As far as revelations go, realizing that you might have ADHD is a big one.
It can happen different ways. Maybe you come across a list of symptoms that sounds a little too familiar. Maybe your child has been diagnosed with ADHD and you recognize some of the traits in yourself. Or maybe you’re searching for answers about aspects of your life that you’re struggling with, and ADHD is the best explanation you’ve found so far.
The revelation that you might have ADHD is a big one because it’s potentially life-changing. If you have been living with undiagnosed ADHD, realizing you have symptoms of the disorder can help make sense of your life in a new way and give you insight that allows you to change your life for the better.
It’s important to keep in mind that no online resource, including this one, can definitively answer the question “do I have ADHD?” For that, it’s necessary to talk to a medical professional.
Rather, this is intended to be a step-by-step guide that you can use to familiarize yourself with some of the telltale signs of ADHD. You can’t use this guide to diagnose yourself, but if the symptoms described resonate with you, it’s a strong indication that you should meet with a mental health professional because you potentially stand to benefit from ADHD treatment.
The question “do I have ADHD?” is a scary one to ask yourself, but it’s also one that’s full of possibility. It means you’re potentially on the verge of an insight that will change your life. Here are some steps you can take to shed light on this question.
1. Learn the symptoms
The first step to dealing with the question “is it possible that I have ADHD?” is, naturally, to familiarize yourself with the main symptoms of ADHD.
A good way to do this is by reading through questionnaires that are used to diagnose ADHD. Here are some examples you can use:
Beyond these questionnaires, which were developed and tested by researchers, we’ve put together a more informal list of 50 symptoms that you might find helpful in learning to spot the signs of ADHD.
There are two major categories of ADHD symptoms that the above questionnaires cover: inattentive symptoms and hyperactive/impulsive symptoms.
Inattentive symptoms include symptoms like having trouble sustaining focus, making careless mistakes, and struggling with planning, organization and time management (to name a few). Hyperactive/impulsive symptoms include symptoms like fidgeting, being impatient, and often interrupting others.
The thing to realize about inattentive and hyperactive symptoms is that some people with ADHD have one category of symptoms and not the other. For example, some people with ADHD have only inattentive symptoms. Of course, some people have both inattentive and hyperactive symptoms.
The three lists of ADHD symptoms above are a good starting place, but there are other lists out there too – when you’re just digging into the question of whether you might have ADHD, the more you can learn about the symptoms, the better!
If you find yourself reading lists of ADHD symptoms and thinking “wow, that sounds like me,” that’s a sign that there’s something going on that’s worth further research. To help understand what these symptoms mean for you, however, there are some additional questions you should ask.
2. Identify how the symptoms impact your life
One response people sometimes have to hearing about ADHD symptoms is to say “well, everyone has that sometimes” – as in, “everyone has trouble concentrating sometimes” or “everyone procrastinates sometimes” or “everyone struggles to motivate themselves to do boring tasks sometimes.”
The difference, though, is that people with ADHD experience these things to a degree that it causes them impairment. In other words, if you look at a list of ADHD symptoms and say “yeah, I guess I have those sometimes, so what?” that’s one thing. But if those symptoms are causing real problems in your life, that’s something more serious.
The exact problems these symptoms cause differs from one ADHDer to the next.
A common consequence of ADHD symptoms is underachievement at school or work. Growing up, many a person with ADHD was probably told that they had great potential if they would just “apply themselves” or “try harder.”
This can be a frustrating situation. You have the basic talent and skills to succeed in school or in the workplace, but when it comes down to it, you repeatedly fail to convert this potential into actual, achieved results.
If you haven’t been diagnosed with ADHD, it can be hard to see how ADHD symptoms like inattention, lack of self-control and disorganization are causing this chronic underachievement. Instead, you might simply assume you’re incompetent or lazy.
Another question to ask is whether ADHD symptoms are causing you problems in relationships and social settings. For example, being inattentive to what other people are saying, speaking or acting impulsively, or interrupting others can all spell trouble in social situations. If you’re married, symptoms like avoiding understimulating household tasks and impulsive spending are similarly likely to cause problems.
Sometimes, the impact of ADHD symptoms on people’s lives can be downright dangerous. As it turns out, people with ADHD are both more injury-prone and more likely to get into traffic accidents. Inattention, a hallmark ADHD symptom, probably doesn’t help with either of these things!
The point is that from school to work and relationships to everyday life, what makes ADHD a disorder is that the symptoms have real consequences in people’s lives. So if you recognize yourself in lists of ADHD symptoms, the next step is to ask yourself: what concrete impact are these symptoms having on my life?
3. Look for the same symptoms causing problems in different parts of your life
If you’ve recognized symptoms consistent with ADHD that are interfering with your life, the next question to ask is whether these symptoms show up in multiple aspects of your life. If you find the same symptom causing you problems in different parts of your life, that can be a telltale sign.
For example, if you have trouble focusing at work but don’t have any issues with sustaining attention in other parts of your life, that in itself doesn’t suggest you have ADHD. But if you have trouble focusing at work and other people complain that you don’t pay attention when they’re talking to you and you’ve been involved in a traffic accident because of an inattentive mistake on your part, that’s an indication that you have a pattern of inattention that cuts across different aspects of your life.
The DSM, the diagnostic manual psychiatrists in the United States use to diagnose disorders like ADHD, requires that you experience symptoms in at least two different settings (work, school, home, social situations, etc.) to qualify for an ADHD diagnosis. The idea is that if you only experience a symptom in one setting, it might have more to do with that particular setting, but if you find a symptom causing you trouble repeatedly in different situations, the common thread is, of course, that symptom.
As another example, if you sometimes avoid and procrastinate on tedious household tasks, that fact taken in isolation might just mean you aren’t very conscientious about your domestic responsibilities. However, if you have a strong aversion to understimulating tasks in general that causes you to procrastinate excessively or fail to meet obligations not just at home but at work and in other parts of your everyday life, there might be more going on.
Besides looking at whether the same symptom causes problems in different aspects of your life, you can also ask whether the same symptom has caused problems at different times in your life. Someone with ADHD might find that the same symptoms that caused them to underachieve in school later undermine their productivity at work.
Granted, ADHD symptoms can change depending on the context of time and place. Certain symptoms might be more pronounced in one environment and less of an issue in another environment. But the general idea is that if you have ADHD, you’re likely to notice a pattern where the same problems crop up in different parts of your life. Experiencing symptoms in multiple situations is a requirement for being diagnosed with ADHD, and it’s a strong indication that whatever’s going on is worth a closer look.
4. Find a mental health professional who has experience with ADHD
Do you have ADHD? At the beginning of this article, I mentioned that this is a question only a mental health professional can give a definitive answer to.
If you’ve read through the symptoms of ADHD and suspect you have the condition, the next step is to meet with someone who can do a thorough evaluation. Even if you’ve read through the symptoms and just think you might have ADHD, but you aren’t sure, meeting with a professional is still the way to go.
In particular, you want to find someone who has experience working with psychiatric disorders in general and ADHD in particular. Even if you start by talking to your primary care provider for a referral, the goal is to meet with someone who has in-depth knowledge of ADHD.
The reason for this is that not all medical professionals have equal experience treating ADHD. Unfortunately, many people with ADHD have stories of being misdiagnosed by other doctors before their ADHD was finally recognized. Therefore, you want to be persistent in making sure you have the opportunity to talk to someone who will be able address your symptoms and do a meaningful evaluation of whether you’re likely to have the disorder.
Ultimately, taking the concrete step of talking to a mental health professional to get a decisive answer on whether you have ADHD is more than worth the work. If you think there’s even a chance that ADHD symptoms are affecting your life, you owe it to yourself to get answers. That’s because if you do have ADHD, a diagnosis will give you insight into your life and tools for managing your symptoms, both of which have the potential to change your everyday reality ways that can be difficult to anticipate when you’re struggling with undiagnosed ADHD.
Image: Flickr/Fred Seibert