The Diverse Impact of ADHD in Women

Posted December 15, 2023 by Cristina Vrech

Cristina Vrech - Individual and couples therapist

Cristina Vrech

Founder and Director - Individual & Couple Therapist, Corporate Services

Co-founder and director of Leone Centre, Cristina Vrech, has 20+ years of experience in working and supporting people, 14+ years of extensive experience as a therapist and offers valuable knowledge to individuals and couples. Prior to being a therapist, she worked in the financial sector.

Cristina takes a down-to-earth and direct approach across the landscapes of relationships, communication, stress, infidelity, confidence, loneliness, addiction, separation and divorce, IVF, and anxiety.

Offering Online Counselling and in person counselling.

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In the past few years, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) awareness has grown exponentially. The stigma around neurodiversity has reduced significantly, and many people are increasingly becoming empowered to embrace the differences between how they process information and that of their neurotypical peers. Although acceptance and understanding have expanded massively to the benefit of neurodivergent and neurotypical people alike, understanding of how it impacts women differently is still relatively limited.

There is comparatively little research on ADHD and how it presents in women. Studies have tended to focus on men, children and adolescents, so little is definitively “known” about ADHD in women.

It is estimated that more than 1.5 million adults in the UK have ADHD, yet only 4.9% of women will receive a diagnosis. So, how can women with ADHD navigate systems which are not designed to support and uplift them?

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What is ADHD, and how does it present differently in women? 

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a unique neurodiverse profile that influences individuals’ ways of thinking and interacting with the world. It often leads to a distinctive way of engaging with tasks and challenges, communication, dynamics and creative thinking. Embracing Gabor Maté’s perspective (Scattered Minds: The Origins and Healing of Attention Deficit Disorder), the origins of ADHD are not simply genetic; they encompass a rich tapestry of environmental, emotional, and psychological factors. This holistic view appreciates the depth and complexity of human experiences and challenges in understanding ADHD.

ADHD manifests distinctly across genders. Girls and women often display less visible expressions, which can lead to their experiences being overlooked or misunderstood as mood disorders like depression or anxiety. This less overt expression of ADHD in women and girls calls for greater awareness and sensitivity in recognition and support.

ADHD can manifest itself in various ways, generally categorised as:

  1. Inattentive
  2. Hyperactive/impulsive
  3. A combination of both.

In boys and men with ADHD, there is a tendency towards more hyperactive and energetic expressions. These are often more visible and identifiable, leading to more frequent recognition and support.

In contrast, women commonly experience inattentive-presenting ADHD. This may include:

  • Challenges with time, money management, and organisation
  • Feelings of being overwhelmed
  • ‘Dreamyness’ and disassociation as ways of emotionally regulating
  • A history of anxiety, depression, eating disorders, self-harm, or substance abuse
  • Memory difficulties
  • Sleep irregularities
  • At times tendency towards over-consumption (alcohol, food, spending)
  • Low self-esteem
  • Struggles with maintaining a tidy environment

These ADHD expressions and challenges can be more pronounced due to societal roles, particularly expectations of women to take on a lead caring role and manage home and family dynamics. Expected identities and roles can amplify the diverse experiences of ADHD, leading to a deeper sense of emotional complexity and requiring adaptive and innovative coping strategies.

In Maté’s integrative model, understanding and embracing ADHD involves a compassionate, holistic approach. It’s about exploring the rich emotional and psychological landscape of the individual, celebrating each person’s unique strengths and experiences, and fostering healing through connection, understanding, and empathetic support.

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How ADHD impacts women 

Girls with ADHD are often perceived as chatty, unfocused or forgetful. This may lead to them getting in trouble or being overlooked in schools, which can lead to difficulties with learning and self-esteem, particularly around intelligence and academic abilities.

Feelings of inadequacy and being overwhelmed are prevalent in women with ADHD. The societal expectations of women to manage elements of their home and work lives, which are based around the organisation, can lead many women with ADHD to spend a lot of time and effort attempting to keep up with these tasks, even though they can cause great stress.

There is also often an expectation of women to appear proactively caring, including remembering and organising celebrations, fulfilling household tasks and being responsible for ensuring they and their families are on time for events. This can lead to pressure in areas which are fundamentally difficult for many people with ADHD, and over time, this can exacerbate feelings of failure and low self-esteem.

Socially, ADHD can make relationships particularly difficult for women, as the expectation to follow unspoken social rules can be harder to navigate for neurodivergent people. Difficulty forming social bonds can be very detrimental to mental health. This is where the community can help – it has been observed that neurodivergent people tend to form connections with other neurodivergent people, as they do not expect each other to follow social conventions.

Women with ADHD may also find workplaces difficult, particularly office environments. Navigating office social politics can be complex for anyone and issues with processing and communication can make workplace relationships demanding. Moreover, the bright lights, presence of other people, and noise can be overstimulating for neurodivergent people and make it difficult for them to concentrate. This can negatively impact work, and it’s essential to ask which supportive adjustments can be made. Women with ADHD may also find that they hyperfocus on one particular area of knowledge or specialism, and if this aligns with their work, their ADHD can be overlooked, and adjustments for areas which are difficult may then be neglected or forgotten.

Are diagnoses really that helpful?

For many women, simply learning and acknowledging that they have ADHD can be reassuring, and this is enough for them. Although a diagnosis can be useful in accessing support for extenuating circumstances in areas such as work or university, for many, the cost and effort are not worth it. Remember that your experience is valid without a diagnosis, and there is a huge community of women with similar experiences to yours.

Much of the most accessible information and support around ADHD for women can be found in communities online and on social media. It is important to make sure your information is coming from verifiable sources. Still, community support and validating self-experience can be empowering, mainly when official and medical structures are difficult to navigate.

How can women with ADHD support themselves?

ADHD is a unique way of experiencing and engaging with the world, not something to be fixed or cured. Support and understanding can significantly impact a society primarily structured for neurotypical individuals. Some find medication helpful, while others learn to manage overstimulation through breaks, exercise, mindfulness, or finding new helpful ways and strategies.

Engaging in activities that promote self-compassion, personal growth, and physical well-being can significantly impact women with ADHD. Connecting with communities—online or in person—of other women with ADHD can provide a sense of empowerment, support, and practical tips that genuinely help.

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Therapy is a valuable option due to the stigma surrounding ADHD. An experienced therapist can help navigate feelings of inadequacy, rejection, or failure, and assist in building confidence, self-esteem, and healthier relationships. Working with an integrative therapist, drawing on various approaches, can equip you with personalised self-support tools and techniques.

At Leone Centre, our neurodivergent-affirmative therapists understand the effects of ADHD and offer guidance on managing its impact. Understanding ADHD’s unique effects on women encompasses more than identifying symptoms; it involves embracing a holistic approach that addresses psychological, social, and emotional factors. Women with ADHD often encounter distinct challenges intensified by societal expectations and gender roles, leading to emotional and mental health concerns requiring sensitive support.

To women navigating ADHD’s challenges, know that seeking support and embracing your unique journey is a source of strength. You are not alone, and empowering yourself is a courageous step toward resilience and growth.