Maintaining concentration can be a huge challenge for people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But there are plenty of coping mechanisms and ways to manage its sometimes chaotic symptoms. Meditation could be one way to reclaim your attention span.
An estimated 4.4 percent of adults in the United States have ADHD. There are different types, but the symptoms generally include:
- Inattention. You find it super difficult to stay focused.
- Hyperactivity. You engage in compulsive excess movement that may seem out of context.
- Impulsiveness. You make sudden decisions or take spontaneous actions.
You might also face hurdles with your sleep schedule, regulating your emotions, and keeping track of time.
Sometimes, such as when you’re hyperfocusing on a task for hours, ADHD can feel like a superpower. At other times, it can be like that annoying younger sibling who won’t leave you the f*ck alone and prevents you from completing even seemingly simple tasks.
We break down how meditation can help you keep calm and carry on.
Can meditation help with ADHD?
If you have ADHD, meditation might help you relieve some symptoms and generally feel better.
Meditation can improve:
- decision making
- ability to switch between tasks
- complex thought processes
- working memory
- anxiety and mood
Even if you’re not keen on the idea of sitting still and clearing your mind, you can still meditate. Try to:
- Focus on yourself in the moment.
- Accept the thoughts that come to you without trying to change them.
- Relax the alertness of your body and mind.
- Use an “anchor” to help with focus, whether that’s a sound, an object, or a repetitive physical movement.
There’s no cure for ADHD. But if you’re looking to top up the care you get from your doc, meditation may have benefits.
This is your brain on meditation.
Meditation can help folks with ADHD. Let’s look at the science behind this and some studies about people who live with ADHD.
Why does meditation help attention and self-control?
Brain scientists have hooked up meditating monks and everyday folks to the relevant equipment to find out what goes on in their bodies when they Ommmmmm. And, unsurprisingly, they found pretty powerful benefits for the brain.
A 2014 study found that nondirective meditation – aka meditation in which you don’t focus on a specific object – lights up your frontal lobe.
For folks who aren’t numero uno at keeping their attention in one place, this makes it a great mental exercise for improving executive function (the power combo of attention, memory, and decision making that helps you get through every day).
Meditation raises levels of the rock star neurotransmitter, dopamine. The brains of people with ADHD are often in need of a dopamine boost (learn more about that here).
In focused attention meditation (FAM), meditators learn to stay focused in the face of distractions (which, if nothing else, would make an excellent game show).
Studies have shown that this style of meditation may literally build the brain bits that help with motor control, attention, and error correction. It does this by elevating that dopamine, and this positive effect increases as you meditate more. Which is dope, fam.
Your brain switches into a kind of standby mode when your mind wanders or you get introspective. Regular meditators don’t spend as much time with their brains in this mode.
So how does this help people with ADHD?
Shining the science spotlight on folks with ADHD, a 2017 study suggests that meditation helps relieve the main symptoms and regulate emotions. But the study authors note that larger studies should take place to back up this approach.
People with ADHD have reported that using meditation techniques helps reduce negative self-talk, anxiety, and depression.
A 2018 review of meditation-based therapies across kids, teens, and adults with ADHD concluded that meditation did a great job of reducing hyperactivity and impulse control symptoms for children and teens. For adults, meditation improved working memory.
If you haven’t come across mindfulness in the past decade, you haven’t, erm, been paying attention. Mindfulness means being present in the moment and learning how to be truly curious, open, and accepting.
That doesn’t necessarily mean sitting cross-legged in one spot for ages.
Mindful meditation brings a bounty of health benefits, including for people with ADHD. Various reviews and studies have found that mindfulness-based interventions can improve attention, reduce symptoms, and improve memory.
A lot of the research looks at mindfulness meditation specifically. But as mentioned, meditation comes in many flavors, and science hasn’t yet tasted the rainbow.
Plus, most ADHD studies have examined its effects on children and teens. More research needs to take place that accounts for millennial, Gen X and Boomer-era folks with ADHD. (There are also sex differences in how people experience ADHD — so what works for females might not chill out males, and vice versa.)
Of course, meditation shouldn’t replace what your doc has recommended.
The benefits of meditation for peeps with ADHD
In short, meditation can help folks with ADHD in the following ways:
- promoting improved focus
- reducing negative self-talk
- improving memory
- bolstering self-esteem
- helping with emotional regulation
- supporting clearer decision making
Not bad for a little “you” time.
The symptoms of ADHD can make meditation more challenging. But the science is thorough and doesn’t gloss over the fact that it’s tricky to concentrate on concentrating.
People with ADHD may relate to these meditation meddlers:
- an increased awareness of symptoms (and distress upon becoming aware)
- inward focus causing increased negative self-talk
- feelings of being overwhelmed
- difficulty filtering the symptoms of others in group sessions
In a fantastically titled study called “Eat, pray, love. Ritalin,” a parent who self-identified as an “ADDer” voiced their frustration:
“The ADHD brain is that for every minute for a neurotypical person it’s about 2 or 3 min, so [the meditation] really felt like a long time.”
In other words, if meditation doesn’t seem to have an effect quickly and doesn’t meet your expectations, your ADHD symptoms may pull you away from treatment before it really has an impact. It’s a cycle of aaaaaargh.
But a good, patient meditation facilitator will help you work through these hurdles and access the wider benefits of meditation.
Meditation isn’t one-size-fits-all. If one technique doesn’t work, throw it back in the cupboard and grab something else to try. This is about finding something that feels good and works for you.
Here are some meditation tips to try if you have ADHD:
- Treat it like a HIIT session (but with a lower heart rate). Try meditation in short bursts, more frequently.
- You don’t need to be silent or even still. The Sufi dance is a physically active meditation, known for its whirling motion. (You can check it out in this dope video.) The meditation aid known as the Tibetan singing bowl has also made its way into medical studies.
- Grab a guide. Some people find that guided meditation helps direct their thoughts.
- Do a body scan. Try to pay attention to one part of your body at a time, deliberately tensing and then relaxing the muscles in each.
- No judging! It’s about accepting your thoughts. No one else is in your brain but you. Learn to accept how you think.
- Join the self-love revolution. Talk kindly to your mind.
- Meditation is a practice. Do it again and again to find your rhythm.
What if I suck at meditating?
It may be that you’re trying a type of meditation that doesn’t work for you. Maybe try the Sufi dance or body scanning if traditional mindfulness doesn’t hit the spot.
Some people with ADHD may simply not gel with meditation — and that’s fine. If it doesn’t work, don’t let it trigger symptoms. Move on to something else or stick with your medication or other conventional treatment.
With meditation, there’s no right or wrong answer — just whatever calms and centers you.
The main treatments for ADHD are therapy and medication, often a combination of the two. But some people seek complementary treatments to support and enhance what the doc has ordered in natural ways.
Here are some methods peeps with ADHD have used to manage symptoms with positive results:
- Some research suggests that yoga may help relieve ADHD symptoms. Take your Downward Dog for a walk!
- Light therapy shines some hope on issues with circadian rhythms that peeps with ADHD may experience. Getting these in check may help smooth out sleep problems.
- Pwning n00bs! Some studies suggest that specially designed games can improve self-control, motivation, and academic achievement.
- Essential oils might help. Some research from 2001 and plenty of anecdotal evidence suggest that essential oils can play a role in relieving ADHD symptoms, particularly helping with focus. More recent studies are needed to say if they can specifically help ADHD, but more general studies on their cognitive benefits are not to be sniffed at.
- Some apps might help you get around the organizational issues that can accompany ADHD.
While evidence of the effectiveness is thin for some of these methods, none of them hurt to try. And measures like yoga, meditation, and essential oils can help improve the mental space of neurotypical folks too.
Meditation is a promising option for people who want to alleviate ADHD symptoms. And you can choose from a wide range of meditation styles to find one that may fit your needs.
So take five, breathe in, embrace the now, and be kind to yourself. It could do you some good!