Natural Treatments

All-Natural Ways to Improve Your Focus

ADHD medications can help manage symptoms like distractability. But many people augment their prescriptions with these natural remedies, designed to help you build your focus and concentration in new and innovative ways.

Focus letters
Focus letters

What’s the hardest part of having ADHD?

Recent surveys suggest that, for many people, it’s the inability to focus — to concentrate unwaveringly on a task or situation. For adults, a lack of focus can be especially vexing in meetings, lectures, and other situations when it’s important to understand or contribute to formal conversations involving complex information.

Fortunately, these natural remedies and non-drug ADHD treatments can help you find your focus.

Business meetings were a nightmare for Carol Henderson, a film producer in Los Angeles. “I just get hyper when there is no action being taken,” she says, noting that medication “only takes you so far. When it’s repetitive, and the meeting goes on and on, I feel the need to move, to do something.”

For kids, the equivalent of the nervous-making meeting may be a school assembly, a math class, or a lecture on whatever subject they find least interesting. “Such a situation is asking kids to do something they may find very hard — to sit there and say nothing,” says Jack Naftel, M.D., professor and director of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Often, there is an impulse to ask a question or jump in.”

Both kids and adults often see “jumping in” as the only way to stay focused in challenging situations. But jumping in is often inappropriate, and it can prolong the hardship. “I say only the briefest thing possible [in meetings] because my contribution could make it go even longer, which would be far worse,” says Henderson.

Adults and children boost their focus in such situations by a variety of strategies, from sitting on their hands to rhythmically locking and unlocking their fingers. Henderson says she can enhance her concentration simply by scrutinizing the clothing and jewelry worn by others in the room. “It’s like a game I play, to see how I would match up different styles and colors.”

Two Things at Once

Why does ADHD make it hard to focus? And why do many people with ADHD find it easier to stay focused and to assimilate new information by doing two things at once — which would pose an enormous distraction to people without ADHD?

Doing two things at once may facilitate “buffering.” According to the Evidence-Based Practice Manual, a text of recent research, buffering is “an intervention that mediates another effect.” In other words, when stress surfaces, a relaxing counter-measure may help. People often doodle, fidget or — when the situation permits — do some form of exercise.

Many people find that listening to music is the best way to boost their focus. Earlene E. Strayhorn, M.D., a child psychiatrist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, often recommends music to patients who say they are unable to get in the learning groove. Music brings a powerful “self-soothing effect” that makes it easier to read and do homework, she says.

Buffers of All Kinds

To get an idea of the range of buffers used successfully by people with ADHD, look no further than the household of Mary Ann Moon, of suburban Washington, D.C. Moon’s son and daughter have ADHD, as does her husband.

Moon’s teenage son has trouble absorbing information from a printed page. But he finds it easy to learn if he listens to books on audiotape — while throwing a ball against his bedroom wall. He has found that he can take in information better if he’s doing something else at the same time.

“It’s hard to do this if you’re physically reading the book,” says Moon. “But if you’re lying in bed listening to the book, you can throw a ball against the wall or draw a picture at the same time.”

Mary Ann’s college-aged daughter needs noise, too — but at a lower decibel level. She listens to the radio while she reads, letting the music and the banter of DJ’s buffer her study.

David, Mary Ann’s husband, is a scientist. He listens to classical music through headphones when he tackles a new piece of computer software. “Constant stimulus screens out other distractions,” he explains. “When I’m concentrating, I don’t really hear the music.”

Just as some kids need music and movement, others need absolute silence. For Maggie Bern, a 9-year-old from Los Angeles, sound makes studying like being “in the midst of a snowstorm,” says her mother, Anne. She says Maggie takes three times longer to complete her homework when there is background noise.

Maggie’s brother, Andrew, stays focused with daily exercise. Only after his daily after-school romp with the family’s two Labrador retrievers is Andrew calm enough to focus on reading and writing.

What Works for You?

Which buffering strategy will be the most effective for you (or your child)? “Notice how and where you work best,” say Edward Hallowell, M.D., and John Ratey, M.D., in Strategies for Success from Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Disorders. Do you focus better when you hear sounds like a “noisy train?” Or do you prefer to be “wrapped in three blankets,” holed up in a quiet room?

“Children and adults with ADHD can do their best under odd conditions,” Hallowell and Ratey say. “Let yourself work under whatever conditions are best for you.”

Finding the best way becomes a process of trial and error, says Houston psychologist Carol Brady, Ph.D., a member of ADDitude‘s scientific advisory board. “Follow a structured plan in trying different approaches,” she says. “Develop a pattern or routine that works for you.”

Does music have a calming effect on you — or is it a distraction? Is the kitchen where you like to do homework? What electronic aids might help? Would an alarm watch enhance your focus by taking away your worry about time?

Experiment with setting, time of day, and stopwatches. And, says Brady, don’t forget the role that medication plays in curbing your distractibility.

Improving your child’s focus might be as simple as making use of highly interactive computer learning programs. So suggests some research, including a study published several years ago in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. The research suggests that kids with ADHD are better at retaining information when they get that information from these programs.

Never-Fail Fixes

Henderson, the television producer, offers one final bit of advice: “When you find yourself growing tired of doing something that has to get done, do the work with someone else present. I have a colleague, and we both can get more done when we keep each other company,” she says.

And for those dreadful meetings that seem to drag on and on, Henderson recommends escape. “When I just cannot stand sitting there any longer, and I know I am going to blurt out something,” she says, “I pass the person next to me a note saying that I have to make a phone call. Then I go to my office, take a few deep breaths, move around a bit, and go back to the meeting.”

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