Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is characterized by symptoms that include the inability to keep one’s attention focused on a task, trouble organizing tasks, avoiding things that take effort, and follow-through. ADHD may also include problems with hyperactivity (fidgeting, excessive talking, restlessness) and impulsivity (difficulty waiting one’s turn or with patience, interrupting others). It is typically treated with stimulant medications, such as Ritalin, and psychotherapy.
Have you ever had trouble concentrating, found it hard to sit still, interrupted others during a conversation, or acted impulsively without thinking things through? Can you recall times when you daydreamed or had difficulty focusing on the task at hand?
Most of us can picture acting this way from time to time. But for some people, these and other exasperating behaviors are uncontrollable, persistently plaguing their day-to-day existence. These behaviors will interfere with a person’s ability to form lasting friendships or succeed in school, at home, or with their career.
Learn more: Frequently Asked Questions about ADHD
Learn more: ADHD Fact Sheet
Symptoms of ADHD
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Unlike a broken bone or cancer, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD, also sometimes referred to as just plain attention deficit disorder or ADD) does not show physical signs that can be detected by a blood or other lab test*. The typical ADHD symptoms often overlap with those of other physical and psychological disorders.
ADD is characterized by a pattern of inattentive behavior, often combined with impulsivity and in some, hyperactivity. In adults, this pattern of behavior makes it difficult to focus on details, sustain attention, listen to others, and follow through on instructions or duties. Organizing an activity or task can be next to impossible, and the person is readily distracted by things going on around them. They may seem forgetful, misplacing or losing things needed in order to just get through their day, or to complete a task needing to be done.
ADHD usually appears first in childhood, but can also be diagnosed in adults (as long as some symptoms were present in the individual’s childhood, but simply never diagnosed).
Learn more: Symptoms of ADHD
Causes & Diagnosis of ADHD
The causes remain unknown, but ADHD can be diagnosed and effectively treated. Many resources are available to support families in managing ADHD behaviors when they occur. Exactly what causes ADHD has not been pinpointed, though many professionals believe neurobiological and genetic elements play a role. In addition, numerous social factors such as family conflict and poor child-rearing practices, while not causing the condition, may complicate the course of ADHD and its treatment.
Attention deficit disorder, known in Europe and some parts of the world as hyperkinetic disorder, has been around a lot longer than most people realize. In fact, a condition that appears to be similar to the modern one was described by Hippocrates, who lived from 460 to 370 BC. The name attention deficit disorder was first introduced in 1980 in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In 1994 the definition was altered to include three groups within ADHD: the predominantly hyperactive-impulsive type; the predominantly inattentive type; and the combined type (in the DSM-5, these are now referred to as “presentations”).
Learn more: Causes of ADD and ADHD
The symptoms of ADHD do not always go away — up to 60 percent of child patients retain their symptoms into adulthood. Many adults with ADHD have never been diagnosed, so they may not be aware they have the disorder. They may have been wrongly diagnosed with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or a learning disability.
ADD is readily treatable, although finding the right treatment that works for you can sometimes take time. The most common treatments for this condition include certain types of medications (called stimulants) and, for some, psychotherapy. Psychotherapy alone can also be an effective treatment, but many adults feel more comfortable simply taking a daily medication. You should explore all your treatment options, however, before you make a final decision.
Living With & Managing ADHD
ADHD is difficult to deal with for everyone involved. There is not only the difficulty of coping with symptoms, but also facing the challenges within society. Some experts have linked ADHD with an increased risk of accidents, drug abuse, failure at school, antisocial behavior, and criminal activity. But others view ADHD in a positive light, arguing that it is simply a different method of learning involving greater risk-taking and creativity.
ADHD may be accompanied by additional diagnoses or disorders, including anxiety, OCD, or speech or hearing problems. While no two people experience ADHD in exactly the same way, it helps to know that you are not alone.
Learn more: Living with ADHD
Need more help with understanding how to live well with this condition, and manage it more successfully? These articles help people who are living with ADHD in their lives. Remember, for most people with this diagnosis, this can be a life-long condition — one that needs attention, coping skills, and treatment in order to live your happiest and best life.
- 12 Tips for Getting Organized for Adults with ADHD
- Adults & ADHD: 8 Tips to Make Good Decisions
- ADHD in Adults: 5 Tips for Taming Impulsivity
- Adults & ADHD: 7 Tips for Finishing What You Start
Getting Help / Helping Someone
Getting help for this condition isn’t always easy, as a person may not want to acknowledge that there’s something wrong with their ability to concentrate and focus. Some people may see it as a weakness, and taking a medication as a “crutch.” None of this is true. ADD is simply a mental disorder, and one that is readily treated.
There are many ways to get started in treatment. Many people start by seeing their physician or family doctor to see if they really might suffer from this disorder. While that’s a good start, you’re encouraged to also consult a mental health specialist right away too. Specialists — like psychologists and psychiatrists — can more reliably diagnose a mental disorder than a family doctor can.
Some people may feel more comfortable reading more about the condition first. While we have a great library of resources here, we also have a set of recommended ADD/ADHD books and a peer-led, online ADD support group just for this condition.
Take action: Find a local treatment provider
* – Note: Some practitioners claim there are brain scan tests like SPECT that can “diagnose” ADHD; however these tests are experimental and used for research purposes only. No insurance company reimburses for such brain scan tests, and no research has demonstrated they are any more accurate or reliable than traditional diagnostic measures for ADHD.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Barkley, R.A., Murphy, K.R. & Fischer, M. (2010). ADHD in Adults: What the Science Says. New York: Guilford Press.
Hallowell, E.M. & Ratey, J.J. (2011). Driven to Distraction (Revised): Recognizing and Coping with Attention Deficit Disorder. Anchor Press.
Millichap, J.G. (2011). Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder Handbook: A Physician’s Guide to ADHD (2nd ed.). New York: Springer.
National Institute of Mental Health. (2019). Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder-adhd/index.shtml on March 5, 2019.
Nigg, J.T. (2017). Getting Ahead of ADHD: What Next-Generation Science Says about Treatments That Work—and How You Can Make Them Work for Your Child. New York: Guilford.