Mindful Awareness: Treating ADHD with Meditation

Research suggests that regular meditation can train the ADHD brain to better concentrate and hold focus. Could this alternative treatment help you?

Attention Training, Part 2

It sounds logical, but just how effective is it?
We just completed a study involving 25 adults and eight adolescents, half of whom had the combined [both inattentive and hyperactive] form of AD/HD, and the results were very promising. We observed significant improvements in both inattention and hyperactivity.

In cognitive tests, the participants got better at staying focused, even when different things were competing for their attention. Many of them also felt less anxious and depressed by the end of study.

But keep in mind that this study is only a first step into understanding the effectiveness of this approach. More research is still needed to confirm these early findings.

Can children practice mindful awareness?
There seems to be a growing consensus that that's the case, although the program would have to be modified for young children. In fact, there is one mindfulness program that's designed just for preschool and elementary school children [InnerKids.org], and it has been quite successful. The program has yet to be used specifically for children who have AD/HD, but we plan to do future studies with them, and with AD/HD adolescents and adults.

What did the study participants think of mindful awareness? Did they think it worked?
Most stuck with the program, and, when asked to rate their overall satisfaction with it, they rated it an average of nine out of 10. And the participants' comments were mostly positive. Adults said things like, "I feel that I better understand what goes on in my head, and I'm less critical of myself, less reactive, and more forgiving of myself."

One teenager said, "Now, whenever I feel my mind wandering, I'm able to realize that it's wandering. I can let go of the feeling and stop giving in to distractions."

Does scientific evidence support the effect of mindful awareness on the brain?
Researchers have shown that, compared with people who don't meditate, long-time meditators have different EEG and MRI patterns, particularly in the brain's frontal region—the region that is involved with AD/HD. Another study found a rise in the level of the neurotransmitter dopamine during meditative states. Lowered levels of dopamine have been found regularly in people with AD/HD.

Is there any evidence that mindfulness can reduce one's need for AD/HD medication?
We didn't specifically measure this effect in our study because we did not manage our participants' medications. Only about half of our participants were taking stimulant medication, and the benefits they reported were similar to those reported by participants who were not taking stimulants. We hope that, by practicing mindfulness, one can learn to better self-regulate and, over time, lower the need for medication. But we need to study this question further.

Where can I learn more about mindful awareness?
If you'd like an expert to guide you through the process, visit the “Mindful Meditations” page at UCLA.edu. There, you can download three mp3s recorded by Diana Winston, the mindfulness trainer from our program. In each, she'll lead you through a mindful awareness exercise.

There are also several good books on mindfulness meditation. I recommend Tibetan Wisdom for Western Life, by Joseph Arpaia, M.D., and Lobsang Rapgay, Ph.D., (Beyond Words Publishing) and Full Catastrophe Living, by Jon Kabat-Zinn (Piatkus Books).

The Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts has been offering mindfulness-based stress reduction classes for more than two decades. You can find a directory of trainers on its Web site. The UMass program is designed for stress-related conditions and is not adapted to AD/HD, but it has a similar eight-week structure and is a good way to learn the technique.


This article comes from the August/September 2006 issue of ADDitude.

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