Meditation for the Bored & Restless: How to Practice Mindfulness with ADHD
Mindfulness — the act of directing one’s attention to the present — can help reduce stress and anxiety in overactive ADHD minds, improve mood, and round out an effective ADHD treatment plan. Here, learn how to practice mindfulness with a restless mind that could benefit from a reduction in worry and stress.
Mindfulness — an attention and awareness training —is a helpful tool for reducing anxiety, stress, and worry among adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD). In recent years, mindfulness has exploded in popularity, leading to some predictable confusion over what it is and how exactly it works. Here, we’ll explain how adults with ADHD can practice mindfulness to manage their symptoms and dial down their anxiety and worry.
What Is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the act of bringing one’s attention to the present moment, and particularly to inner reactions as they come up in real time. To practice mindfulness is to train one’s attention to connect with what’s happening in the present moment to them and within them, which is especially useful when dealing with difficult thoughts and emotions. Mindfulness, in essence, helps develop self-regulation skills.
Mindfulness training can be done through meditation, contemplative traditions, or informal activities during the course of the day. The latter method may deliver the most value for ADHD brains that find formal practices cumbersome and time consuming.
Mindfulness disengages the automatic pilot mode in which our minds tend to operate out of habit. When anxiety is significant, worries and anxious thoughts happen automatically (i.e., “I am worried about everything” and “I can’t go on like this – I’m a failure.”). This spark can ignite a blaze of more negative thinking and feeling and make us feel paralyzed, frantic or overwhelmed.
How to Practice Mindfulness with ADHD
Step 1: Practice Mindful Labeling
Introduce mindfulness to your day by taking few minutes to recognize what the mind and body are experiencing. This can be done in meditation practice (i.e. pausing to sit quietly for 5-10 minutes) or briefly in the course of your daily activities.
Start by observing and naming (i.e. labeling) your thoughts, emotion and any bodily responses to a stressor. This can help create some distance between you and the automatic thoughts.
You can name your experiences aloud or in your head: “I’m really worried. I’m having a hard time and I’m overwhelmed.” As you pause, bring attention to the body – notice tension in places like the jaw and shoulders. Notice physical reactions, like a racing heart or sweating. Notice any thoughts and feelings, including worried thoughts (“I am not going to be able to do this”) or any critical or self-judgmental thoughts (“What is wrong with me”, or “I should not feel this way”, or “why can’t I just shake off the anxiety?” ).
It’s important, especially when anxiety is intense, to do such ‘tuning in’ with compassion and kindness, recognizing that the anxiety reaction does not have to define you.
Step 2: Refocus Your Attention
Once you’ve recognized your worrisome state of mind, it’s time to create more space between you and the anxiety, weakening the link between worry and being consumed by it. This is where attention training and mindfulness practices come in.
To break the power of all-consuming worry, refocus your attention elsewhere. You can do the following:
- Breathing exercises: The main intention is to keep attention away from the worry-filled ‘mind cloud’ by anchoring it in the sensations of the breath. Noticing the breath often leads to relaxation of the body as well, especially if you slow down your breathing and extend exhalation. Your attention, of course, will likely bounce back to the worry, but don’t fret – keep coming back to the breath. There are many ways to practice breath work, including:
- Watching your natural breathing come in and go out. This can be enough to gain some distance from anxiety.
- “Box breathing” – inhaling, pause, exhale, and pause on every count of four.
- Hand on the belly, using the sensation at th hand to help anchor your attention and promote breathing from the core, not the chest.
- Silently repeating words like “in” when inhaling and “out” when exhaling for extra focus.
- Imagery – imagine, for example, a wave of calm energy coming in as you inhale and a wave of stress leaving as you exhale.
- Informal activities
- Taking a walk (especially in nature to better use the senses)
- Listening to music/playing an instrument
- Writing down thoughts
- Putting something cold over the eyes
- Drinking hot tea
- Taking a relaxing supplement
For individuals whose brains just “keep going,” helping the body to relax first can help the mind settle in succession. This can be achieved through physically tiring exercise, a hot shower, yoga, or another activity to loosen the muscles. Opting to walk or otherwise move the body rather than sit still can make mindfulness easier. Taking a walk in nature, for example, allows for engagement of all the senses in the present.
Some individuals with ADHD also meditate according to their medication schedule. Some prefer to practice after taking a stimulant, which can help calm the mind and set the stage for mindfulness. Others may prefer to practice at the end of the day or when the medication has worn out, attending to the day’s tasks first.
Step 3: Return to the Situation
After regaining some control over the worry, return to the situation that created the anxiety to learn from and possibly act on it. Practicing this mindful awareness lets you experience the feeling without getting sucked in to it. Now you can gather more information to better understand the anxiety and the feelings beneath it.
Ask these useful questions while in this state:
- What caused me to worry?
- Why does the situation worry me?
- Am I engaging in unhelpful thinking patterns? (e.g. self-blame or catastrophizing)
- Is the worry or anxiety something that I can address? How? If not, how can I learn to tolerate uncertainty and live with it?
For example, assume a person with ADHD is worried about a complex project they have avoided at work. Through mindfulness exercises, they may eventually realize that their anxiety and negative self-talk originates from trouble with time management and from fear of missing deadlines. They worry that they’ll be reprimanded or be seen as irresponsible. The fear may be amplified because of a past experience with similar projects.
The person can follow several routes to address this concern. They can communicate with someone about their ADHD difficulties, ask for an extension or help from colleagues, or consider getting the help of an ADHD coach or therapist. They can also learn to self-coach their way out of paralyzing thoughts so as to get started on and plan the steps needed to complete the project.
Step 4: Learn Self-Coaching
Self-coaching is the development of a supportive and ADHD-informed inner voice that helps recognize what is needed in the moment and how to move through problems and issues. This inner voice encourages the following:
- compassion and checking in on feelings
- pacing and paying attention to the self
- accountability and proactiveness for ADHD difficulties
- connecting to values – what is most important today/this month/this year/in this phase of life?
Mindfulness becomes easier with practice. It’s not natural for us to be focused on the present moment all the time. Our ability to get involved in thinking take us away from the present, and that can be helpful when it comes to planning, analytical or creative thinking. . But in moments of stress, being able to check in in the present moment, notice your reaction, and consider your choices can really be a game changer.
How to Practice Mindfulness: Next Steps
- Download: Mindful Meditation for ADHD
- Read: 9 Days to a Less Stressed You
- Learn: ADHD and Anxiety – Symptoms, Connections & Coping Mechanisms
The content for this article was derived from the ADDitude Expert Webinar “The ADHD-Anxiety Link: How Mindfulness Helps You Feel Less Overwhelmed and Be More Productive” by Lidia Zylowska, M.D. (podcast episode #280), which was broadcast live on December 10, 2019.
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Updated on May 5, 2021