Why Can't I Focus?

by Eileen Bailey Health Writer

Women are notoriously the nurturers of our society. They care for their children, their husbands, manage households, organize activities and, in many cases, hold down full time jobs outside the home. Any one of these tasks can be overwhelming at times and require the ability to multitask and juggle different aspects of life at one time.

ADHD has been historically known as a male disorder, with hyperactivity being one of the most well known symptoms. But often, women are not hyperactive. Inattention, being easily distracted and being disorganized are key symptoms of ADHD in women. Instead of being diagnosed with ADHD, women may be thought of as being spacey or scattered, of being a daydreamer, or of being incompetent.

According to an article, "Common Symptoms of ADD and ADHD in Women" by Terry Matlen, there are a number of symptoms of ADHD in women that may not be considered typical symptoms, may not appear in literature about ADHD and may cause simple tasks to become overwhelming. Some of these characteristics include:

  • Hypersensitivity

  • Low self-esteem

  • Sensitivity to criticism

  • Poor sense of time

  • Emotionally sensitive, especially during hormonal changes

  • Speaking without thinking

  • Appearing self-absorbed

  • Addictive behaviors, including eating, shopping and television (or internet surfing)

  • Difficulty completing boring tasks, such as housework and laundry

  • Clumsiness

  • Difficulty waking up in the morning

In addition, menopause and other hormonal changes can exacerbate some symptoms of ADHD, such as forgetfulness, emotional sensitivity, word retrieval, and fatigue.

Women with ADHD may spend an enormous amount of time and energy each day trying to compensate for their lack of organization and inability to focus and complete tasks. Because of this, women may end up with anxiety or depression or suffer from low self-esteem.

Today, the stress in a woman's life is higher than in past generations. Women previously, more often than not, stayed home with the children. Caring for the family was their main responsibility. And while that in itself can be an overwhelming responsibility, it becomes even more so when trying to work full time outside the home as well. Women, more than men, need to keep track of children's routines, know who needs new clothes or new shoes, manage schoolwork including keeping track of upcoming tests reports and extra activities, talk with teachers, doctor's appointments, planning meals, grocery shopping, keeping up with laundry and other household chores. These tasks are normally completed without structure and without a support system. ADHD, therefore, has become more of a problem today than in previous times.

ADHD does not show up the same in each person. It can be mild, moderate or severe. It can cause problems in school, in college, in work or may not interfere until after a woman has had children.

Diagnosis of ADHD in Women

Many times, women with ADHD have gone undiagnosed for most of their life. Without hyperactivity, symptoms of inattention and distractibility can go unnoticed. Women may be considered shy and withdrawn or throughout school they may have been daydreamers. Often, a diagnosis comes after their child is diagnosed. While completing questionnaires on behaviors their child may be exhibiting, a mother may begin to see similar characteristics in herself.

A diagnosis can help in understanding why a woman feels so overwhelmed. It can explain why there has been a lack of focus, an inability to complete projects or follow through on tasks.

Understanding there is a medical reason for the traits that have caused so much difficulty throughout their lives can help. A diagnosis provides validation and can lift the guilt so many women with ADHD have carried around for so long. A diagnosis aids in understanding and can help to pinpoint specific areas of difficulty.

Treatment for Women with ADHD

Treatment for women with ADHD is no different than treating anyone with ADHD. Medication, behavior modification programs, therapy and coaching all have been found to be helpful. Treatment, however, should be specific to the individual and should target the areas that are causing the most problems.

Medication helps to reduce symptoms of ADHD. It helps to increase focus and attention and decrease impulsiveness and hyperactivity. Today there are many different medications available to treat ADHD.

Medication alone, however, is not the answer. Behavior modification can help to cope with and manage symptoms on a daily basis. Simple behavioral changes, such as using a "to do" list or placing a basket inside the front door to deposit keys, cell phones and other items are examples of behavior modifications. Some people choose not to use medications and instead incorporate changes into their daily life. Understanding ADHD and the specific areas of difficulty can help you to develop modifications.

Therapy helps in resolving issues of low self-esteem, worthlessness or can help to improve anxiety and depression that may have developed as a result of undiagnosed ADHD. Many women with ADHD carry around guilt and a sense of failure because of so many years of not understanding why they did (or did not) do certain things. Therapy can help a woman work through these issues. Psychotherapists may also be able to help in developing behavioral changes or help in resolving relationship issues that may be a result of undiagnosed ADHD.

Coaching is another alternative. Many coaches specialize in working with adults with ADHD and help the individual to improve areas of their live, one at a time. For example, a coach may help a client work on organization or time management. Coaches can also help with education, teaching clients why ADHD impacts various aspects of their life. This understanding can help in developing new behaviors.

Being diagnosed with ADHD is the first step in learning to manage and control the symptoms of ADHD but it is also large part of acceptance and understanding that behaviors once thought of as failures and deficits are part of a larger picture and is no longer seen as character deficits. Symptoms of ADHD can be seen as a legitimate reason for certain behaviors and with understanding and treatment can be managed, allowing the positive traits of ADHD, such as creativity and spontaneity to increase your feelings of self-worth.

For more information:

ADHD in Women


"Common Symptoms of ADD and ADHD in Women", 2008, Terry Matlen, ADHDCentral.com

"Feeling Overwhelmed", 1998, Kathleen G. Nadeau, PhD, ADDA

"Why Can't I Concentrate?", 2009, June 3, Margaret Renk, CNN Health

Eileen Bailey
Meet Our Writer
Eileen Bailey

Eileen Bailey is an award-winning author of six books on health and parenting topics and freelance writer specializing in health topics including ADHD, Anxiety, Sexual Health, Skin Care, Psoriasis and Skin Cancer. Her wish is to provide readers with relevant and practical information on health conditions to help them make informed decisions regarding their health care.