What Can Trigger ADHD in Adults? 6 Factors to Look Out For (2023)

The last two years have been a period of prolonged stress and isolation for many people, leading to an increase in restlessness, irritability, inattention, and other symptoms that resemble attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). As a result, a significant number of previously asymptomatic adults have begun to consider, or even actively pursue, an ADHD diagnosis.

If you’re among those wondering if they have adult ADHD, you may be questioning if it’s possible to develop an attentional disorder as an adult, and if so, what triggers it. Because many of the symptoms of ADHD are non-specific, it's easy to confuse them with the effects of other prevalent disorders, such as depression, anxiety, poor sleep quality, and various physical ailments. Indeed, by some estimates, assessing ADHD based solely on self-reported symptoms yields a “false positive” rate of nearly 80%. Moreover, researchers know that the more stressed, anxious, or depressed a person is, the more pronounced his or her ADHD-like symptoms become.

To better understand your personal situation, it’s crucial to educate yourself about late-onset ADHD and take a close look at your lifestyle before addressing your concerns with a medical professional. Discussing your symptoms and history with a doctor or therapist who specializes in ADHD treatment is the only way to accurately diagnose adult ADHD.

What is ADHD?

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects multiple executive functions, including planning, organization, impulse control, the ability to pay attention, and emotional regulation. Current estimates suggest that ADHD affects just under 10% of children and approximately 4.4% percent of adults in North America.

Contrary to popular belief, ADHD doesn’t resolve on its own during adulthood. Once a person has ADHD, it will always be present in some capacity, even if the individual learns to cope with the condition very effectively. It’s also common for ADHD symptoms to change over time and, in some cases, become less readily recognizable. Signs of ADHD in adults include:

  1. Being easily overwhelmed; e.g., panicking about routine work obligations or day-to-day commitments.
  2. Becoming hyper-focused on projects or specific areas of interest.
  3. Having a poor sense of time.
  4. Chronic problems with managing stress and/or strong emotions.
  5. Extreme sensitivity to rejection (a condition known as rejection-sensitive dysphoria).
  6. Difficulty structuring and prioritizing tasks.

Can You Develop ADHD as an Adult?

Experts aren't sure if ADHD can arise spontaneously during adulthood. Though some research suggests that adult-onset ADHD may be a distinct syndrome that differs from childhood ADHD in its severity and characteristics, current diagnostic guidelines require symptoms to be present before age 12. However, not being diagnosed with ADHD during childhood doesn't necessarily mean you don't have the condition. ADHD remains chronically under-diagnosed, particularly in girls, so it's possible to live with "silent" ADHD for many years before a challenging event or lifestyle change causes the symptoms to become fully evident.

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Below, we’ll examine some of the factors that can reveal latent ADHD symptoms in adults (or mimic ADHD in those who don’t have the condition).

6 Things That Can Trigger ADHD in Adults

1. Poor sleep habits.

Insufficient sleep has been declared a “public health epidemic” by the CDC and other leading medical experts around the world. In North America, an estimated one in three adults aren’t getting the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep each night, and approximately two in ten adults suffer from a sleep disorder.

In addition to being associated with serious long-term health consequences (including a higher risk of developing diabetes, cancer, and heart disease), chronic sleep deprivation drastically impairs normal cognitive functioning. Sleeping less than six hours per night leads to lower alertness and concentration and interferes with working memory. It may also make you more impulsive and irritable.

If you regularly sacrifice sleep in favour of other activities, it’s important to be aware that these cognitive deficits exist even if you don’t “feel tired.” Over time, chronically sleep-deprived individuals get used to functioning on insufficient sleep, which causes them to underestimate the impact it’s having on their life. However, research shows that they continue to experience reduced cognitive performance and mood symptoms that emulate ADHD. Moreover, because ongoing sleep deprivation damages the brain, chronically poor sleep could potentially make mild, latent ADHD more severe in adults, thereby triggering the full onset of the condition.

2. Stressful life events.

Stress is thought to be one of the leading triggers of ADHD episodes in adults, and it can also cause ADHD-like symptoms in those who don’t have the condition. This happens because sustained anxiety decreases working memory performance, making it harder to retain new information and pay attention. Stress can cause (or worsen) insomnia, too, compounding these negative cognitive changes.

3. Medical conditions.

Many different medical conditions, such as thyroid disease, hypoglycemia, sleep apnea (and other sleep disorders), seizure disorders, and untreated diabetes can cause symptoms that mimic or worsen ADHD. As such, it’s crucial to ask your doctor for a complete physical exam before you attribute mood or cognitive changes solely to ADHD.

4. Medication side-effects.

Along with their desired effects, many medications produce unwanted side effects, which may include changes in mood, memory, and cognition. This is true for both mental health medications (e.g., certain atypical antidepressants and antipsychotics) and medications intended to treat physical ailments, including corticosteroids, cholesterol-lowering drugs, beta-blockers, anticholinergics, and sleep aids, among others.

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If you suspect your ADHD symptoms have increased since starting a new medication, talk to your doctor. He or she may be able to offer you an alternative drug or help you find ways to cope with the mental and/or emotional side-effects of the one you’re taking.

5. Nutritional deficiencies.

Iron-deficiency and vitamin-deficiency anemia can both cause confusion, forgetfulness, and personality changes. If you’re experiencing thinking and memory difficulties along with extreme fatigue, heartbeat irregularities, pale skin, weakness, dizziness, or other symptoms suggesting a nutrient deficiency, ask your doctor about blood testing.

If you already know you have ADHD, be aware that ADHD medications are linked to a higher risk of experiencing vitamin and mineral deficiencies, possibly because these medications suppress the appetite. If your ADHD symptoms continue to get worse despite adherence to a treatment plan, nutrient deficiencies may be to blame.

6. Too much screen time.

Excessive screen time isn’t just bad for children; there’s mounting evidence that it disrupts learning and attention in adults, too. Screen time harms the attention span directly, by encouraging us to cycle between multiple distractions rather than focusing on a single task, and indirectly, by reducing sleep quality and quantity.

Getting Help For Adult ADHD

Regardless of whether your symptoms are related to ADHD, stress, or another mental health condition, there are many self-help strategies you can use to regain your mental balance. Some tips for improving memory, concentration, and mood stability include:

1. Practice good sleep hygiene.

In addition to setting aside at least eight hours for sleep, experts recommend turning off backlit devices two hours before bedtime to promote adequate melatonin release. Try to go to bed around the same time every night, even on weekends, and limit daytime naps to half an hour or less.

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2. Use screens sensibly.

As a general rule, you should limit yourself to less than two hours of screen time per day (outside of working hours). Likewise, when you use an electronic device, try to avoid multitasking: Use one app at a time, without switching between them, and don’t flip between multiple tabs on your web browser.

3. Eat a nutritious, balanced diet.

Eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein boosts cognitive function by preventing nutrient deficiencies and regulating blood sugar levels. This way of eating provides consistent energy throughout the day, which is crucial to sustaining focus.

4. Exercise regularly.

Studies show that physical activity improves cognitive performance both in individuals with ADHD and those without the condition. Furthermore, exercise helps alleviate anxiety and depression by lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol and increasing the production of dopamine and serotonin.

5. Be mindful.

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Mindfulness involves continually bringing one’s attention back to the present moment in order to recognize and process emotions. Proactively managing thoughts and feelings in this way trains the brain to filter out distractions and control unhelpful impulses, thereby creating a significant improvement in ADHD symptoms.

6. See a mental health professional.

Whether you want to discuss a potential ADHD diagnosis, manage a flare-up of symptoms, or get help dealing with anxiety or depression, therapy can be an incredibly valuable resource. A therapist can help you navigate stressful events and life transitions, form more supportive relationships, and better understand your cognitive profile and emotional makeup. Even if you don’t have ADHD (or another underlying condition), therapy can help you become more resilient, grounded, and connected with those around you – All of which are key predictors of optimal health, performance, and quality of life.

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