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Signs and Symptoms of Adult ADHD

Margaret V. Austin, Ph.D., edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

What are the signs and symptoms of Adult ADHD?

According to the diagnostic manual for mental disorders, (DSM-5; APA, 2013), the main features of ADHD are the same for children and adults. These are:

1. Inattention;

2. Hyperactivity;

3. Impulsivity. 

Although adults and children with ADHD seem to have different problematic behaviors, these behaviors are rooted in the same symptom set. The symptoms just look a bit different in adults. For instance, an adult might repeatedly tap his pencil eraser on the conference table, and fidget in his chair during a meeting, whereas a child might get up and run around the classroom. In both cases, these are examples of hyperactivity and restlessness. For more information about childhood ADHD, please refer to our companion article on childhood ADHD. LINK

Adult ADHD Symptoms: Inattention

  • Easily distracted, difficulty focusing (e.g., tunes out in the middle of a page or conversation);
  • Chronic forgetfulness of daily activities (e.g., paying bills, cleaning, or keeping appointments);
  • Inaccurate self-awareness;
  • Sporadic ability to complete routine tasks; and,
  • Reluctant to engage in tasks that require sustained mental effort (e.g., preparing reports or reviewing lengthy text)

Adult ADHD Symptoms: Hyperactivity & Impulsivity

  • Often leaves the workplace, even though work is unfinished;
  • Often experiences a mental restlessness;
  • Tends to be loud or noisy;
  • Uncomfortable being still for extended times in meetings or classes;
  • Often talks excessively or says whatever comes to mind without considering the timing or appropriateness of the remark;
  • Difficulty waiting his or her turn (in line, while driving, to speak see below); and,
  • May intrude into conversations or activities in an awkward and unwelcome manner.

The above items are the actual DSM-5 symptoms that form the diagnostic criteria for adult ADHD. However, as we will see next, there are many other symptomatic behaviors that are common in ADHD adults.

Other Common Adult ADHD Signs & Symptoms

Below is a list of other hyperactive or impulsive behaviors that may indicate adult ADHD. However, keep in mind, these symptoms are not unique to adult ADHD and may be indicative of other disorders. Therefore, it is important to seek help from a qualified mental health professional so that an accurate diagnosis can be made. Successful treatment hinges upon an accurate diagnosis.

Disorganization and Difficulty with Task Completion (Executive Functioning):

The following list highlights some of the most prominent features of adult ADHD. These kinds of difficulties suggest a problem with an important brain function called executive functioning. In a sense, the executive function of the brain acts like a manager that prioritizes and sequences the work that needs to be done. Poorly developed executive function skills can result in several problems:

  • Difficulty redirecting attention away from distractions, and toward the task at hand;
  • Difficulty inhibiting behavior that is inappropriate to person, place, and/or circumstance;
  • Decision-making problems;
  • Difficulty switching to a more effective problem-solving approach;
  • Struggles to sequence or organize tasks;
  • Poor organizational skills;
  • Chronic procrastination or trouble getting a project started;
  • Working on too many projects at one time (and doing none particularly well);
  • Trouble fulfilling promises, commitments, or deadlines;
  • Frequently and abruptly changing plans;
  • Frequently enacting new schemes or career plans with a brief period of enthusiasm that promptly fades;
  • Difficulty structuring time and setting priorities (e.g., chronic lateness).

Emotional Instability-

Other symptoms frequently observed in adults with ADHD include emotional instability and low stress tolerance, as evidenced by the following:

  • A tendency to vacillate between excessive worry, then disregard for real and present dangers;
  • A sense of insecurity;
  • Mood swings;
  • Chronic problems with self-esteem;
  • Frequent boredom and discontent; or, a craving for excitement and a high need for stimulation;
  • A chronic sense of underachievement, of not meeting one's goals despite best efforts;
  • Difficulties with self-control and emotional regulation; and,
  • A tendency toward addictive behaviors resulting from low stress tolerance; and, a craving for stimulation.

Low Stress Tolerance-

  • Impatience, poor frustration tolerance, gives up easily;
  • Easily flustered, tense;
  • Exaggerates the significance of negative events (i.e., making "mountains out of molehills");
  • Short temper, often with a history of explosive episodes (e.g., road rage).

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