with effective and efficient learning). ADHD is a developmental impairment of the brain’s self-management system, and both adults and children can be diagnosed with ADHD, although evidence of the disorder must be present in childhood for a diagnosis to be given.
Here’s another common misconception: ADHD is not a serious condition. Given their frequent struggles with academics, employment, and personal relationships, people with ADHD are at higher risk for negative health outcomes, such as substance use, eating issues, sleep difficulties, more frequent suicide attempts, and lower life expectancy (CHADD, 2019). Sometimes, and because of overlapping symptoms (like difficulty with concentration, poor memory and mood issues), ADHD is misdiagnosed as other conditions (e.g., anxiety or depression). That’s why it’s important to talk to a qualified mental health professional who can correctly assess and diagnose different mental health issues, and develop a treatment plan that works best for you.
ADHD symptoms can create significant challenges for adults in the workplace, just as they do for children in school. Difficulties with communication skills, distractibility, procrastination, and managing complex projects can make life in the workplace especially challenging. For example, people with ADHD may forget about tasks assigned to them, miss deadlines or meetings, procrastinate and/or struggle to get complete projects. Some people with ADHD also have a hard time managing strong emotions or impulses, which can contribute to outbursts or conflict with co-workers. People with ADHD may also change jobs more frequently than their peers, and and are more likely to be fired or miss work. However, it doesn't have to be that way: adults with ADHD can also learn to thrive in the workplace, once they learn to more effectively manage their symptoms, and ask for what they need.
Awareness is key: as an individual learns more about how their ADHD impacts their thoughts and behaviours, they can learn to effectively manage their symptoms. In other words, greater awareness brings better-informed strategies. Coaching and training can also help individuals with ADHD learn how to effectively manage their symptoms, and advocate for themselves in the workplace.
For example, problems with distractibility from external noise are often a tremendous challenge for people with ADHD. Working with an employer to make adjustments in the work environment can be especially helpful in setting up an employee for success (e.g., requesting a private office or cubicle, working in an unused space such as a conference room, using “white noise” to drown out external noise). Other tips for managing ADHD symptoms in the workplace include:
ADHD can also have an impact on relationships. Maintaining relationships with someone with ADHD symptoms can be draining - you may feel underappreciated and even lonely. It can be frustrating to feel like the person you care about struggles to follow through on promises, or consistently meet mutual expectations. In a partnership, it can be frustrating if your spouse struggles to consistently help with household management tasks like paying bills or doing paperwork. In response, a partner without ADHD might assume the majority of chores and household responsibilities. In turn, they may start to feel overwhelmed, and as if they are “parenting” their spouse.
The partner with ADHD may also feel frustrated. They may feel they have too little control over their environment and are being treated like a child. Similarly, individuals with ADHD may feel their loved ones are overly controlling or difficult to please, which can be frustrating and disheartening - and contribute to feelings of sadness or anxiety.
Over time, these kind of relationship dynamics can put a tremendous strain on friendships or partnerships. This is especially true when the symptoms of ADHD are poorly managed by the person and poorly understood by the people in their life. Again, awareness is key, as is healthy communication to address patterns and expectations. Consider the following:
The good news is that there are several evidence-based treatments for ADHD, backed by decades of research. Typically, the most effective treatments include both medication and behavioural strategies. Behavioral therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), can also help individuals learn strategies to manage their symptoms.
Other supports that may be beneficial for individuals coping with ADHD include:
A path to wellness for someone with ADHD will look different, depending on the individual, and what works for one person may not work for another. Working with a mental health professional is key to understanding what works best for you or your loved one.
Finally, it’s also important to remember that living with ADHD can bring some tremendous gifts. People with ADHD often report being energetic, creative, courageous, and resilient. Similarly, individuals with ADHD are frequently described as deeply passionate and committed to the people and projects they love. Being spontaneous and having a great sense of humour also tend to go hand-in-hand with living with ADHD. Learning to leverage these gifts while effectively managing symptoms can help you thrive and live your best life at work and at home.
- Facing mental health challenges? Layla is here to help - Individuals, couples, and families use Layla for personalized, convenient therapy. Layla matches you to a suitable therapist and manage the therapy process in a warm, dependable manner, supporting you on your journey to better health. Learn more here
- New to therapy? Here's your beginner guide - Starting therapy can evoke feelings of vulnerability, but knowing what to expect can help. The journey is individualized, with no exact right or wrong way. During the first session, typically administrative matters are discussed, goals are set, and you and your therapist will get to know each other. Fit between you and you therapist is very important for your outcomes, and it's okay to switch if the fit isn't right. Therapy is adjusted to your timeline and constraints, and can range from weekly to monthly sessions. Reflecting on what you wish to accomplish can guide the process.
- Are you seeking a Psychological Assessment? Layla offers virtual psychological assessments for adults covering ADHD, PTSD, Mood Disorders, Anxiety Disorders, BPD, Somatic Symptom Disorder, and Illness Anxiety Disorder. Conducted by Registered Psychologists, the service involves a 90-minute video interview, psychometric tests, and a debrief meeting. Learn more here
Disclaimer: The content on this blog is for informational purposes only and should not be considered healthcare or medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Consult with a healthcare professional for appropriate support.