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Signs and Symptoms of Adult ADHD

Margaret V. Austin, Ph.D., edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D. Updated: Mar 29th 2017

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. 

form with boxes checkedAlthough 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).

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

ADHD is hell - Robin - Aug 25th 2013

ADHD is not a gift, ok?

If your sympotoms don't impair your life, then you don't have ADHD.

I'm greatful for my medication.  

I'm greatful to have a job, an apartment, a car, payable bills, internet banking, a smartphone. 

I never date and have very few friends.  Relationships in general are confusing and draining.

At 36, my life is as full as I can manage.  Now I'm just waiting to die.

A little old for this, BUT . . . - - Apr 16th 2013

I was recently diagnosed at age 65. When I was a child, I spent my time waiting to grow up and leave home; school was my childhood \\

Determined but, Different! - Alemap - Nov 8th 2010

After being diagnosed with ADHD at age 42, like most I was finally just RELIEVED but,  after too many years of craziness in just about everything I touched, I decided to forget conventional thinking and focus on the person I was created into. Why spend half your life swimming against ideas that someone else created and the other half trying to conform to those ideas,  rather than go WITH your own thought process.   It may be a little different but, HEY if that' who you are then, be determined to be different;D

ADHD and a success !!!! Don't give up !!!! - Julie - Oct 16th 2010

What a load of rubbish.  I have ADHD, work in middle management with a well above average salary, have an academic Masters Degree or MBA and was told I was one of the best students on the course (very close to finishing a 2nd - an MSc and professional qual) and a Teaching Qualification (PGCE).  When the time is right I will complete a PhD which I was offered a couple of years ago but I turned down as I wasn't ready to complete this.  The PhD was fully funded with a salary attached.

I have a number of close friends.  My closest friend since I was 10 years old.  So relationships aren't a problem for me.  I am close to my family and ADHD runs through most of my relatives.  They are also very successful (a brother in the forces (senior) and another (in middle management).  Although they don't have the specific learning disabilities that I have but have done well.

I have many of the ADHD symptoms but to be honest it is simply a case of being self aware, getting support (in education at least) and finding strategies to learn how to deal any differences you have in the workplace.  Success is possible ... you just need to understand your strengths and weaknesses like anyone.  You also have to learn to NEVER GIVE UP.  If you give up you are a dead duck!!  Good luck ... and keep going.

I have adhd and work issuses - bob6464 - Sep 25th 2010

It seems like as hard as i try that there is little support for me in a working envoirment when I need it.  Im too hyper.  im 25 and because of the social skills that I have are not on the same level as others it seems to give me issus with jobs even when I feel like im doing everthing the wright way.

Riding a Bike Up Hill without a Chain! - - Jul 20th 2010

i was diagnosed with ADHD/ADD when I was 45 years.  It was a revealing experience that actually was not a surprise at all. After several job loses and a marriage on the rocks, I was glad to know that I was not purposely "sabotaging" my life.  The feeling of doing so much and getting no where was so frustrating.  People labeled me as "lazy", "scared", and "undisciplined".  

As one of the descriptions above describes, "choppy" and "scattered", are great words to describe my life.  A life full of choppy events and circumstances!  Thanks for the ability to post my thoughts.....

Hi Emily - Terry - Jun 6th 2010

I can certainly indentify with much of what to shared. I want to really support your decision to learn all you can about ADHD, understand how it affects you and learn some strategies to cope. I find ADHD to be a very silent affliction that can not be easily supported through conversation, as a result of this I have developed some social anxiety. I am now seek guidance and hope to pass on all I know. I am now forming a goal to develop a non profit society to give a proper voice and support to this misunderstood affiction that so many people are unware they even have, they just feel off. Like minded people understand and by reading your comment I know you do understand.

I feel that with anything that affects me, the I more can discuss it  with someone, the better I can understand, cope and learn a more comfortable way of well-being.

hit the spot - Emily - Dec 4th 2009

2 divorces, 3 children (1 grown) and several lost jobs later.  At 40 I've finally accepted that I am limited. I use to feel "limitless", so many ideas about what to do with the grand adventure and expanse of options life seemed to offer. I was so excited to take on, and take down challenges of the naysayer. I had nothing but naysayers in my experience as a child and young adult. Finally rejected all their naysayerness. Now I have to concede that "there may have been something to what they were 'Naysaying'.  I was diagnosed 4 years ago with ADD. My mom still "pooh-pooh"s the notion that I have a disorder. It is still my chock-full-o-character flaws that has landed me in my heap. Self-esteem, barely recognizable as esteem at all, is shredded. My chosen profession (RN) is an impossable feild for me to excell in. I can focus like a lazer on a deteriorating patient and pull out a "save" on a dime, but don't ask me to account for how many times 8 different patients pee over a given 12 hour shift.  I can dazzle with differential diagnosis that suggested to a willing attending physician helps a very ill patient "turn the corner". Don't ask me to keep track of my employee badge or be consistently on time for work.  I enjoy my co-workers, but can overwhelm them with clever conversation and playfull banter "to keep it light". I can't censor my feelings or opinion about "office politics".  My BS tolerance is a big, fat goose-egg! As for QC, risk-management and cost-containment, I'm a managers worse nightmare. My documentation is atrocious, however, I have never caused harm to a patient or brought about a "sentinal" event as a result of clinical incompetence or negligence.  I learned to overlook the groans and rolling of eyes and nashing of teeth from coworkers who had to follow me in correcting medication documentation errors or delays from a late md order entry. There was always a grumbling of malcontents that like to lay there dispondence on my inequity. I managed to charm my way into being allowed to "stay on the team" dispite the challenges my ADD wrought on the smooth running of any given department. I was also handy as a clinical guru and resource to the lesser skilled or newly graduated and thus unconfidant RN's. I was fearless and flawed. Spoke my mind and bit my tongue to suit the PC as best I could. After 20 years as a nurse I am fatigued by the serial firings that have plagued my working life. My personal life is in shambles, my finances are hanging by a thread and I am racked with guilt over having my 2 kids needlessly suffer the consequences of growing up in a single-parent home that is unpredictable in routine and messy in appearance. I'm going to devote the next few months (years) to understanding this ADD that I have to reconcile to forming a new and thriving persona/identity. Thanks for sharing what you have experienced. It gives a glimmer of hope.

ADHD Upside - Sandwalker - Dec 2nd 2009

I have recently been diagnosed with inattentitive ADHD and I am grateful. I have felt different most of my adult life and never understood my missing link and being able to match the link to the way I have felt. For me, there is a definite upside to the mind of ADHD adult when it comes to creativity. I have been told my photography is amazing and original business ideas are highly creative.

The downside is my ADHD nature traps me in continuous a thought process and does not allow me to follow through with appropriate actions, fears and esteem kick in, because I hold mild to moderate depressive feeling about myself. This condition is exhausting, although at least I am now mindful about my ADHD thought process as well.

I am convinced there are many others ADHD'ers out there who share my thoughts about being highly creative. I am now searching for a great ADHD coach with the intent to first help myself and secondly assist others to prosper mindfully to manifest their ideas into reality.



Adult ADD (Inattentive) - Jane - Nov 14th 2008

Well "Ouch". I am an adult female, diagnosed bet. 35-40 yrs old. I'm wondering where this material comes from, or rather when? It appears very dated and geared toward attention deficit with hyperactivity exclusively. Years ago the medical community considered this to be a predominately male disorder, that conclusion was based on the number of children diagnosed in their school years.

Most of these cases drew attention to themselves initially due to being hyperactive or impulsive in the classroom. Albeit some of these included females they were of the minority. For years the majority of females with attention deficit disorder slid far under the radar, these were the "daydreamers" they drew little attention to themselves other than staring out windows or doodling on paper, they were rarely disruptive in the classroom and after many years it was found to be to their detriment.

I was one of those who classically was labeled time and again by one teacher after another, one grade to the next etc., "Jane is a bright girl but doesn't apply herself.." or "Jane could exceed in this class but refuses to do the work.." Adjectives like "lazy", or cutsies like "a dreamer", (often implied airhead tendency) were confusing and hold lasting effects toward identity and self esteem that reach long past grade school and high school (for those who didn't dropout or just mentally give up on themselves) Although some females had/have Attention Deficit w/hyperactivity, the majority of females (some males) indeed would carry the invisible anchor of "inattentive" Attention Deficit with them through adulthood. In layman terms...I am one of them and it sucks.

Aside from the unintentional omission of this type of Attention Deficit in this text, I have to attempt to say and with no ill will...this for the most part seems geared to those effected by those affected with ADD and somewhat lacking in gentleness and compassion for those living with the stigma and challenges of the disorder within. It is extremely difficult, and we fight an internal battle constantly as our brains aren't wired to automatically perform executive functions that the average person can take for granted.

LOL in some ways this reminds me of the disclaimers one gets when adopting an adult animal from a shelter versus a puppy or kitten....I hope you know what you're taking on with these shelter dwellers. Often challenges and grief in that these adult shelter animals may not automatically make the best pets! 

It feels hurtful to a degree. It "feels" hurtful to a degree. But I know that I am just one of thousands of adults diagnosed later in life who has the regret of not having been privy to the answer to that nagging lifelong question of "What is wrong with me??" until years have filled those gaps with negativity. We are working rather late in life at self-discovery and managability, it is an uphill climb. I am blessed to have a partner who is lovingly (though not always w/o frustration) willing to climb that hill with me and by my side.

By the way, maybe thats why I advocate adopting from a shelter, and choosing those past puppy stage..we've seen it, we lived it, and we're just that much more grateful for the love, and to finally be accepted. :o)

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