The ADHD Brain

Let It Out! How Self-Expression Soothes the ADD Brain

Why do bullet journals work so well for ADHD brains? Because they allow us to organize the myriad competing thoughts crowding our heads. This is just one example of the power of self-expression. Here, two ADHD coaches explain why self-expression is so critical and how to best untangle and release your swirling thoughts.

A girl writes out her feelings to avoid having an ADHD tantrum
A girl writes out her feelings to avoid having an ADHD tantrum

The ADHD brain is the most visually stunning big-screen musical you’ve ever seen in wrap-around 3D. Think “Avatar” and “La La Land” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas” — all turned up to 10 and playing simultaneously. The result is inspiring and evocative and totally overwhelming.

Likewise, the restless ADHD brain is an endless ricochet of conflicts, joys, and fast-paced analyses of daily complexities. It fosters boundless creativity, ingenuity, and self-reflection, which can lead to breakthroughs — or to emotional, psychological turmoil if your brain moves too fast and too erratically, which is often the case.

The best way to stem the anxiety and stress brought on by a buzzing brain? Make your thoughts tangible through a process known as self-expression. Of course, free expression is easier advised than achieved, particularly for adults with ADHD who have spent a lifetime being scolded for talking too much, for lacking a filter, or for being too expressive and emotional. For them, the benefits of self-examination and of honest, open communication may be buried under a mountain of shame. And that is a big problem.

Here, learn how self-expression can benefit your wellbeing, and how to devise a communication process that works for ADHD brains, with this advice from career counselor and author Wilma Fellman, as presented during the Attention Talk Radio episode “ADHD and Self-Expression: Collecting Your Thoughts to Communicate,” moderated by Jeff Copper of DIG Coaching.

Why Self-Expression Matters for Anyone with ADHD

Very young children make sense of the world through play. By interacting with toys, parents, and other kids, they sort out social norms, learn new skills, and develop a sense of who they are and what they can accomplish. Most children begin by talking to themselves as they play, narrating what they’re doing or creating new storylines to follow. Between the ages of 3 and 5, however, that verbal conversation starts to become privatized. It moves into their head, where it becomes what’s known as “self-talk.”

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This is the stage where many children with ADHD run into trouble. Working memory challenges make it difficult for them to organize and manipulate information within their minds. Many continue to talk out loud as they make sense of their thoughts. But this “babbling” — as many with ADHD describe it — is frequently viewed as socially unacceptable, particularly in kindergarten and first grade. Students are expected to remain quiet, raise their hands, and eventually write down their ideas in clear, organized ways. If they can’t stick to a prescribed format or convey information succinctly, they “fail” — usually taking a critical self-esteem hit (or seven) in the process.

Told from a young age that the way they naturally express themselves is “incorrect,” people with ADHD try to keep track of the thoughts bouncing around in their heads — but they can’t. The result? Anxiety, a distaste for writing, a reluctance to express emotions, or an overall lack of productivity — after all, how can you finish (or even start) a project if you can’t organize your thoughts around it?

Self-expression — either verbal or written — is the antidote to this life-long cycle of shame and overwhelm. Purging the ideas bouncing around your head is more than just catharsis; it actually helps you organize, visualize, and plan your life more effectively. Those who have mastered it often point to it as one of their greatest ADHD coping skills. They say that making thoughts tangible, in any form, makes them easier to manipulate, understand, and crystallize.

Structure Vs. Process

Everyone communicates differently, but everyone relies on two things to communicate effectively: structure and process. “Structure” refers to how your words appear on paper (if you’re writing) or how they’re ordered (if you’re speaking). Some people function best when they can tell a concrete story — something that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Some people do better when they express themselves in “bullet points” — short, simple phrases that use important keywords to hit on the main ideas. These thoughts might not be full sentences, but that doesn’t make them any less valuable!

[“OMG, So That’s Why I Do That?!”]

“Process” refers to the step-by-step way these thoughts are purged from our heads. Some people like to write in a “stream of consciousness,” getting everything out without stopping to edit or self-censor. Other people need to pause periodically as they revisit and revise what they’ve written, editing as needed or erasing thoughts that detract from their main point. Some people like to draw pictures or diagrams to create a visual representation of their innermost thoughts. And still others like to express something, wait a few days, and look at it with fresh eyes.

Throughout life — and particularly in school — we’re expected to adhere to certain structures and processes: the 5-paragraph essay, for instance, or the Schaffer paragraph method. When students with ADHD can’t follow these patterns, or find them ineffective, they often assume they’re no good at expressing themselves, and start to avoid it altogether. In fact, it’s either the structure or the process that is the problem, not expression itself. It’s important to explore different structures and processes to see what kind of expression works for you — and not to box yourself in to non-ADHD-friendly ideas of how writing is “supposed” to happen.

How Individuals with ADHD Can Practice Self-Expression

How do you find the structures and processes that work for you? That will take some trial and error, but there are a few self-expression techniques that tend to work well for ADHD brains:

  • Dictation — Either talking into a recorder, signing up for a transcription service like copytalk.com or Google Voice, or speaking thoughts aloud while someone else types them out. This method can be especially useful for children who struggle to complete written assignments, but are comfortable discussing the material verbally. It can also help you organize your thoughts with less overwhelm.
  • Mind mapping — Creating a diagram to visually connect different pieces of information, showing how they relate to each other using symbols, colors, or other visual tools. Mind mapping is useful for brainstorming projects, and can be done either by hand or using apps like Mindnode.
  • Journaling — Whether done daily, weekly, or whenever you feel like it, “writing out loud” is one of the best known (and effective) forms of self-expression. Bullet journaling, in particular, is an ADHD-friendly way to organize thoughts and keep track of assignments, appointments, and events.

The “how” of self-expression is less important than the “why,” but it’s often an epiphany for people with ADHD to learn that there are a variety of methods of self-expression, all of which deliver similar benefits. The takeaway? When it comes to self-expression, don’t focus on what others are doing. Learn what works for you — and you might be surprised at the flood of ideas you unleash on the world.

This content was originally broadcast on Attention Talk Radio and moderated by Attention and ADHD Coach Jeff Copper of DIG Coaching, which offers coaching services in person and remotely.

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