ADHD and Mindfulness

By Sophia Auld

Mindfulness practices have become increasingly popular, with evidence suggesting they may help with everything from stress to managing the symptoms of some health conditions. But if you have ADHD, is it possible to use a technique that requires you to do something you find especially difficult: paying attention? And would it help if you could?

The answer to both questions is yes. In fact, mindfulness may help people with ADHD develop greater focus and emotional control. But before exploring the benefits, it’s helpful to understand what it means to practice mindfulness.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is rooted in meditation, but they are not the same. Mindfulness is a term used to describe a state you can cultivate in daily life by focusing on what you’re doing moment by moment, such as washing dishes or mowing the yard. It’s also used to describe a range of practices designed to help you become more mindful. Meditation, in contrast, is a specific practice aimed at calming and clearing the mind.

“Mindfulness is the act of focusing your awareness on what is occurring in the present moment, accepting and acknowledging any sensations — feelings, thoughts, bodily sensation — you’re experiencing at that time,” says Nzingha Ma’at, a licensed professional counselor, certified yoga teacher and director of Ma’at Therapeutic Services in Philadelphia. “Meditation is a tool used to develop mindfulness.”

While ancient in origin, mindfulness has gained attention in health, medical and wellness circles over the past few decades. Numerous mindfulness techniques exist, ranging from traditional meditation practices to candle gazing to mindful walking. When health professionals use mindfulness to manage health conditions, this is known as mindfulness-based therapy , or MBT.

The benefits of mindfulness

When studying the benefits of mindfulness, researchers typically evaluate changes in a specific measure or measures when a group of people practice mindfulness over a set period. The American Psychological Association notes research has shown mindfulness training can:

  • reduce rumination (the tendency to dwell on negative thoughts or feelings)
  • enhance cognitive flexibility (ability to switch your thinking between different concepts)
  • reduce emotional reactivity
  • promote a more positive mood
  • improve working memory and focus

Mindfulness can also be helpful for people experiencing mental health issues. One analysis of more than 200 studies concluded that MBT is particularly effective for reducing depression, stress and anxiety.

Some evidence also suggests MBT could support physical health. For example, it may improve fatigue and physical function in patients with breast cancer, and hasten recovery from colds and flus.

Some research also suggests it may help with managing chronic pain and fatigue in people with rheumatoid arthritis. But importantly, other studies have shown that people with chronic pain have reported that mindfulness actually increases their pain. So mindfulness might be inappropriate for many people living with chronic pain.

Mindfulness for people with ADHD

But is mindfulness suitable for someone whose brain might be racing or more distracted than a person with a more typical brain? Absolutely, says Leda Kaveh, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and director of Washington Psychological Wellness, in Gaithersburg, Md.

“As a psychologist with ADHD myself, I have found mindfulness-based meditation helpful in my own work.” she says. “While some people might find it challenging to start — due to the nature of their thoughts — mindfulness can be particularly beneficial for them.”

Kaveh explains mindfulness can have several benefits for people with ADHD. Benefits include better control over their thoughts, along with enhanced attention span and concentration, allowing people to better manage impulsivity and distractions.

For example, one of Kaveh’s clients found mindfulness helpful while preparing for a major exam.

“Techniques focused on breath awareness and grounding exercises enabled her to create a mental space where she could focus on her studies,” Kaveh says. “After two months of daily practice, she reported a marked improvement in her concentration levels and a decrease in anxiety.

Mindful practice can also improve emotional regulation, Kaveh says. She explains it cultivates emotional awareness while reducing reactivity, which can help people with ADHD respond more skillfully to emotional triggers.

Mindfulness helped one of Kaveh’s clients — who was prone to emotional outbursts — recognize and accept her emotions and respond to them more thoughtfully. “Within a few months, she was reporting fewer conflicts with family and colleagues,” Kaveh says.

Ma’at notes the ability to slow your impulses, notice what you’re feeling, and think before reacting can also lead to increased self-awareness.

Kaveh adds mindfulness promotes relaxation and stress reduction, which can help calm the mind and reduce the anxiety that people with ADHD often experience.

Research into MBT for people with ADHD is also showing promising results. One review of 13 studies involving 753 adults with ADHD concluded mindfulness training could improve ADHD symptoms and some aspects of executive function and emotional regulation. Another analysis of 11 trials found mindful practice helped with ADHD symptoms.

Similarly, an analysis of 12 trials investigating MBT in children and adolescents found it was effective for reducing ADHD symptoms, with larger effects noted in older children and adolescents with ADHD.

It’s important to note more research is needed to prove that MBT is helpful for managing ADHD symptoms, and to determine how much and which type of MBT may be most effective.

Getting started with mindfulness

Experts offers some tips if you want to explore and get started with mindfulness.

• Start small

If you’re new to mindfulness, it’s wise to begin with brief sessions, Kaveh says.

“Starting with as little as 30 seconds can be beneficial,” she says. “A minute of focused breathing or simple observation of your thoughts can be a gateway to a more profound experience. Over time, you can extend this to five, 10, 15 minutes or more. The key is consistency and gradually building up as you become more comfortable with the practice.”

Ma’at also recommends starting slowly.

“Sitting in silence while learning to go within and think deeply for an extended period could be challenging for many people – with or without an ADHD diagnosis,” she says. “Be gentle with yourself.”

She suggests you could begin with finding a quiet spot, setting a three- to five-minute timer, sitting comfortably with your eyes closed, taking deep breaths and scanning the sensations in your body. If you notice tension anywhere, focus your breath into those areas. If you get distracted, continue without judgment.

• Explore guided mindfulness

Guided mindfulness exercises can provide structure and support for beginners, Kaveh says. And paying attention to your breathing is a good starting point. Other options include body scan exercises (that are “great for developing awareness of physical sensations and can be particularly calming,” Kaveh says), candle gazing, or guided imagery or visualization practices where you imagine a peaceful scene or go on a “mental journey” guided by a narrator.

“Many of these practices are available through apps, online platforms, or even in local meditation classes,” Kaveh says. “The right practice often depends on your preferences and needs. So it might require some experimentation to find the one that fits best.”

Ma’at says guided meditations are good because listening to someone’s voice can help you get into a meditative state.

“You may hear prompts such as, ‘Gently lower your eyes until they are closed. Breathe deeply into your belly, taking in as much oxygen as you can. Slowly exhale, removing any stale air from your body, and continue to take in fresh air with every inhale,'” she says. Following these words occupies your mind, which can reduce distractions.

• Be open to movement mindfulness

Ma’at says mindfulness does not have to mean sitting still.

“Engaging in rhythmic and repetitive movements can help calm the mind and enhance focus,” she says. “Activities such as mindful walking, stretching, or yoga can help you stay focused while allowing for physical movement.”

• Practice leads to progress

Importantly, mindfulness is a skill that requires practice. Maintaining focus may be a struggle at first, but progress comes with consistent effort, Kaveh says. She adds that mindfulness is just one tool for managing ADHD and should be integrated with other strategies — such as medication, therapy and lifestyle adjustments.

Also remember, she says, that each person’s experience with ADHD and mindfulness will vary. So it’s a good idea to see a mental health professional before beginning any new practice, especially if there are underlying psychological concerns.

Ma’at agrees perseverance is important. “Regardless of whether or not you’re diagnosed with ADHD, our minds will inevitably wander during meditation or mindfulness practices,” she says. “Especially in the beginning when you are getting used to a new activity.”

She advises being patient with yourself. “Your brain is like a muscle,” she says. “As with any new activity, the more you do it, the easier it becomes.”

If you’re having difficulties, you can seek guidance from a therapist that specializes in mindfulness, Ma’at says.

“They can offer personalized strategies and support tailored to your specific needs,” she says.

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