If you’ve noticed a lot of women seem to be getting diagnosed with ADHD lately, you’re right.
Information on the way that ADHD tends to show up in women and girls seems to be reaching a (long overdue) tipping point. Influencers like KC Davis of Domestic Blisters on Tik Tok are finding ways to deliver stories about their late diagnoses in ways that are more accessible to those with an ADHD brain.
I started treatment for my late-diagnosed ADHD in late 2019. It’s been a journey of relief, grief, and learning to develop compassion for myself. Before my diagnosis, I often felt like life was harder for me than for other people; it turns out there was a reason I felt that way.
Read my earlier article on the topic: 5 Surprising Truths about Women, ADHD & Sensitivity.
Here are a few more surprising tidbits about women and ADHD:
Hormones can be a roller coaster.
Girls and women with ADHD often struggle mightily with hormonal shifts, though the topic is wildly under-researched. For reasons researchers have yet to fully pin down, women with ADHD seem to be significantly more likely to struggle with PMS and PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder) perinatal mood disorders like postpartum depression and anxiety, perimenopause, and menopause. For many women, including myself, puberty intensified my ADHD symptoms.
A recent study conducted in the Netherlands found women with ADHD to be significantly more likely to suffer from hormonally-triggered mood disorders, including PMDD, postpartum depression, and menopausal mood disorders.
For those struggling with severe PMS or PMDD, The International Association for Premenstrual Disorders is a helpful resource. The Postpartum Stress Center supports women and families dealing with perinatal mood disorders.
We tend to struggle with food.
As a tween, I used to hide containers of frosting in my closet. Late at night, when I couldn’t sleep, I’d sneak downstairs to gorge on chips and cheese. For years, I swung between dieting and overeating, my weight yo-yoing.
As an adult, I found solace in a 12-step program for food addiction. The program helped me immensely, but in the past few months, I’ve realized I’d overlooked a major piece of the puzzle. My behavior with food wasn’t just about emotional eating, diet culture, or food addiction.
ADHD brains don’t make enough dopamine—a neurotransmitter connected to pleasure and reward. Even as a kid, I was trying to compensate with food. I wasn’t eating solely to check out—often, I was trying to stimulate my brain so I could better focus. Other times, I was using food to soothe my intense, stormy emotions, quiet my overactive mind or escape boredom.
ADHDers tend to struggle with impulse control, emotional regulation, and executive functioning—the parts of our brain that help us prioritize and plan. These same deficits make it hard to stick to a food plan. During my years of dieting and overeating, I’d constantly vow to eat more cleanly, hyperfocusing on my weight loss plan. Then, when I inevitably failed to stick with the plan, I’d be flooded with shame, disgusted by my weakness. I didn’t realize I was fighting against my own brain chemistry.
Research shows that up to 30 percent of people diagnosed with binge-eating disorder also have ADHD. A podcast featuring Nicole Demasi Malcher, a nutritionist who specializes in ADHD, expanded my thinking. She’s doing revolutionary work helping people with ADHD understand and heal their relationships with food. Discovering the ways that my ADHD has contributed to my food issues has helped me develop compassion for my younger self.
We often develop innovative ways to cope—until we reach a tipping point.
Leaving home, starting college or a career, or becoming a parent are common tipping points for women with ADHD. Yes, we struggle. But we’re also creative, out-of-the-box thinkers; we tend to cook up inventive ways of compensating for our ADHD, even if we haven’t realized we have ADHD. If we’re interested in a topic, we’re all in—you won’t find a more enthusiastic, harder worker. It makes sense, then, that we might find ways to cope until we hit a stage of life that requires a higher level of executive functioning; then we feel like we’re stuck on a hard level in a video game.
Take parenthood, for example; suddenly we’re responsible for keeping a whole little human alive. This human creates additional laundry, diapering, and feeding and is likely to interrupt our sleep, which in turn negatively impacts our executive functioning. Things that once seemed simple, like grabbing a bite to eat or taking a shower, now are overwhelming tasks.
My dad’s death was what finally led me to try medication for my ADHD. Beyond the grief I was experiencing, I was suddenly responsible for a whole slew of tasks related to my dad’s estate. My worries about whether a stimulant would ramp up my anxiety (spoiler alert—it quieted my mind!) were outweighed by the possibility that medication might make my life more manageable.
We’re sensitive—in all the ways.
Growing up, I believed my sensitivity was an emotional attribute, an innate part of my personality. Now, I understand that it’s related to my ADHD. I am sensitive—I feel emotions intensely. I have to remind myself regularly that feelings pass when we allow ourselves to experience them.
Part of that sensitivity, I’ve learned, is related to my brain’s difficulty regulating its attention. When I started medication, I found I could more easily filter out extraneous inputs; driving became less anxiety-provoking to me because I was able to filter out all the extras and focus on just driving.
Many people with ADHD also have sensory issues—certain fabrics, scents, or sounds might bother and distract us more than most. Like my epiphany about ADHD and food, discovering that my sensitivity is hardwired has allowed me to be more accepting and compassionate about my differences.
For those struggling to make peace with their sensitivity, I’d recommend the podcast Unapologetically Sensitive. Though not specifically about ADHD, I’ve found it very affirming.
We’re struggling with decades of shame and regret, yet we’re hopeful.
Realizing in middle age that I have a brain difference that has made my life significantly more challenging and that I wasn’t just lazy, undisciplined, or as most of my middle and high school teachers noted, “not living up to my potential,” is a bit of a head trip. To think that I struggled in ways I needn’t have, while incurring damage to my self-esteem and leaving a long trail of disappointment and failures in my wake, hurts. It’s hard not to drift into the what-ifs. What if I’d been diagnosed as a child, instead of hearing I wasn’t living up to my potential? Or at 20, when I first suspected I might have ADHD? It’s easy to envision all the books I’d have written by now, the ways my relationships might’ve been better, or that I could’ve been a better mom during my kids’ early childhood.
It’s natural to grieve as we come to understand that our lives might’ve been easier if we’d been diagnosed sooner. That it wasn’t our fault. We weren’t just lazy or dumb or spacey; our brains simply weren’t making enough dopamine.
And yet, ADHDers also tend to be an optimistic, hopeful, creative bunch. Finding out later in life that we have ADHD means there’s still time to make changes. We’re hard workers, and we’re eager to become the best versions of ourselves possible. The podcast ADHD Friendly Lifestyle provides comforting company, and plenty of great tools., for the journey.
If you have ADHD, what resources have you found most helpful?