The Emotional Side

Stuck in the SPIN Cycle? How to Break Free

Frustrated and stalled instead of making progress in managing ADHD? These expert strategies will get you unstuck when you’re in an ADHD rut.

row of washing machines representing Dr. Ned Hallowell's SPIN cycle - and how to get unstuck
row of washing machines representing Dr. Ned Hallowell's SPIN cycle - and how to get unstuck

I often compare the ADD mind to Niagara Falls, both wonders of gargantuan movement and energy. The trick to making use of the energy in Niagara Falls, and to doing well in life with ADD, is building a hydroelectric plant. You need to hook up the energy to some contraption that can turn it into a useful product.

After an initial burst of improvement at the beginning of ADD treatment, there is usually a leveling off. This may be followed by long, frustrating periods during which the person with ADD—or the entire family—feels stuck, spinning their wheels instead of making the progress they feel they should be making.

When the diagnosis is not made until late adolescence or adulthood, prolonged periods of going nowhere can stultify treatment. As one woman wrote to me, “I know you know this already, but there are some people who stubbornly resist help, who are caught in patterns too deeply rooted in the subconscious to be freed from. Sometimes I wonder if I am one of those. So don’t bet your money on this horse. Remember, you can’t save everyone, kid.”

I call these periods of being stuck “spinning,” based on the acronym SPIN: S stands for shame; P stands for pessimism and negativity; I stands for isolation; N stands for no creative, productive outlet.

Getting unstuck often depends on reversing the influence of some or all of the components of SPIN. You can do this with a therapist, a coach, a support group, a spouse, a friend, a pastor, a relative, or all of the above.

[Download: Rein In Intense ADHD Emotions]

Put Shame in Its Place

The older you get, the more shame you are apt to feel if your ADD is undiagnosed. You feel ashamed of what a mess your pocketbook is always in. You feel ashamed of how late you usually are, no matter how hard you try not to be. One of the main reasons adults with ADD can’t take pleasure in their own success and creations is shame. They feel too ashamed to feel good.

You need to talk through or “confess” what you take to be your sins. As you do this, you will discover that they are not nearly as bad in the eyes of others as they are in yours.

Work to override your feelings of shame. When you shake hands, make eye contact and give a strong handshake, even if you feel second-rate. When someone doesn’t call you back, assume they’re too busy and give them another call. If they do find you lacking and reject you, don’t internalize their judgment. Look elsewhere.

Divorce the people in your life who disapprove of you or don’t like you for who you are. Get rid of the harsh fifth-grade schoolteachers in your life—and within yourself.

[Life Is Too Short for Shame]

Trump Pessimism with Success

Pessimism and negativity block your growth at every turn. If every time you have a new idea or go to meet a new person or begin to play a game, you think, “Why bother? This won’t work out well,” you reduce the chances that anything will work out well.

One remedy for pessimism is to achieve some successes, but in order to gain those successes, you may need to overcome your pessimism. Sounds like a Catch-22, doesn’t it? But there is a way out of it. Control what you think and work on dismantling your pessimism. Cognitive therapy will help you change your thoughts. In addition to that, I often recommend that ADDers read The Art of Living, by the Roman philosopher Epictetus, written nearly 2,000 years ago.

Epictetus was a slave, and was beaten and poorly fed. In response to his terrible life, he refused to intensify his suffering by adding to it with wretched thoughts. He was so persuasive in teaching others his methods that he was released from slavery and became renowned as a great philosopher. I highly recommend this slim book—fewer than a hundred pages—to you.

Stay Connected

Isolation is often the by-product of shame, pessimism, and negativity. Isolation can lead to depression, toxic anxiety, and drug and alcohol abuse.

If you find yourself increasingly alone, do all you can to counteract it. You may feel that all you want to do is hide. Try as hard as you can not to let yourself do that. Talk to a friend. Go see a therapist. Pick up the phone and call someone you trust. Don’t justify your isolation to yourself as it happens. Don’t say, “Those people are a bunch of hypocrites,” “I just want to stay at home and relax,” or “I need my down time.”

Of course, isolation is better than the company of nasty, disapproving, shame-inducing witches and warlocks. So, as you try to reconnect, do so judiciously. One friend makes for a good start. Have a regular lunch date or squash game.

Create Some Joy

All of us do better when we are creatively and productively engaged. You don’t have to write a poem or paint a portrait. Almost any activity that you feel good about can become a productive outlet. Cooking a meal certainly can be, as can doing laundry.

How can laundry be fulfilling? By turning it into a form of play, by turning it into a game. Children show us how to do this all the time. If you are willing to be a little silly and let yourself go, you can turn doing your laundry into something fun.
Adults with ADD who stagnate after starting treatment need to find some creative outlet to get going again. Everyone does better with such outlets, but for people with ADD, they are essential for a fulfilling life.

[Silence Your Harshest Critic — Yourself]

From Delivered from Distraction, by EDWARD M. HALLOWELL, M.D., and JOHN J. RATEY, M.D. Copyright © 2005 by Edward M. Hallowell, M.D., and John J. Ratey, M.D. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House. All rights reserved.

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  1. This is why I love Dr. Hallowell so much! It’s exactly what I needed to read today. I was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 28, and I’ve lived with a lot of shame. I’m still very much working through it, so articles like these are just what I need. Thank you.

  2. While these recommendations seem reasonable, it is obvious that the author writes from theory and not experience, is not ADD himself.

    We need not feel shame. We are simply cut from different cloth. The culture is created by and for the neurotypical and therefore deems them “normal.” and us somehow deficient. We need to stop comparing ourselves to them and stop trying to be like them by “correcting” our “deficiencies.”

    Those with psychopathic brains often assume positions of power and control within our culture and become quite “successful” but virtually no one urges people to take drugs and therapy to become more psychopathic.

    Ours is a difficult path through the dominant culture, but that doesn’t make us deficient. ADD people didn’t make the world the mess that it is. Insted of feeling shame we should feel compassion for the neurotypical who often wallow in delusions that our brains see right through. Let’s feel thankful for our gift.

    1. I very much agree with you; ADHD can actually be almost a gift in some ways, if one can manage to shift perspective and focus on strengths. I actually did this with PTSD, in a way. I realized PTSD is not what is “threatening” or what needs to be fixed. All ptsd is doing is trying to get my brain to keep me safe. While it has definitely been a challenge and something I have had to do a lot of work to learn to live and thrive with, it has also shown me how I am more observing, more apt to recognize signs of distress and silent calls for help from others, and how amazing our brains can be if we learn to work with our “disorder” to find the positives in them as well as life in general.
      I do want to point out, though, that Dr. Hallowell does have ADHD. That’s part of what makes him a really effective doctor and, in my opinion, qualifies him for teaching/treating ADHD more than others with a medical degree. This interview is great and I highly recommend watching more from the “How to ADHD” channel:
      https://youtu.be/kbjugrYhNzY

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