written by: Emma Lloyd
• edited by: Paul Arnold
• updated: 7/16/2011
While the symptoms of ADHD are similar in children and adults, their effects can be different. Adults with the disorder tend to develop strategies to help them cope with and mask the symptoms, with both positive and negative results.
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Causes and Symptoms of Adult ADHD
What is adult ADHD, and what is the difference between this form of the disorder and that which affects children? Interestingly enough, it’s not different at all: the causes are the same and ADHD is considered to be the same disorder whether it occurs in an adult or a child.
Although a great deal of headway has been made into researching the causes of ADHD, there are still no concrete answers. The prevailing theory is that neurotransmitter activity is abnormal in people with this disorder. According to this theory, the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine are cleared from the brain’s synapses more quickly than normal, which means there is less available for use in the brain.
As a result of the reduction in available dopamine and norepinephrine, people with ADHD tend to display specific patterns of symptoms and behaviors. It is thought that the too-rapid clearance of dopamine and norepinephrine is the direct cause of the ADHD individual’s reduced ability to focus and control impulsive behavior.
Common adult ADHD symptoms include the following:
Easily bored or frustrated
Poor memory and organizational skills, including difficulty multi-tasking
Poor time-management and tendency to procrastinate
Impatient, and easily becomes angry or irritable
Poor impulse control, including tendency to make and act on snap decisions, and a tendency to say things that are socially inappropriate
The effects of these symptoms on the lives of adults with the disorder can vary. Some adults have a poor work history and are unable to maintain interest in a job or perform well at work. Meanwhile, others are able to find work that is both rewarding and stimulating, enabling them to perform well.
Personal relationships are often difficult, due to emotional issues as a result of poor self-esteem and self-image, as well as the effects of irritability, anger, and reduced tolerance in a relationship. Due to poor impulse control and a tendency towards inappropriate behavior, adults with ADHD often have difficulty with social interactions.
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Adult ADHD Coping Strategies
Adult ADHD symptoms and behaviors differ in some ways from those of children with the disorder. The main reason for this is that as children with ADHD mature into adolescents and adults, they develop coping mechanisms that help them deal with some of the symptoms. For example, a child with ADHD might grow up into an adult who enjoys long-distance running, an activity which helps him or her burn off excess energy and tame their tendency towards restlessness. To cope with social difficulties, an adolescent might avoid social interaction and instead choose solitary activities, becoming a socially isolated adult.
Another coping mechanism developed by many adults with ADHD is known as hyperfocus. People who hyperfocus have the ability to become completely absorbed in a particular type of task that is rewarding as well as stimulating. A common example of such a task is playing a computer or console game. Hyperfocus develops as a way for the ADHD adult to tune out all of the distractions he or she is surrounded by. In the right job this is an excellent skill to have, as someone who can hyperfocus can be an extremely productive person; however hyperfocus has a downside, as the person can often neglect other aspects of his or her life.
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Treatment: Medication and Therapy
For both adult and childhood ADHD, the most common form of treatment is generally medication. Most ADHD medications are stimulants which work by increasing the amount of neurotransmitters available in the brain. There is significant potential for abuse with any stimulant medication; to reduce this risk, long-acting doses are generally prescribed. Stimulants have some additional risks, which include a tendency towards high blood pressure, and increased risk of heart attack in some people. Therefore, regular contact with a personal physician is important when taking these medications.
Adults often benefit from additional treatment in the form of therapy, partly because medication tends to be less effective in adults, but also because therapy helps the individual cope with the effects of the disorder. Talk therapy can help an adult with ADHD work through emotional issues that arise as a result of the disorder, while cognitive-behavioral therapy can help the individual work on changing beliefs and behaviors that cause problems in daily life.
An adult with ADHD can also benefit from joining a support group, as this is a good way of “practicing" social behavior in a safe space. As well as this, it’s a good place to learn new strategies and tips for coping with issues caused by ADHD.
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H. Russel Searight, Ph.D., John M. Burke, Pharm. D., and Fred Rottnek, M.D. Adult ADHD: Evaluation and Treatment in Family Medicine. From <http://www.aafp.org/afp/20001101/2077.html>. Accessed 9 July 2011.
Melinda Smith & Jocelyn Block. Adult ADD/ADHD: Signs, Symptoms, Effects, and Treatment. From <http://www.helpguide.org/mental/adhd_add_adult_symptoms.htm>. Accessed 9 July 2011.
The Mayo Clinic. Adult ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder). From <http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/adult-adhd/DS01161>. Accessed 9 July 2011.