What is ADHD?
Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, commonly known as ADHD, is a neurodevelopmental disorder, usually becoming noticeable in your early developmental years. Its symptoms continue well into adulthood. So, it is always better to start therapy for ADHD at the earliest.
For decades, ADHD has been touted as a boy’s/men’s disorder, as the number of male children diagnosed is significantly greater than females. But this does not mean men are more prone to ADHD, it means a lot of ADHD symptoms in women go unnoticed due to various reasons. Wondering why? Well, let us first look at what these symptoms include.
ADHD Symptoms Commonly Seen in Women
Inattentiveness is an umbrella term for ADHD symptoms. More specific symptoms include:
- Careless mistakes
- A lack of attention to detail and difficulty sustaining attention
- Find in following through on tasks and instructions
- Poor organisation skills
- Deliberately avoiding tasks requiring sustained mental effort
- Frequently loses or misplaces things
- Easily distracted and forgetful
Compared to men with ADHD, women with ADHD often struggle more with social interactions. They may experience intense rejection sensitivity, engage in risky sexual behaviours due to impulsivity, and find it overwhelming to maintain relationships.
Women with ADHD can also be more sensitive to their environment when compared to men. This can lead to frequent complaints of sensory overload, physical discomfort such as headaches and nausea, and difficulty sleeping.
ADHD in Women: What Does Research Say?
A review of around 41 research articles revealed that parents, teachers, and even the individuals themselves have different attitudes toward ADHD, depending on the gender of the diagnosed person. Therefore, it would be incorrect to assume that since girls are not as often or as easily diagnosed with ADHD, they are not greatly impacted by it or simply do not have ADHD as commonly as men.
The lack of proper diagnosis and intervention affects women as much as it affects boys and leads to similar negative consequences, such as poor academic performance and behavioural issues.
Existing research also shows that the gender disparity in ADHD diagnosis is more apparent in childhood as compared to ADHD in adults, where the ratio of diagnosed men and women is less disproportionate. On average, women tend to be older than men by the time they are diagnosed.
For neurodevelopmental disorders such as ADHD, where early intervention is key, this delay means that ADHD in women does not receive the same quality of mental healthcare as their male counterparts. But what are the reasons behind this gap in healthcare?
Why Does Misdiagnosis Happen?
Internalisation of Symptoms
Symptoms of ADHD can be classified as:
- Internalised symptoms, such as inattentiveness, are more common among women
- Externalised symptoms, like impulsive behaviour and hyperactivity, are more often noticed in men
Symptoms related to inattention are more subtle in how they manifest, which is why they get overshadowed by more evident external signs. Plus, being a milder, less (noticeably) disruptive aspect, inattentiveness is often overlooked or does not seem enough for most people to consider reaching out to a mental health professional. Similarly, many medical professionals - if consulted - fail to accurately assess the severity of ADHD symptoms in women, denying them a diagnosis.
Gender Roles and Expectations
Another possible explanation for this is better 'masking' by women. Masking is a technique used by many neurodivergent individuals, such as those living with ADHD or autism. Using certain complex coping strategies, they often learn to blend in, making it difficult for the average neurotypical person to notice any symptoms.
Women are conditioned to present themselves in certain ways, which puts greater pressure on them to mask their externalised symptoms. On the other hand, being loud, hyperactive, energetic, etc., are considered to be 'manly', meaning men do not need to mask the same symptoms.
Many women simultaneously experience anxiety and/or mood disorders and ADHD, which can increase the chances of them being misdiagnosed by the mental health professionals.
Some other mental health disorders that are most commonly found coexisting with ADHD in women are eating disorders such as bulimia, Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), and personality disorders like BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder). You can read more about ADHD and comorbidities here.
What are the Consequences of Misdiagnosis in Women?
Women can face significant academic and social problems, including burnout, if their ADHD remains undiagnosed or inadequately treated.
In the long run, a lack of proper medical intervention can result in lower self-esteem and higher anxiety levels in women with ADHD. Women with misdiagnosed or undiagnosed ADHD in childhood may also struggle with emotional overwhelm in times of stress, disorganisation, and frequent stomach aches or headaches without any medical causes throughout their adulthood.
By now, I guess we are quite clear about how there needs to be a shift in the general perception of ADHD. A better understanding of gender differences and sensitivity to the more subtle, nuanced ways in which symptoms of ADHD present themselves is essential for reducing this gender gap in effective diagnosis and treatment.
Are you looking to explore treatment options for ADHD for yourself or someone in your family? Or are you trying to get a hassle-free, nonjudgmental diagnosis so that you can finally get the medical support you require? Either way, Rocket Health’s team of experienced mental health professionals are just a click away to answer all your questions about ADHD and provide you the support you need - be it therapy or medication. Our clinical psychologists offer you a safe, confidential space, and provide you with the right treatment.
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