Applying Mindfulness Strategies to Manage ADHD
Even at the best of times, our mind naturally tends to wander, browsing for something more immediately pleasurable to settle on. For those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), staying focused on one thing is a daunting challenge unless the activity is inherently rewarding.
However, in contrast to the inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity that characterize ADHD, individuals with ADHD also have the unique capacity for superfocus on what they love. Unable to control their impulses, they move from one thing to another, until they find something that captivates attention. Then they dive in, with no fear of getting lost in time. Forgetting everything else, they often miss deadlines at work or school. Then the last-minute frenzy required to get back on track exacerbates their already high anxiety.
How Mindfulness Can Help
Many people find that applying strategies from mindfulness practice can help to reduce the inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity characteristics of ADHD. Mindfulness can also help when it comes to putting the strengths of ADHD to work. Recognizing and working with the two contrasting characteristics of inattention and superfocus can be a powerful way to positively manage ADHD symptoms.
Inattention, one of the core traits of ADHD, is a deficit in holding attention on a task. It diminishes our ability to put things together cohesively, to plan and to organize our behavior.
Mindfulness, on the other hand, is simply paying attention to what you do. Being mindful can help to guide your attention to a specific activity, thought or feeling. It begins with recognizing what is happening inside and around you, with openness and curiosity, non-judgmentally. It is the ground zero, so to speak, from which your awareness builds.
Ideally, in that neutral state of mind, you can reflect on and discern habitual thought patterns and reactions, and choose alternatives to change impulsive behavior. Choice is the key. However, for individuals with ADHD, reaching this neutral state can be hard. Beginning with simple strategies drawn from mindfulness practice can help to reduce distractions and draw on the ability to superfocus that most people with ADHD have.
Mindfulness Strategies to Promote Focus
1. Develop attention anchors. Having a tangible way to bring your mind back to the present can help you stay on task. Taking a few deep breaths, clapping your hands or spending a minute pacing can all serve as ways to re-anchor yourself in the present. Rather than trying to stop your attention from drifting, give yourself permission to wander off any time, enjoy a short diversion, and then use your anchor to bring yourself back to the present before the distraction derails you from your task.
2. Be aware of your needs. Stepping back and reframing a problem can help us get a fresh look at difficult issues. Often those with ADHD need to change the way they are approaching a challenging task. For example, if you have difficulty in understanding verbal instructions, ask for or use visual or written directions. If you find it hard to get back on task when interrupted, hang a do not disturb sign on your desk, cubicle or door. Identify your best working style and invite those around you to support it.
3. Pause before you act. A short time delay between the occurrence of an idea and acting on that thought can reduce impulsivity and hyperactivity by creating a mental buffer zone. People with ADHD tend to generate many ideas and have difficulty following through. They end up with many half-finished projects, bouncing from one idea to the next. By taking a short timeout, you will find that you become more discriminating about acting on your ideas, which makes you more likely to complete the things you do start.
Mindfulness Strategies That Capitalize on ADHD Traits
1. Take advantage of superfocus. People with ADHD have the ability to superfocus on activities that interest them. This ability can be an asset if you can harness it. When you find yourself in surperfocus mode, enjoy what you are doing to the fullest, but be sure to stop on a positive note. This can be hard, because we have a tendency to drive ourselves to exhaustion in this mode. Instead, try to stop when you are feeling good about yourself. Doing so creates a positive behavior pattern that is inherently rewarding and will increase your feelings of control while capitalizing on your asset.
2. Use your strengths as an entry point. We all have responsibilities, whether for work, school or family. It can be very hard for people with ADHD to initiate activities that they have little interest in or find difficult, like certain types of homework or chores. Using your strengths can help to make initiation less difficult. For example, if you are a visual thinker, begin a homework project by creating the visual aspects of a report first and then writing the background once you get “warmed up.” Or make a visual map of a project to help you organize your thoughts before you begin.
3. Use time to your advantage. Some people with ADHD work well in big chunks. Once they begin an activity, they are most productive if they can work for several hours uninterrupted. Others find that the pressure of a time limit helps them focus. For example, Elton John says that he never spends more than 40 minutes on composing a song because beyond that he gets bored. By knowing the limits of his attention, he can avoid the problems that arise from boredom, including distraction, poor productivity and a loss of creativity.
Being mindful doesn’t necessarily mean that you will always be focused on the task at hand. Instead, it means that you are actively working to be aware of where your attention is and discovering ways to deliberately guide it to where you would like it to be. For individuals with ADHD, mindfulness can be a powerful strategy for engaging with the mind and getting to know ourselves better. Until we understand how we work best, it is impossible to begin developing strategies that work for us.