Many people think of rowdy kids who can’t sit still when they think of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. But the fact is, symptoms of ADHD can linger into adulthood. In fact, many adults with ADHD don’t realize that many of the problems they face, including staying organized or being on time, are symptoms of adult ADHD.
While ADHD medicines are effective, they may not be enough. To use a phrase
popular among ADHD specialists, pills don’t build skills. Even with medication,
a person may still be struggling with the residual effects of adult ADHD - the
disorganized habits, the low self-esteem. Therapy can address some of these key
“With the ADHD medication as a foundation, it’s the psychosocial treatments
that can come in and finish the job,” says J. Russell Ramsay, PhD, co-director
of the University of Pennsylvania’s Adult ADHD Treatment and Research
So how does ADHD therapy differ from traditional therapy? And how do you
find a therapist? WebMD turned to the experts to get the details.
Treating ADHD With Therapy
Therapy for ADHD tends to be pretty different from typical therapy. Ramsay
says that traditional, open-ended talk therapies often don’t work for people
with ADHD. Why?
Adults with ADHD often need very practical, concrete help. While delving
into personal issues can still be important, it’s the symptoms of ADHD, such as
disorganization and forgetfulness, that are really interfering with their
lives. “What people with ADHD really need to focus on is improving their
functioning at work, in school, and in their relationships,” says Ramsay.
Ramsay stresses that most people with ADHD already know what they should be
doing. “A guy with ADHD knows that it’s a problem that he’s always late on his
taxes,” Ramsay says. “And he knows the solution, too -- stop procrastinating.”
What he lacks is the set of skills that will help him get organized. ADHD
therapy is typically about learning those skills and finding ways to overcome
the impediments that ADHD sets in your path.
Although there haven’t been many studies of psychosocial treatments for
ADHD, results have been promising. For instance, one 2006 study showed that
medication combined with therapy eased the symptoms of ADHD, improved
functioning, and reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression. A 2004 study found
that psychosocial treatments were especially beneficial in people who only had
a partial response to medication.
So what could psychosocial ADHD treatments do for you? They could help
Get organized. Psychosocial treatments focus on various ways to
reduce the chaos in your life. People with ADHD need visual and auditory cues
to remember things, says Goodman. He gets his patients to use certain tools
systematically - ranging from Post-It Notes to PDAs - to help them function
better. A therapist might have very specific recommendations, right down to how
you organize your closet and where you put your keys when you get home from
work. That level of specificity can be a huge help with adult ADHD.
Change your habits. Psychosocial treatments help people identify
specific problematic behaviors and change them. You might learn ways to manage
yourself, like using rewards as an incentive to get specific tasks done. Play
that game of computer solitaire after you answer your boss’s
Understand your condition. A therapist can help you understand how
adult ADHD has affected your life. Once people realize that many of their
problems are due to a medical condition and not some personal failing, they
start to feel much better about themselves.
Challenge negative beliefs. Over the years, people with ADHD tend to
have accumulated a lot of self-doubt. They come to think that many tasks are
beyond them and give up. Therapy can help them question these self-limiting
beliefs and overcome them.
Improve social skills. People who have grown up with ADHD may lack
some important social skills. They might have poor communication or a tendency
to interrupt when someone else is talking. ADHD therapy can help people learn
how to pick up on social cues and read people better.
Repair relationships. ADHD in adults doesn’t only affect the person
with the diagnosis - it affects his or her spouse, children, and friends.
Sometimes, ADHD therapy can include other family members. It can be a good way
to get them to better understand your condition and teach them ways to help.
Family members may also have a lot of built-up anger toward a loved one with
undiagnosed ADHD. Therapy can help them see that your forgetfulness isn’t a
sign of self-centeredness. Instead, it’s a symptom of a condition that
you’re learning how to control.
Treat other conditions. The odds that a person with ADHD also has
another psychiatric condition are about 40%, says Goodman. “Rates of depression
and anxiety are strikingly high in adults with ADHD,” says McCracken. “Those
conditions really need therapy.”