Stress & Anxiety

Anxious? Overwhelmed? Worried? A Stay-Safe, Stay-Sane Guide for the ADHD Brain

Stay-at-home orders are hard on all of us. But when your ADHD brain craves stimulation to thrive, it can be even harder. Here are my personal rules for keeping my restless brain humming even while trapped in my home with 24-hour news networks at the ready.

You’re stuck in your house for weeks (months) on end. You have no schedule. You feel untethered and desperate. You may take stupid risks — like going out with your friends or breaking the CDC rules for social distancing. Don’t.

People with ADHD don’t always love rules, but the following guidelines are critical — they will keep you safe and sane during the pandemic that feels endless, and sometimes hopeless.

Set a Schedule and Stick with It

Yes, these self-isolating times feel like a perpetual Saturday night. But don’t go there. Make yourself wake up at a certain time, put on real clothes (don’t live in your pajamas), look decent, and cook meals on a regular basis. Don’t let yourself get caught binging Netflix until 4 a.m. Your ADHD brain needs a schedule to function day in and day out. Make sure you give it one.

Don’t Be a News Junkie

Did you hear about this outbreak? What about the next hot spot in Detroit or Miami? What are the numbers today? Your brain wants more, more, more. The enhanced fight-or-flight response of ADHD brains, plus the dopamine hit delivered by an updated headline, can lead us to crave more information about the current crisis. The problem is, staying current on the crisis results in sharply higher stress levels as the information we seek and find overwhelms us.

This is a good time to unplug from mainstream news. Aim for a diet of 20 minutes of televised news twice a day. If you’re going to stay stuck to the TV screen, stream your favorite movies. Super-hero movies are especially distracting, my family has found. Don’t click the “pandemic information” tab on Facebook without taking a deep breath, and only do it when necessary. Find the information you need to be safe, and stay away from the rest. Right now, most of it is noise that will raise your stress levels.

[ADHD Catastrophizing in Times of Crisis: What To Do When Fear Spirals]

Engage in Continuing Ed from Your Couch

I have always wanted to learn to play the drums, so I signed up for Drumeo, an online music tutorial. Duolingo is free, and lets you learn any language from Spanish to Gaelic to Klingon (and it works — a year ago, I made it almost all the way through Mexican Spanish!). Learning something new will give your ADHD brain the input it needs to keep humming along happily and the challenges it craves while you sit inside. Instead of flipping on the news and growing despondent, you’re doing something — which is super-important.

Use Your Hands to Help Your Head

Luckily, this pandemic caught me with a ton of craft supplies on hand, but you can always order essentials for delivery. Take up a crafting skill you used to enjoy, but never had time for. Maybe you liked carving duck decoys or whittling as a kid. Maybe you love to cook. Whatever it is, make something. Even it if looks wonky, it will occupy your hands and your brain, and get your through this isolating time.

Take a Breath Already

ADHD brains love adrenaline, stress, and drama — and these days there is more than enough of that for our brains to chew on. But waking up our sluggish frontal lobes with an injection of stress has consequences for the body and psyche.

When we are stressed, adrenal hormones raise our heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar. They also dampen the immune system, which is pretty critical right about now. Meditation is incredibly important to defuse stress levels. Forget the lotus position and chanting an om. Just taking in a deep breath and slowly releasing it (30 seconds in, 30 seconds out, if you can) five times over a minute will calm you.

[Download This Free Resource: Make Mindfulness Work for You]

Exercise Your Options

It may be time to take up jogging, or at least walking. Whatever safe outlet you embrace when leaving your house — that doesn’t involve shopping or encountering other people — you need to do it, and do it on a regular schedule.

Variety is important for the ADHD brain, and right now you need all the variety (and healthy distraction) you can get. Try to notice the little changes on your walks or runs: trees greening up, spring flowers popping up, sidewalk chalk drawings in the neighbors’ driveways. This will help make things more interesting and give you the brain stimulation you desperately crave. As an added bonus, exercise bolsters your all-important immune system, increases focus, and lowers adrenaline levels. Plus, there are many known benefits for exercise and ADHD.

Socialize Safely

You’ve got Facebook Video, Zoom, FaceTime… the list goes on. Text your friends. Video calling is best, especially when you can gather a group of people. Get social as often as possible, not just for the mental stimulation you need, but to stave off the loneliness that comes from staying at home all the time. You need human contact. Your brain craves it. The more of it you get, the less likely you will be to take stupid risks.

Don’t Take Stupid Risks

You’re going to be tempted. You will want to see friends and relatives. Don’t. Remember that social distancing isn’t a mandate to keep you from having fun. It’s a way to guard the safety of other people — people who might be immuno-compromised or more at risk than you are.

When you do leave the house, remember the national guidelines and wear a mask; rubber gloves are also effective, and don’t forget your hand sanitizer. Create a launch station by the front door, just as you do for your kids, with all the stay-safe supplies you will need. Post a list of supplies next to the front door and don’t leave home without them.

Use the Drive-Thru, Curbside Pickup, or Have It Delivered

If those options are not available and you have to go into a store, make a list beforehand. Don’t dally, browse, or stop to chat like your ADHD brain tells you to. Stick to the list, and leave. Forget something? Go back and get it on your next trip, unless it’s absolutely vital.

Always make sure you have plenty of medication on hand, and treat a trip to the pharmacy like a visit to a Level 5 CDC Hot Zone: Wear a mask before entering the store, and use a sanitizing wipe to clean everything touched by the pharmacist, including your credit card. Use plenty of hand santizer after placing the bags in your trunk, and don’t bring the bags into your house.

Stay-at-home orders are hard on all of us. But when your ADHD brain needs lots of stimulation to thrive, it can be even harder. Thankfully, we’re a wired society. Too much screen time can be bad if it’s all news, but it can also be helpful if it’s Zooming with friends and learning new skills. Whatever you do, stay safe, don’t take risks, and remember: This isn’t forever.

[Read This Next: Now Is the Time for Realistic Expectations (and More ADHD Advice for a Pandemic)]


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Updated on May 7, 2020

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