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ADHD in women: The life-changing impact of diagnoses


Illustration of a woman faced with multiple directions, representing ADHD

News analysis by Susannah Hollywood

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) has a long history of being a condition more attributed to males. So when it is diagnosed in women, the effects can be truly transformative.


Like many women, Emma Tregoning’s Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) went undiagnosed until adulthood. When she finally received a diagnosis and started on medication, she felt the benefits immediately, describing it as though ‘someone tuned in the radio’.


ADHD is a complex neurological condition, that results in both hyperactivity and inattentiveness. Hyperactive traits include fidgeting, inability to keep still, talking a lot and interrupting. Inattentive traits include difficulty concentrating, poor time management, being unable to carry out tasks in sequence, being forgetful of belongings, and generally being unable to organise oneself. Boys more commonly present as hyperactive, and girls as inattentive, although both sexes can have a combination of the two. The hyperactive child may be thought of as ‘driven by a motor’ whilst the inattentive one as ‘dancing to the beat of their own drum’.


Hyperactive behaviours are typically more disruptive and more obvious to others than inattentive ones. As Rae Jacobson, ADHD expert and former senior editor at the Child Mind Institute, puts it: “Staring out the window is nothing if the boy next to you is dancing on the sill”. As a result of these differences in how the condition manifests itself, 4 times more boys than girls are diagnosed in childhood with ADHD. However, by adulthood, the gender difference is significantly less marked, indicating that women are often diagnosed later in life.


Despite the lack of formal diagnosis during childhood, these women often report being acutely aware throughout their lives of the differences between themselves and others in how they think and act. They may also have received negative feedback from others over the years about their behaviours and capabilities.


Without an explanation for these differences and difficulties, feelings of shame and inadequacy may arise, and these can lead to a negative self-image and low self-esteem. This, in turn, can lead to mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse and self-harm – all of which are more common in people with ADHD.


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Two perspectives of the same condition


Emma Tregoning and her friend Rhian Bellamy explain what it felt like to them to receive a diagnosis of ADHD as an adult. Emma describes herself as a child as being chaotic, a chatterbox, and generally loud. Always on the go, always doing several things at once, she found it hard to listen to people and struggled to concentrate enough to take on board verbal information. Whilst able to ‘hyper-focus’ on certain tasks in specific situations, Emma found routine tasks and multi-tasking to be immensely difficult.


For Rhian, clutter, poor time management, unfinished tasks and regularly misplacing things were all constants in her life. She describes how, rather than feeling inattentive, her resting state was of hyper-awareness, with numerous over-active and competing thoughts, like “100 thoughts per minute… about all these other things”. Others with this trait have likened this to lots of people talking at once, on different subjects.


Despite these signs, neither Emma nor Rhian realised they had ADHD until adulthood when both had children who received a diagnosis of the condition, and both recognised many of the same traits in themselves. ADHD has a strong genetic component to it, meaning it runs in families.


Emma’s diagnosis brought her a sense of relief that there was an explanation for the traits and behaviours she had always displayed, and that she wasn’t ‘thick’ or ‘slow’. She was better able to see how her ADHD brain had affected areas of her life such as relationships and contributed to her ongoing diagnosis of anxiety. Rhian also describes her ADHD diagnosis as the pieces ‘falling into place’ for her.


‘Tuning in’


Both women have found treatment with medication to be extremely beneficial. Emma describes her thoughts previously as though being stuck between two radio stations, hearing both classical music and pop music overlapping, with a struggle to make out either. Medication allowed her to ‘tune in’ and finally hear clearly. Rhian describes how she feels much more motivated and productive since starting medication. She has gained enormous benefit from the support group she attends too, finding comfort in being with others who ‘just get it’.


Writing in ADDitude magazine (“Inside the ADHD Mind”), William Dodson, psychiatrist and ADHD specialist, describes ADHD as a ‘confusing, contradictory, inconsistent, and frustrating condition’ and one that is ‘overwhelming to people who live with it every day’. However, Dawn Brown, psychiatrist, ADHD Coach and regular contributor to the magazine, describes how a diagnosis of ADHD can be life-changing, at any age. “Unlocking the tools, supports and treatments,” Dr Brown says, can help a woman to “manage ADHD and change her life for the better”.




 

This news analysis was based on the following story from the BBC: ADHD in women: ‘It’s like someone tuned in the radio’

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