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ADHD For Adult Women

“Ugh, I lost my keys. Again. Thanks, ADHD!” sighs Hilary, a neighbour who shares my habit of walking the dog while listening to a podcast and eating breakfast – all at once.

“I have post-it notes all over my house. If I didn’t have them, I’d be an abysmal failure, because, y’know, ADHD.” shrugs Tia, a client who runs a thriving business and is actually quite far from ruin.

“The house is constantly a mess. Adam is sooo frustrated with me. And the worst part is, I’ve had so many opportunities to deal with it, I just can’t seem to motivate myself, you know?” Carla says dejectedly.

Well, yes. I do know. Like all these women – and scores more – I too wonder if I have ADHD. Since neurodiversity has become increasingly delineated, a new light has been cast on the struggles I  experienced in school: daydreaming in class and not knowing what was going on, the ability to generate loads of creative ideas with incredible ease, but great difficulty focusing on anything that wasn’t immediately interesting to me. Also, the messiest locker of anyone I knew. Without understanding this as a cluster of symptoms, I was constantly frustrated with myself for these difficulties. Ironically, a diagnosis of ADHD used to bring stigma, but now I think it can actually de-pathologize the nagging sense of incompetency that many sufferers of ADHD experience. 

In our Vancouver counselling clinic, we hear revelations of ADHD on the regular. As the experience of neurodiversity continues to be fleshed out with increasing nuance, our collective ‘a-ha’ moments are lighting up like a Christmas tree. 

 It is such a relief to have our biggest frustrations with ourselves explained, and to learn that our blunders, our spaciness, and messy lockers actually stem from something other than incompetency. And one of the fastest growing groups of people asking themselves “Do I have ADHD?” are adult women. Overwhelmed adult women. And even more specifically? Busy moms.

Feeling Overwhelmed, or is it ADHD?

All of the above people I just mentioned? They are also mothers. Not only are they mothers, but they have careers that are important to them. And homes to tend to, dogs, ageing parents – heck – some of them even have houseplants! Were our brains actually meant to make this many decisions, remember this many deadlines and sign up dates? Keep straight all the birthday parties, business meetings, doctors appointments? Add to that: marital stress, lack of support (what village?), financial uncertainty, and tanking levels of estrogen, well. You might be a little distracted. 

Of course, not every busy mum is overwhelmed, and not every overwhelmed woman experiences impairment to their executive functioning to the extent that it mimics ADHD. 

However, if you are overwhelmed by more information and stimulation than your brain can reasonably process, you may develop frustration and detachment from the details your brain is processing. Our prefrontal cortex – the area of the brain responsible for executive functions such as working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control. The very same processes that are impaired in people with ADHD. To complicate things further, people with ADHD typically become maxed out and overwhelmed more easily, making it tricky to suss out the true origin of symptoms like distractibility, agitation and impulsivity.

Symptoms of ADHD in Women

So…how can you tell the difference between ADHD and overwhelm? For starters, the key ADHD symptoms of inattentiveness, hyperactivity, and impulsivity typically appear in childhood, usually before the age of twelve, and as early as three years of age. While overwhelm can come and go with stress and crises, ADHD symptoms tend to persist and interfere with daily life consistently. Reflect on whether your struggles are chronic and have defined your functioning over a long period of time. Think about what school was like for you, especially organisation, self-discipline, and focus. Most ADHD experts caution against taking a cavalier approach to self-diagnosis, and recommend having a proper assessment with a physician or psychologist who is well versed in diagnosing and treating the disorder. 

Signs of ADHD symptoms in women include:
  • Making careless mistakes that often lead to being called out.
  • Difficulty with  multi-tasking (you burn the rice when making a stir fry)  or manage multiple relationships (you plan a party and forget to invite some of your favourite people)
  • Overpromising and underdelivering 
  • Missing deadlines, forgetting appointments, being chronically last minute
  • “Spacing out” at meetings or in conversation (or when spending prolonged time with your kids)
  • Difficulty keeping organised or tidy at school, home, or work.

If you are struggling to stay focused, are missing deadlines, and having difficulty regulating your emotions and impulses, it is important to seek out a proper ADHD assessment. Talking to your family doctor is a great way to start. Many people who suspect they have ADHD actually are struggling with burnout, overwhelm, or anxiety. Likewise, many people who wonder if they have anxiety or depression actually have ADHD. There is a lot of overlap in our mental health conditions and psychological struggles, so it is important to receive an ADHD assessment to help tease out your symptoms.

Counselling for ADHD

Counselling can play an important role in helping you self-regulate and ground yourself, whether the cause of your scattered state is due to overwhelm or ADHD. However, the strategies counsellors use to help you may differ, depending on what the cause of your symptoms is. Because of that, you may find that your counsellor will ask you a lot of questions, and likely may recommend that you see a doctor for further symptom clarification and possibly medication, depending on the symptom severity. 

When people with ADHD seek counselling, we often explore relationships at home and work, as well as the emotional fallout from living for years with ADHD (often undiagnosed). People who struggle with ADHD symptoms are used to others in their lives being frustrated with them, and this can lead to conflict and defensiveness. Feelings of guilt and shame are very common with ADHD, as well as avoidance and acting out. 

Counselling for ADHD may include:

  • Emotional regulation skills
  • Relationship support and couples counselling
  • Working on self worth and self compassion
  • Counselling for anxiety (yes, having ADHD can cause tremendous anxiety!)
  • Counselling for depression (if you spend years and years in a state of frustration with yourself, there is bound to be some negative self-talk going on)
  • Psychoeducation on the relationship between ADHD and relationship and family problems

Additionally, executive functioning coaches can help those with ADHD use hacks to help manage issues such as time management, self-discipline, impulsiveness and focus.

Counselling for Burnout and Overwhelm

If you suspect that your difficulties being present, organised and focused stem from overwhelm, counselling can provide meaningful support to women who are overwhelmed and approaching burnout. Some of the issues explored in therapy for overwhelmed women include:

-people pleasing tendencies

boundary setting

perfectionism and self-criticism

– relationship support and couples counselling

-self care that actually lasts

stress reduction strategies

-counselling for anxiety

Coping with overwhelm is not as easy as hopping into a bubble bath or taking a stress leave. It usually involves deep shifts in how you identify your needs, protect your time, and set boundaries. It sometimes is necessary to make major adjustments to how you show up in your key relationships so that you can overcome burnout and start to function more optimally. Counselling for burnout and overwhelm often addresses the underlying self worth, family systems, and perfectionism that positions us to overfunction.

So there you have it. I hope this post will help someone feel less alone in their struggles, whether it be with ADHD or overwhelm. Remember, there is so much out there that can help you cope, ground, and thrive. 

Do you think counselling could help you or someone you know deal with ADHD or overwhelm? You are not alone, and we would love to help!  Reach out to us to book a free consultation to see if our counselling services can help you manage your ADHD or overwhelm.

About the Author

Elana Sures is the owner of Open Space Counselling. She has a Masters degree in Counselling Psychology from UBC (2005) and is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and an Accredited Clinical Supervisor with the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors. Elana is a go-to expert on the psychological experiences of female high achievers.