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?

Lidia Zylowska, M.D., on using ADHD medication and alternative therapies to help focus and attention. ADDitude Magazine Lidia Zylowska, M.D., on using medication and alternative therapies to help wandering minds pay attention.

The key is always being aware of where your attention is focused while you are engaged in routine activities.

Lidia Zylowska, M.D.
   
 

How to Practice Mindful Awareness

Just sit down in comfortable place where you won't be disturbed and spend five minutes focusing on the sensation of breathing in and breathing out -- pay attention to how it feels when your stomach rises and falls.

 
   

What's the core issue of attention deficit disorder (ADD ADHD)? For many adults and children with ADHD, it's paying attention. So it stands to reason that some kind of attention training would be just what the doctor ordered.

Well, there is such a thing. It's been around for thousands of years, and it's now a hot research topic at the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center. Recently, ADDitude's Carl Sherman, Ph.D., spoke with psychiatrist Lidia Zylowska, M.D., who heads the center's ADHD program.

“Mindful awareness” sounds spiritual. Is it?
Mindful awareness, or mindfulness, is part of many religious traditions. For example, Buddhism features a form of mindfulness meditation known as vipassana.

But mindfulness is not necessarily religious or spiritual. It involves paying close attention to your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations; in other words, developing a greater awareness of what’s going on with you from moment to moment.

It can be used as a tool to foster wellness, especially psychological well-being. Similar techniques have been used to lower blood pressure and to manage chronic pain, anxiety, and depression.

How can mindfulness help people with AD/HD?
It improves your ability to control your attention. In other words, it teaches you to pay attention to paying attention. Mindful awareness can also make people more aware of their emotional state, so they won’t react impulsively. That's often a real problem for people with ADHD.

Researchers have talked about using mindfulness for ADHD for some time, but the question was always whether people with ADHD could really do it, especially if they're hyperactive.

How does your center teach the practice of mindful awareness?
We've tried to make the technique user-friendly. Our eight-week program consists of weekly two-and-a-half-hour training sessions, plus at-home practice. We start with five-minute, seated meditations at home each day, and gradually work up to 15 or 20 minutes. We also give the option to practice longer or to substitute mindful walking for the seated meditation.

We use visual aids, like a picture of a cloudy sky, to explain the basic concepts, because people with AD/HD tend to be visual learners. The blue sky represents the space of awareness, and the clouds represent all the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that pass by.

That's it? You do something for just a few minutes a day, and it makes your AD/HD better?
Not quite. The meditation sessions are important practice, but the key is to use mindfulness throughout your daily life, always being aware of where your attention is focused while you are engaged in routine activities. For example, you might notice while you drive that your attention wanders to an errand you must run later that day. Lots of people practice mindfulness while eating. Once you get used to checking in with yourself and your body, you can apply the technique anytime you start to feel overwhelmed.

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Can I learn to practice mindfulness on my own?
Yes, the basic practice is very simple. Just sit down in a comfortable place where you won't be disturbed and spend five minutes focusing on the sensation of breathing in and breathing out—pay attention to how it feels when your stomach rises and falls. Soon, you may notice that you're thinking of something else—your job or some noise you just heard or your plans for later in the day. Label these thoughts as "thinking," and refocus your attention on your breath.

Do this daily. Every couple of weeks, increase the length of time you spend on the exercise—10 minutes, 15, up to 20 or more if you feel you can. Try the same thing throughout each day, focusing on your breath for a few minutes as you walk from place to place, or when you're stopped at a red light or sitting at the computer.

What if you just can't keep your mind focused? Will the exercise still do any good?
It’s the nature of the mind to be distracted. Mindful awareness isn’t about staying with the breath, but about returning to the breath. That’s what enhances your ability to focus.

And this emphasis on re-shifting your attention, of outwitting the mind's natural tendency to wander, is what makes us think this technique could be especially helpful to someone who has AD/HD.


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

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