Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Adult ADHD

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on September 13, 2023
3 min read

If you have adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), you probably take medicine to ease your symptoms. But meds don’t always work. That’s where cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) comes in.

CBT is a type of talk therapy that can help with challenges you face in school, work, and relationships. With or without meds, CBT can help you feel better and make day-to-day life easier.

CBT comes from the idea that many problems start with false or negative thoughts.

Fox example:

  • I messed up a couple of times, so I’ll always mess up.
  • No one thinks I’m any good.
  • Everything that can go wrong will go wrong.
  • Even small problems are a big deal.
  • Things should be better than they are.
  • I don’t like my job, so I’ll probably get fired.
  • I’ll never be as good as my friends/co-workers/partner/spouse.

CBT helps you see how negative thoughts create obstacles in your life. You learn to replace these false beliefs with true ones. A positive outlook makes it easier to do the things you want and need to do. This creates a cycle where you’re happier, feel better about yourself, and get more done.

In the first few sessions, you and your therapist would discuss what you want to work on. Usually these are things you deal with in your day-to-day life. For example, you might want to learn how to make plans, manage time, or finish projects.

You’ll agree on an action plan to help you reach your goals. Plan on some homework between sessions. It’ll help you practice your new skills in real life.

For example, if you’re always late, your therapist might ask you to wear a watch and put a clock in every room in your house. This is almost certain to make you more aware of time, but it’s also important to figure out if your thoughts play a part. Maybe you think, ‘I’m always late; no one expects me to be on time.’ But that’s not true. And it’s an idea you can change.

Experts say people with ADHD spend a lot of time “putting out fires.” The goal of CBT is to change your thoughts and actions so those “fires” never start.

It’s important to note that CBT is one of the best treatments around for anxiety and depression -- problems that are common in adults with ADHD.

Most people see progress after 12 to 15 sessions or about 3 or 4 months. You might want to go longer, though. When you spend more time in treatment, it’s easier to get new habits to stick.

Many therapists use CBT, but not all of them treat ADHD. Start by getting a current list of therapists from your insurance company. Then ask your doctors if they can recommend someone from the list.

You may also want to:

  • Call a nearby medical center or college psychology department and ask for referrals.
  • Check the Psychology Today website. It lists therapists by state.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask friends and family for suggestions.

Once you’ve found a therapist, ask questions. Be sure they have experience with ADHD. They also must be a good fit for you. If the two of you don’t click, the treatment may not be as helpful.

Many people find they do best with both meds and CBT. But you might not want to take medicine or might not like the side effects. In that case, CBT could work by itself. Talk it over with your doctor.