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.
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.
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.”
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.