Meditation for ADHD

Forget the Lotus Position: How to Meditate — ADHD Style

ADHD brains love adrenaline. For some, this means trying sky diving and roller derby. For others, it means seeking out stress and drama, which are even tougher on the body. Meditation can counteract these stresses; here’s how to do it right.

Meditating to manage ADHD symptoms

If you come to us as a coaching client, we will mention the “M” word to you.

Meditation, that is. Most people with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) we encounter seem to be allergic to the word. So were we, until we had calmed down, with the aid of medication and other self-care techniques. If you have spent a lifetime with a pinball machine in your brain, it is hard to imagine yourself peacefully sitting in the lotus position.

The big secret, which nobody seems to clue those with ADHD in on, is that you don’t have to sit in the lotus position at all… you don’t even have to sit down to meditate or (thank God!) stop moving. You don’t need a mantra, a guru, or notes from your trek to India to do the meditation thing correctly.

How to meditate effectively is easy, since it’s not possible to fail at meditation. It is astonishing how many of our clients have told us that they tried meditation and found it frustrating. These clients thought that if there was a lot of activity going on in their brains, they were not doing it right. In fact, everybody has a lot of stuff going on in their brain most of the time. Buddhists refer to it as “monkey chatter.”

We believe that meditation is critical for individuals with ADHD. We pick up some habits in compensating for ADHD that serve us poorly in the long run. One of the worst is the habit of running on adrenaline. This is how it begins: Early on, we discover that excitement wakes up our sleepy brains. We then, without conscious thought or choice, arrange our lives in such a way as to keep some crisis happening on a regular basis. We scare ourselves (by waiting until the last minute to do something), we create excitement. We are hooked on drama and having lots of things to do — and we beat ourselves up over nothing. Why? Because it is stimulating.

[Click to Download: The ADDitude Guide to Alternative ADHD Treatment]

Why We Must Slow Down

Those with ADHD can become hooked on adrenaline. But waking up our sluggish frontal lobes with an injection of stress has consequences for the body. When we are stressed, adrenal hormones raise our heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar. They also dampen the immune system. The adrenaline junkie is, in effect, paying for focus at high interest rates. Yes, you get a few hours of higher performance, but you pay for those hours in stress on your brain and body.

It is possible for children and adults with ADHD to have a peaceful, still mind. We have been in that pleasant place called peaceful, and we like spending as much of our time there as we can. We promise that you can go there, too. Here is your road map and tools for the journey.

How Can Meditation Help with ADHD?

To meditate effectively with a racing brain, follow these steps:

1) Repeat to yourself a thousand times (or as often as necessary): “Meditation is a practice. I intend to enjoy and learn from the experience. There are no wrong ways to do it, and I will refrain from grading myself.”

[Read This: 9 Days to a Less Stressed You]

2) Get comfortable. Many meditation books and teachers warn you to avoid getting too comfortable, because you might fall asleep. Our thought is that if you fall asleep, you probably need to sleep. If you got relaxed enough to fall asleep… terrific! If you are concerned that you will sleep the day away and miss work, set an alarm.

3) Find your own comfort zone. Getting comfortable for you might involve standing on your head or lying in your bed — you are the best judge of what works for you. No meditator needs the additional distraction of physical discomfort.

4) Take slow, even breaths. Don’t worry if you begin in out-of-breath mode. As you relax, your breathing will slow naturally.

5) If you are in full, high-speed adrenaline mode, you won’t be able to stop on a dime, change gears, and get into meditation mode. When you have calmed your system through meditation and a meditative approach to life, going to a deep state of relaxation will not be such a major transition. In the meantime, take time to settle down before you meditate. A hot bath might do the trick, or listening to soothing music. Set a timer for a wind-down ritual. Put your planner and your “to do” list away; get into comfortable clothing.

6) Use sensory cues to move from one mental state to another. You might wear a special hat, sit in a special chair, or play certain kinds of music to make your transition to meditation.

7) Choose a focus for yourself, something to listen to or watch while you meditate. Some people pay attention to their breathing, while others repeat a word or phrase in their minds. You can make it up. One of our favorites is “let go.” You can also use a visual focus, such as a candle flame.

With ADHD, some of us are more visually distractible, others are more distracted by sounds. Find out what works best for you.

8) You can also use music as your focus. Steven Halpern’s music is especially good for meditation. We recommend that any music you choose be instrumental — it is too easy for you to get caught up in lyrics.

9) Don’t “should” yourself. Some do fine sitting or lying down, but many of us get unbearably restless when we are required to be still for any length of time. Don’t “should” all over yourself if you have a higher need for activity than someone else. Instead, work with it.

10) Moving meditation is as good as the sitting variety. It is a better choice for the active individual with ADHD. You don’t need the additional distraction of an antsy body when your goal is to calm the mind. We recommend that the activity you choose for meditation be something simple and repetitive, like walking.

11) It’s time to meditate. The thoughts in your head may still be clamoring for your attention. What do you do? When you notice your attention drifting toward that thought salad, gently disengage your attention and bring your mind back to your focus. At first, and especially on those bad brain days, you will repeat this process a lot.

12) Stick with it. Meditation will get easier as you go along. The key to success is to take it in small bites. Meditate for five minutes a few times a day. As you become more comfortable doing it, you will want to increase the length of your sessions because they have become so enjoyable. And soon you will begin to see meditation’s benefits.

13) When you have gotten into the meditation groove, you can attain a state of deep relaxation more quickly. Sometimes a few deep breaths will do the trick. When the workplace or a social situation is getting you into a tizzy, you can retire to an empty conference room or the men’s or women’s room and “take five” to get centered.

14) Remind yourself why you are meditating. It is not to clear your mind, but to step back from the noise, to put your attention on your chosen focus.

15) You may need to medicate before you meditate. The right dose of stimulant medicine can turn the brain noise down to acceptable levels.

16) Make it a routine. Yes, but don’t those of us with ADHD have trouble sticking with a routine? There are ways around it. Get an ADHD coach to keep you on track. A good coach will help you achieve your goals without blaming you if you fall short.

Accountability is not about guilt or failure. It is about not letting the goal drop, working to accomplish it, and celebrating little victories as well as big ones. If you forget to practice meditation for days, or even weeks, you can get back on the horse at a better time. That’s what we did.

[Get This Free Download: Mindful Meditation for ADHD]

18 Comments & Reviews

    1. This article is timed perfectly fo me, as my therapist just showed me (for the second time) how to meditate and we actually set a goal for the next two weeks for me to fo 5 minutes twice a day.

      I am the perfect exaple of the typical ADHD’ER who has resisted trying to meditate, due either to an over-active brain and/or fear of failure.

      Will report back in two weeks! 😀

  1. I am 71 and have been a computer programmer for over 50 years. I have a severe case of ADHD. I have been using Insight Timer for over two years and now have 79 consecutive days of silent meditation for 30 minutes each day. The meditation I do is simple: I focus on my breath. I can stay present for 3 to 5 breaths before the monkey hijacks my brain. When I become aware that I have been hijacked, I refocus on my breath again. Every 5 minutes, my preset meditation will sound a wood block chop which reminds me to refocus. But within a few breaths, I am off in monkey-mind-land again.

    What can I do differently that will help me get better results?

    1. Many meditation/mindfulness experts will tell you that the chatter coming back and the need to refocus is normal. Is that practice of refocusing on your body and thoughts that is the practice that will serve you in everyday life. If you can, change the refocus chime interval to a minute starting out and increase it as you are able. I think 30 minutes is a lot for someone with ADHD. Maybe start with 10 minute blocks of meditation and work your way up.

      Take a look at the suggestions here:

      ADDitude Community Moderator, Author & Mentor on Parenting ADHD, Mom to teen w/ ADHD, LDs, and autism

    2. I think your 5 minute timer is preventing you from getting over a hurdle. Instead of the external timer, create in your mind a “background thread” that “checks in” – like a hardware interrupt (yeah I am a programmer too – I made TSR’s to play pranks on others in class). Monitor yourself and keep trying to catch the moment that starts the monkey business. It may take a week, but you will become stronger. I think your 5 minute timer is blocking you from getting to the next level.

      I say this from my experience… for a period of time I was not sleeping enough and it caused me to start “dreaming” during my meditation. I would not realize until maybe a minute into it that I had gotten lost in dreaming. This happened over and over and I had no quick solution. I did not know when I slipped off, I just realized it after the fact. It took maybe a week of constant monitoring of myself to understand how it started. My insight to solving the problem was realizing that my breathing was “physical” while dreams were “mental” – thus I was able to focus on the physical aspect of my breathing and ignore anything that originated in my mind. If I had a timer to intercept my dream-state then I would never have went to the next level in meditating.

  2. I disagree that falling asleep during meditation is ok. Meditation keeps your mind active via your focus, if you fall asleep it means you lost your focus. There have been times where I have been very sleepy, yet I will not fall asleep during meditation (with my eyes closed for 30 minutes) because I simply maintain an “active” focus.

  3. You are right about medication. With medication, other things disappear but without medication it seems my focus object and everything else co-exists – there is no foreground, background, or isolation – even after 30 minutes I am mentally the same as when I started.

  4. I just read this article today, and it changed EVERYTHING. My chorus teacher decided that we should meditate every day in class. I IMMEDIATELY dreaded it it. whenever I used to meditate, my fists clenched, and smoke came out of my ears. literally! and when I approached her about it, because she had started grading us on meditation, she said that I had to do it, despite the fact that it put me in a horrible mood for the rest of the day. I just tried this, and I wish I had found it years ago!!! even if I am only 13. because there have been so many times, before a test, learning to swim, learning to play trumpet, learning to dance, that I have wanted to just calm down, and take a moment to relax. but I couldn’t! now I can. this is great!

  5. I have found a wonderful way to meditate and get paid for it, which really forces me to be still: I am a professional artists model. My work is mind-body-spirit exercise, and it’s changed my life IN so many ways I contemplate writing a book about my adhd life with modeling.
    The empowerment that comes with being seen as a legit professional, and the health that comes with it is… I have no idea what else to compare it to. After a model session (3 hours, 5- minute breaks every 20 minutes) I usually feel happy and ready to take on any challenge. Sometimes it’s really work, because I’m really working for other people who can be difficult for one or ten reasons. But the rewards are rich:
    I can repeat a mantra either part of the time or the entire time;
    I control my breathing;
    I am totally in my comfort zone;
    The medications are often moving, as I often hold a pose for only a minute or two, allowing me to be really creative: stand on one leg, or other such interesting and physically challenging poses.
    My clients love me, and I have taught my skills to other folks who are interested in modeling in the San Francisco area.

    Honestly, it’s an unusual skill, but one that’s changed my life and my self-concept, improves my self-esteem and makes money.

  6. I’m 68, retired, and after I’ve gotten up around five, fed our cats n’ dogs, let the dogs out, made my coffee and finally sat in my favorite part of our couch, I’ll just pick up a book on the coffee table or one I’m interested in picking up from where I left off. Because I’m still a little groggy, even after taking my mornin’ feed including Adderall and Prozac, plus lots of meds for my blood pressure, stroke recovery — all of which I can’t even pronounce, much less spell — I’ll sit down, read a passage and then with the dogs occupying the couch with me, I’ll close my eyes and THINK about what I just took in. Hopefully, I was smart enough to start out with a positive passage or two. Nevertheless, I’ll sit and think, think, think, sans the idiot box I used to be addicted to watching cable news on before we cut the cable.

    You’d be surprised at how one can pack in a lot of constructive self-therapy and remain cognitive of the surroundings. And if I should “zone out” — there’s always a cat or two clawing or meowing for my attention and this helps me to put things into a brighter and more positive outlook. Therapy only lasts for forty-five minutes and I’ve had very good therapists. I’m not complaining. But at my age, I’ve discovered there’s nothing nicer than loving company, quietude and a nice fresh coffee and light breakfast.

    And as for that word “accountability,” now that’s one word I don’t ever let seep into my head if possible, especially during that peaceful Godlike quiet morning hour before the rest of the house awakens. If ever there was a word designed by bosses, bureaucrats, politicians, and pundits to shame the hell out of others with impunity, it’s that damned word “accountable.” If, when I check out and wind up where kindly St.Peter’s not at the Pearly Toll Gates, and there’s a grim-looking dour soul wearing a dingy gray suit and green accountant’s visor, I’ll know how badly I messed up and won’t need to come clean before some contemporary Inquisition calling itself “Accountability Assessment Committee.”

  7. I’m not good at meditating or clearing my mind, but what I can do is fill my mind with things that crowd out my thoughts and replace them with other structured, beneficial thoughts on the regular.

    To that end, I read my Hebrew prayers out loud for between an hour and a quarter and an hour and a half every morning, much longer on Shabbat, and for a shorter period every afternoon. It fills my brain with words of wonder at the world and gratitude for the things that there are and the ones that are specifically in my life, and the fact that it’s in Hebrew makes me focus on it in a way I can’t focus in English conversation. I come out of it calmer and at the same time more connected to the universe.

  8. I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety before finally coming to the right diagnosis of ADHD at the age of 36 so I have tried really really hard to “manage” my mental health with meditation and other wellness practices, including yoga, but they both would consistently fill me with irritation rather than relaxation. I’ve recently started learning Qigong and it’s been an absolute revelation! If anyone really struggles with sitting meditation try qigong. The Flowing Zen Qigong Academy has had my favourite lessons so far. The minimum daily practice is 2 minutes and I’m now a moving meditation fan.

  9. I would LOVE a progressive meditation course that was free or low cost and designed especially for ADHD people. By low cost I mean a ONE TIME purchase, not a subscription. Some of the apps I found want $70 EVERY year, I can’t justify that in my mind. I want one costing around $20 ONCE.

    Why, you ask?

    My self esteem and my track record with (not)sticking to things don’t allow me to spend more. If I prove to myself that I can make it a habit, then we can talk.

  10. Something that did wonders for me before I even learned that I had ADHD was to practice Qigong. I found a TON of videos on YouTube that demonstrated how to practice the 8 brocades (a form of Qigong). This moving meditation not only helps with physical strength and form, but it teaches you to synchronize your movements with you breath. This takes a lot of the pressure away from sitting still. I would turn on some calming flute music and work through the 8 brocades right before bed. This calmed down my brain immensely and allowed me to get into a very drowsy state right before bed.

    Now that I know about my disorder, the fact that this works for me makes so much sense. I know that Qigong may not be for everyone, but I will recommend it to everyone I know that could benefit from this form of moving meditation because of the profound effects that it has had on me.

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