How to Stop Negative Thinking: Help for ADHD Adults Battling Defeatism

Five expert strategies for battling ADHD-related defeatism and negative thinking.


Filed Under: ADHD and Depression, Self Esteem,
Fighting Depression ADDitude Magazine

Many ADDers exhibit learned helplessness.

Depression is common among people with attention deficit disorder (ADD ADHD). In fact, people with ADD are three times more likely than non-ADDers to be depressed.

It’s easy to understand why; you’re unlikely to feel good about yourself if forgetfulness and disorganization cause you to feel less than competent at home or work.

But why does poor self-esteem continue to plague adults with ADD even after during their ADHD treatment? To answer that question, let’s go back to the mid-1960s, when University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman conducted pioneering research on a psychological condition now known as “learned helplessness.”

Seligman trained a group of dogs to associate a particular sound with an impending electrical shock. Initially, the dogs were restrained, so, even though they knew a shock was coming, there was no way to avoid it. (Thank goodness such cruelty is now out of vogue!) Later, even though their restraints had been removed, the dogs did nothing to avoid the shock. They had been convinced that it was unavoidable. In other words, they had learned to be helpless.

ADHD adults are not dogs, obviously. But many ADDers — particularly those whose diagnosis comes late in life — exhibit learned helplessness. They’ve spent so many years failing to live up to their potential, at work, at home, and in their personal relationships, that they assume they always will fail.

That was certainly true for my client Mike, who worked in sales. For years, he had been told that he was not working up to his potential. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t set priorities or keep up with paperwork, and he missed meetings. He was afraid he would lose his job. Even after beginning treatment for ADHD, he just knew that he would continue to fail.

Mike was experiencing learned helplessness. So I urged him to talk to a physician about antidepressant medication (often a good option for severely depressed people) and suggested a few strategies to help him cast off his chronic pessimism. Here they are:

  • Stop negative thinking. Mistaken beliefs about yourself are major contributors to depression. Stop beating yourself up with thoughts like, “I’m a failure” or “Things will never change.” How do you do that? Each time you think ill of yourself, try to replace the negative thought with one or more positive thoughts. Sit down for a few minutes and take inventory of your strong points. Are you unusually creative? Are you a good storyteller? Can you make a yummy apple pie? Jot down everything you can think of on an index card, and carry it with you in your wallet or purse.
  • Choose friends carefully. Spend more time with people who are supportive and encouraging. Do your best to avoid “toxic” people.
  • Get more exercise. Physical activity fights depression by boosting levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Exercise for at least 15 minutes, three times a week (ideally, you’ll get 30 minutes of exercise, five days a week).
  • Seek the sunlight. Spending 15 minutes in direct sunlight can have a big impact on your mood.
  • Don’t wait to celebrate. Give yourself a pat on the back for any progress toward your goals. Invite a friend to dinner. Get a massage. Pick up a new DVD.

Mike is no longer depressed. His office is organized, and he is on time for meetings. He no longer worries about getting fired; recently, he was publicly recognized for his outstanding achievements at work. All this came about because he had the courage to believe that success was possible.

Are you depressed? Be like Mike!


This article comes from the April/May 2007 issue of ADDitude.

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