Do You Have “Adult ADHD”? 5 Clues It’s More Than Stress or Mental Load

February 26, 2024

distracted woman

Everyone’s had those days of feeling scattered. You start ten different tasks instead of completing one. You find yourself looking in the spice cabinet when you need milk. Or you read 20 pages before bed but can’t remember what you read.

But if “once in a while” starts feeling like “all the time,” you may wonder if something else is happening. Approximately 3% of adults in the United States live with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) — but only 20% of adults with ADHD know they have it. Others may chalk up their inability to focus or stay organized to carrying a heavy mental load — which refers to the details and stress associated with everyday living.

Dr. Sara Adams
Sara Adams, MD

To help you sort through what’s making you forgetful or scattered, we turned to Dr. Sara Adams, an internal medicine and pediatric doctor at MU Health Care. She explains that whether you are living with ADHD or just have too much on your mental plate, getting to the root cause of your symptoms is critical.

“It good for peace of mind and your mental health to know that what you're experiencing is real and there's a reason for it,” she says. “Any symptoms concerning you or affecting your ability to function should be discussed with your doctor.”

In the meantime, there are some ways to differentiate whether you’re dealing with symptoms of ADHD or the stress of a heavy mental load. If any of these five statements ring true for you, you may be at increased risk for ADHD:

1. You Had ADHD Symptoms in Childhood

The criteria for diagnosing ADHD in adults is clear: You must display symptoms of ADHD before the age of 12, even if you aren’t diagnosed until adulthood.

You may have ADHD if your symptoms fit into one or all the following categories:

  • Inattention (trouble paying attention), making it difficult to follow directions, stay organized and ignore distractions
  • Hyperactivity (excessive energy), such as fidgeting or talking excessively
  • Impulsivity (difficulty with self-control), which includes interrupting others or struggling to wait for your turn

Many kids with mild ADHD aren’t diagnosed and learn to cope with their symptoms. They may grow up in a supportive family environment where someone is there to help with homework, pack the soccer bag and remind them about feeding the hamster.

If that childhood environment sounds familiar, you may want to dig a little deeper. Could you have gotten your homework done in a timely manner if your mom or dad wasn’t keeping you on task? Did you tend to be fidgety or struggle to stay focused in the classroom? Did you have to study or work twice as hard as your peers to get the same grades?

“I see a lot of adults who chalk up a lifetime of ADHD symptoms to ‘This is just how I am. It's how I was built and part of my personality,’” Dr. Adams says. “Others consider their behavior to be part of their anxiety or remember childhood as a hectic time.”

2. Your Parent, Sibling or Child Has ADHD

ADHD tends to run in families — between 75% and 90% of your risk of ADHD comes from genes. In fact, researchers have identified thousands of genes tied to ADHD risk. And if a first-degree relative has it, you are nine times more likely to have it, too.

“There is a very high prevalence of genetic transmission of ADHD,” Dr. Adams says. “If you have a kid who’s diagnosed with ADHD and you are having symptoms consistent with ADHD, there’s a good chance you have it as well.” Studies show that if a child has ADHD, there is a 50% chance that one of their parents also has it.

3. Your Symptoms Are the Same in Every Situation

Adults with ADHD have persistent symptoms that happen in more than one environment. Sure, stressful situations may make the symptoms worse than at other times. But if you’re only struggling with attention at work, it may not be enough to be considered ADHD.

Dr. Adams suggests asking yourself what would happen if you took some responsibilities off your plate. If you weren’t working full time, coaching your child’s basketball team or running the school fundraiser, would you feel better?

“Someone with ADHD is going to have ADHD symptoms, regardless of what’s happening in their life,” she says. “They would still feel scattered or impulsive even if some of their mental load was removed.”

4. You Struggle to Link Actions and Consequences

A telltale sign of ADHD is the inability to form a connection between action and consequence. Teens and children with ADHD may repeat the same behaviors (often due to impulsivity) even though they continually get the same undesirable reaction. As an example, they may interrupt their teacher’s lesson day after day, even though it consistently earns them a detention.

Adults with ADHD also struggle with this issue, though it may not look the same or end up in a detention. It may show up as constantly missing deadlines or being late for work even after being reprimanded. “Let’s say you get pulled over and ticketed for speeding,” Dr. Adams says. “Someone without ADHD will likely be hypervigilant about speeding, at least for a period. Someone with ADHD may be right back to speeding the next day.”

5. You Have a Chronic or Mental Health Condition Associated With ADHD

Up to 80% of adults with ADHD also have a mental health condition such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Personality disorder
  • Substance abuse disorder

“ADHD tends to be friends with anxiety, depression and autism,” Dr. Adams says. “It’s also associated with conditions that can cause chronic pain, which can affect your executive function (the ability to plan and accomplish tasks).”

Dr. Adams explains that it’s easy to write symptoms off as caused by one of these related conditions. Talk to your doctor and explain what’s happening.

“Your doctor can order tests to see if you have an attention problem or whether you are simply stretching yourself too thin,” Dr. Adams says. “If ADHD causes your symptoms, there is treatment available. If not, your doctor may be the objective third party you need to say that you’re doing more than one person can handle.”

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