ADHD affects children and teenagers, and can carry on into adulthood. The most commonly diagnosed mental disorder in children, ADHD can disrupt home and school life by causing hyperactivity, the inability to control impulses, and difficulty in focusing and paying attention. It’s found more in boys than girls, and is usually first noticed during the early school years.
Adults who suffer from ADHD can have difficulties with time management, goal setting, organization, and even keeping a job. They may also experience relationship, self-esteem, and addiction issues.
Many people with ADHD live successful, happy, full lives with the help of treatment. Keep an eye on your symptoms and visit your doctor regularly, because medications and treatments that were successful before can stop working—you may need a change. ADHD symptoms often improve by early adulthood, so you might even be able to stop treatment altogether.
Signs and symptoms in adults
- Chronic lateness and forgetfulness
- Low self-esteem
- Problems at work
- Easily frustrated, difficulty controlling anger
- Lack of organization
- Procrastination and chronic boredom
- Trouble concentrating on reading
- Mood swings and depression
- Relationship problems
- Substance abuse or addiction
Research has shown that medication alone isn’t always enough—psychotherapy can also help an adult with ADHD. The most common approach is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), wherein patients learn new skills for addressing situations in such a manner that changes problematic behaviors and ways of thinking. These skills help lower stress, which can then lessen ADHD symptoms.
Psychotherapy, unlike medication, is time-limited—you see a therapist as long as you’re learning new and helpful strategies. Most people are successfully treated for attention deficit disorder symptoms in less than a year.
How can CBT help adults with ADHD?
In recent years, CBT programs for ADHD have been developed specifically for adults. Those using adaptive cognitions (for example, the self-instruction to “break down complex or unpleasant tasks into manageable parts”) help adults overcome problems with everyday executive functions such as time management, organization and planning. Behavioral skills, such as creating a filing system and using a day planner, are also learned. As patients get better at these executive functions, they begin to think more positively about themselves, so thoughts and behaviors reinforce each other. This in turn helps to encourage other adaptive behaviors.
Other programs focus on stress management, impulse control, and emotional self-regulation, as adults with ADHD are more likely than others to experience anxiety and depression. One extensive national study found that 51% of adults with ADHD suffered with co-morbid anxiety, and 32% with co-morbid depression. Although not designed specifically to address them, treatments that incorporate CBT may be very effective in alleviating the symptoms and impairments associated with ADHD.
How does CBT compare to medication for treating adult ADHD?
Medication has been found in several studies to be effective at treating adult ADHD. Research has shown that CBT can be of help regardless of whether or not the patient is taking medication.
While there haven’t yet been studies directly comparing CBT and medication, clinical experience suggests that the two affect different areas of treatment: Medication helps to control the core symptoms of short attention span, lack of impulse control and distraction, while CBT is more effective at teaching the skills necessary for executive self-management, as well as playing a role in improving emotional and interpersonal self-regulation.