ADHD in College Women: 5 Things You Should Know

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a hard-working, successful young woman heads off to college…and everything falls apart.

Not that funny, right? Unfortunately, for many women with ADHD, this is their story. Whether it’s when they make the jump to college life, or when they begin their career, it’s not uncommon for women with ADHD reach a point when all their coping mechanisms no longer keep up with life demands.

Science is only beginning to catch up with the unique difficulties for women with ADHD. Let’s take a look at the barriers they encounter and how they can get the support they deserve.

1. ADHD looks different in girls

The average age of ADHD diagnosis is 7. However, it can be difficult to recognize the symptoms in girls at that age. ADHD comes in one of three types — hyperactive/impulsive, inattentive, and combination. When people think of ADHD they often think of that first type. People with the hyperactive/impulsive type are the ones who are always moving. They tend to interrupt and blurt out inappropriate things. In a classroom setting the hyperactive/impulsive types are the ones who interrupt learning, so they are the ones who get noticed.

Inattentive type ADHD is often overlooked. These are the dreamy kids, the ones who stare out the window and zone out during lectures. Kids with inattentive type ADHD usually don’t get in a lot of trouble, although their parents and teachers are often frustrated with their disorganization and the way they don’t always perform as well as they could. Combination type is just like it sounds, a combination of the two types.

Most girls who have ADHD have the inattentive type. It’s easy to miss because they aren’t drawing attention to themselves with active, impulsive behavior. Girls are more likely to redouble their efforts to stay on top of their work despite attention problems, so they may even achieve as well as their peers, making it even harder to realize how hard they are struggling.

Another reason girls go undiagnosed is that often anxiety and depression often go hand-in-hand with their ADHD. When they do come to the attention of parents and teachers, their problems are chalked up to these issues. She can’t concentrate on school work? It must be because she’s depressed. She has trouble sleeping? Anxiety will do that. Especially if girls are working extra hard to keep up with their school work, the possibility of underlying ADHD is often ignored.

2. Physical differences in women’s ADHD experience

Doctors used to expect that ADHD symptoms would be obvious by age 7. They’ve since amended that expectation to age 12. However, both of those benchmarks miss an important fact about women’s ADHD symptoms. Increasing estrogen levels seem to intensify these symptoms in women. Puberty may cause a surge in symptoms when the adults in a girl’s life have already decided that she can’t possibly have ADHD. Again, when young women head off to college, their estrogen levels are generally increasing. At the same time the structures that kept them functioning, such as parental involvement, daily schedule, and rules are taken away. Even for women who have been functioning well all their lives, the combination of these changes can be overwhelming.

Another barrier to understanding ADHD in women is that their menstrual cycle can impact their symptoms. Where a woman is in her cycle and the levels of sex hormones such as estrogen and progesterone can change how she functions. Because this variability is so complex, researchers mostly study males, leaving the intricacies of the woman’s cycle on ADHD unexplored.

3. Women suffer in different ways

Women with ADHD have a tendency toward self-harming behavior. They are more likely to exhibit risky sexual behavior. They develop binge eating disorders at a higher rate, especially if they also struggle with depression. Worst of all, they are more likely to do things like non-suicidal cutting and even attempt suicide. This is especially true for women who have been diagnosed with combination type ADHD.

Again, when women struggle with these problems, doctors are not likely to consider ADHD as the underlying problem. Instead of addressing the ADHD, they are focused on treating its effects.

4. ADHD symptoms in women

So what does ADHD look like in women? Here’s a partial list:

  • disorganized
  • forgetful
  • socially isolated
  • takes time to process information (appears “spacy”)
  • feels overwhelmed and stressed
  • works hard to gain approval
  • feels overwhelmed by problem-solving, failing to address issues
  • hypersensitive to surroundings – shutting down when there is too much noise or activity
  • often running late
  • feels shame for not achieving enough

If you suspect you may be dealing with ADHD, here is a self-assessment that is specifically for women.

5. ADHD treatment options

The first step to getting treatment for ADHD is to go through the appropriate testing. Although many general care practitioners are willing to diagnose and prescribe medication for ADHD, more comprehensive psychological testing will give you greater insight into your condition. When you have a clear understanding, then you are ready to work with your practitioner on a treatment plan.

People usually think of medication first when addressing ADHD, and it’s true that medication can be a very useful tool. There are both stimulant and non-stimulant kinds of medications, and it is vital that you work with someone who is familiar with them to help you find the right choice for you.

However, medication is only part of the puzzle. To tackle the effects of ADHD, which can affect every part of your life, a comprehensive approach is best. Psychotherapy can help you learn new skills, such as time management techniques and new behavior patterns. The right therapist can help you break negative mental habits and choose better ways of dealing with stress.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all this, remember that ADHD also brings positive qualities. You’re not broken; you’re different. We all have different struggles and gifts, and the trick is to learn how to best live with yours. With the right support on your side, you can build the life you want.

If we can help you with diagnosis or treatment, contact us.