Updated: Dec 9, 2021
Emotional dysregulation is getting more attention as a core symptom of ADHD. Several years ago, when my own experience with medication fell short of controlling emotional dysregulation, my therapist suggested we try mindfulness meditation exercises. I clearly remember scoffing, “You expect me to meditate?” Eventually though, I decided it was worth a shot.
He told me to imagine my thoughts and feelings as visitors in my head. I should greet them when I noticed them and ask why they were visiting me today. He suggested I journal about what I wanted to explore more deeply and keep a list of things that were too heavy to sort out on my own, with the intention of going over these together in therapy. Over the course of two years, I’ve noticed that an intentional mindfulness practice has gradually become my default thought process.
Why Can Having an ADHD Brain Make Us More Susceptible to Emotional Dysregulation?
The regions of the brain responsible for some ADHD symptoms are also involved in emotional self-regulation and executive functioning processes.[i] When the emotional center (limbic system) of our brain becomes hyperactive, as in the case of being overwhelmed, stressed, or afraid, our logical brain (frontal lobe) will shut down and no longer be able to counteract the emotional impulses firing off in the brain.[ii][iii] The good news: neuroimaging studies have continued to demonstrate the neuroplasticity[iv] of the brain, including a marked change in brain functions following the use of mindfulness as a treatment for ADHD.[v][vi][vii][viii][ix]
How Could Mindfulness Benefit Us?
ADHD-specific research has shown that adopting a Mindfulness Awareness Practice offers long-term benefits that are comparable to or better than the benefits of talk therapy, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT).[x] The research outcomes include improvements with executive functioning: such as greater control over directing attention and mind wandering, improved task initiation, and increased working memory recall. The other area of notable improvement was emotional self-regulation: such as improved ability to detect conflicts as well as improved measures of self-compassion, depression, and anxiety.[xi]
Mindfulness teaches us to use a top-down strategy for processing our emotions, meaning we observe our emotions and respond to them logically based on the facts. An ADHD brain tends to use a more instinctual bottom-up strategy, in which we react to our emotions impulsively.[xii] Practicing this top-down approach during periods of calm will allow us to use this technique more effectively in periods of dysregulation.[xiii]
Can We Do Mindfulness With ADHD?
Yes, but probably not in the way you’re imagining.
If I were to ask you to picture someone meditating, you would most likely imagine someone sitting or lying down comfortably, maybe even with their eyes closed. Simply being there, simply still. While you absolutely could practice mindfulness in this way, there exist a plethora of examples for how you could participate in mindfulness just by going about your daily routines. You may consider pairing mindfulness with a low-thought task, such as eating, washing dishes, folding laundry, or even during walks. (We talk a lot in coaching about pairing boring tasks with dopamine; this is an extension of that idea.)
Mindfulness is the practice of becoming aware of one’s own thoughts and feelings as they are occurring. This type of meditation does not require you to be still, nor to empty your mind. The only thing that mindfulness requires is an openness to accepting all your thoughts and feelings from a place of non-judgement and curiosity. Our thoughts may not always reveal deep truths, sometimes they just remind us how creative and funny we are. Other times, thoughts may emerge that prompt further reflection and introspection.
Ways to Practice Mindfulness
There are both formal and informal ways to practice mindfulness.
A formal exercise would look something like spending 5 minutes focusing on your breath, taking note of the thoughts and impulses that reach your awareness during this time. You could choose to place your hand on your chest or belly, to provide an additional sensory experience to focus on. The primary goal of this exercise is to focus on the many physical sensations associated with breathing. A secondary goal of this exercise is to practice responding to yourself with compassion when you notice your attention drifts elsewhere; this is an expected and normal experience, even for neurotypicals. Unlike neurotypicals, those of us with ADHD tend to be overly critical of ourselves when we realize we have become distracted.[xiv]
An informal exercise could involve focusing on the physical sensations of eating your food or washing your dishes, and similarly, taking note of the thoughts and impulses that arise at this time. This type of exercise does not require focusing on the breath or closing your eyes, but instead focusing on the physical senses. For example, when washing your dishes, you could choose to think about how the water feels, the motion of scrubbing, or even let the mind wander. The most key component of an informal exercise is that you are noticing your thoughts or feelings and choosing to get curious about them. Why am I thinking about this now? What has triggered this feeling? What does this teach me about myself?
Strategies to minimize distractions during this time could include: leaving your phone in another room, identifying a time of day where you are least likely to be interrupted by others, and motivating yourself with dopamine beforehand.
Sarah R. is the Head Coach at Unconventional Organisation. She has worked in the field of social work over the past five years, worked with a diverse range of individuals and has a Bachelor of Sociology. You can read more about Sarah on our home page or connect with her by booking a free 20-minute consultation.
[i] Barkley, R. (2021, October 5). DESR: Why deficient emotional self-regulation is central to ADHD (and largely overlooked). ADDitude. Retrieved 29 Nov 2021, from <https://www.additudemag.com/desr-adhd-emotional-regulation/> [ii] Goleman D. (2005). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. New York, NY: Bantam Books. [iii] Arnsten A. F. (2009). Stress signaling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function. Nature reviews. Neuroscience, 10(6), 410–422. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn2648 [iv] Neuroplasticity refers to the “capacity of neurons and neural networks in the brain to change their connections and behavior in response to new information, sensory stimulation, development, damage, or dysfunction.” <Source: https://www.britannica.com/science/neuroplasticity> [v] Salkowski, L. & Mitchell, J. (2021). Mindfulness for Adult ADHD. (pp. 11; 51). New York, NY: The Guilford Press. [vi] Holzel, B.K., et al. (2011). How does mindfulness meditation work?: Proposing mechanisms of action from a conceptual and neural perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6(6), 537-559. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691611419671 [vii] Bachmann, K. et al. (2016). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and the adult ADHD brain: A neuropsychotherapeutic perspective. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 7, 117. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2016.00117 [viii] Tang, Y.Y., et al. (2007). Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, 104(43), 17152-17156. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0707678104 [ix] Moyer, C.A. et al. (2011). Frontal electroencephalographic asymmetry associated with positive emotion is produced by very brief meditation training. Psychological Science, 22(10), 1277-1279. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797611418985 [x] Zylowska, L. & Mitchell, J. (2021). Mindfulness for Adult ADHD. (pp. 19). New York, NY: The Guilford Press. [xi] Zylowska, L. & Mitchell, J. (2021). Conceptual and research review. Mindfulness for Adult ADHD. (pp. 8-22). New York, NY: The Guilford Press. [xii] Shaw, P., Stringaris, A., Nigg, J., & Leibenluft, E. (2014). Emotion dysregulation in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The American journal of psychiatry, 171(3), 276–293. https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ajp.2013.13070966 [xiii] Chiesa, A. et al. (2011). Does mindfulness training improve cognitive abilities?: A systematic review of neuropsychological findings. Clinical Psychology Review, 31(3), 449-464. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2010.11.003 [xiv] Beaton, D.M., Sirois, F. & Milne, E. Self-compassion and Perceived Criticism in Adults with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Mindfulness 11, 2506–2518 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-020-01464-w