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6 Essential Mindfulness Practices To Help With 6 Common ADHD Symptoms

27/04/2022
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Alexandra Loewe, BMus, MA, DipTCA

ADHD Coach & Mindfulness Coach

With contributions from Alexandra Loewe BMus, MA, DipTCA. Alexandra works as an ADHD and Mindfulness Coach for both adults and children at the ADHD Centre. She has over 25 years of experience in education and mentoring. She has worked in schools as a mindfulness practitioner and has developed a vocal health strategy incorporating mindfulness and confidence building. Alexandra runs workshops on Resilience and Emotional Intelligence, as well as one-to-one life coaching, and a parenting skills course for parents with ADHD children.

Mindful meditation is a way of focusing on what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment, in a non-judgemental way. It’s a technique to bring the mind back to a state of calm and is highly recognised as an effective way to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In this article, we explain how mindfulness practice can be easily embedded in our lifestyle and ease symptoms of ADHD. Specifically, we consider how mindfulness can improve our executive functions. These are mental processes that enable us to think clearly, remember and organise our thoughts, cope with emotional stress and navigate the ordinary challenges of the day. It’s common for an ADHD brain to struggle to control and master executive functions.

What Is Mindfulness And How Can It Help ADHD?

Initially, it seems unlikely that mindfulness, a practice associated with calm and deep thinking, would benefit someone with ADHD, which is often characterised as being unable to sit still. However, many studies and scientific evidence have shown otherwise. The skill and technique of settling the mind and practising coming into the present moment through breathing, has huge benefits for people who struggle with focus and attention, scattered thoughts and changeable emotions.

The image below links executive functions to mindful strategies and outlines what this could look like for an adult with ADHD. The image was created by Alexandra Loewe who has summarised executive functions into the following six areas:

  • Impulsivity
  • Self-Regulation
  • Emotional Control
  • Flexibility Control
  • Focus And Attention
  • Working Memory

The mindful meditations linked to these executive functions are discussed further in the rest of the article.

Impulsivity

Impulsivity is much more than just a lack of physical control that we might associate with ADHD children. It’s also in our brains, affecting our neural pathways, and can impact anyone of any age. It can manifest as a feeling of restlessness or of not being able to switch off. It can cause someone to spiral into a state of negativity or a feeling that they’re going to explode. It’s also a stress response to something that has escalated deep inside of us and it’s as if there are no brakes available, a bit like the onrush of an avalanche!

Using Breath Focus when these sensations start to arise, helps to ground our thoughts and calm the mind. We breathe all the time, but we rarely give much thought to the physical act of breathing. When we breathe, our lungs pump oxygenated air around the body and this causes the diaphragm to expand and contract. Breathing activates the vagus nerve and switches our neural system on to the parasympathetic nervous system, the ‘rest and digest’ mode. It’s helpful to take a moment to focus on feeling this happening.

We can also practice breathing in and out for different counts. One suggested method is the 4-7-11, where you breathe in for a count of 4, hold it for 7 and then breathe out for 11. As we follow this pattern of our breathing and notice what happens as we inhale and exhale, our brain switches from a state of overdrive to sensory awareness. This allows our thoughts to rest while we focus our attention on the senses, specifically on the breath and the effects of breathing on our body. It brings us back to a sense of calm and focus, which is the foundation of mindfulness practice.

Self-Regulation

We can become dysregulated both physiologically and emotionally. It’s what happens when you feel stuck in your mind and you don’t know what to do next. Your thoughts may be going round in circles or you may experience brain fog that just stops you from doing anything. It can be really difficult to express your feelings and you may find yourself having a flight or fight or freeze response. To help to move away from this state of panic, however mild or intense, we need to self-regulate. Three-Step Awareness is a mindfulness method that helps you to break things down and bring you back to a state of calm. This is how it works:

Step 1 – Physical Awareness

This involves becoming aware of our physical position and points of contact, such as our feet on the floor or our arms on a table or our back leaning on the chair. It’s a way of bringing our awareness to what we are physically doing right now.

Step 2 – Auditory Awareness

This is noticing which sounds we can hear. Start with the sounds closest to you such as your own breath or other sounds in the room. Then, think about what sounds you can hear further away, such as birds singing or traffic in the street. Just notice with curiosity rather than analyse or get lost in some distraction. Simply being aware of sounds around you helps the brain to shift focus and become less anxious.

Step 3 – Breath Awareness

Focusing on the breath coming in and out of the body can bring a sense of perspective with regards to where you are at the present moment. Self-regulation is about allowing ourselves the time to pause and work out our next step. It pauses a racing brain and allows us to move forwards with whatever we need to do next. As with all techniques, it takes time to see the effects, allow yourself to take that time.

Emotional Control

There is much more awareness now of emotional intelligence and the connections between ADHD, rejection sensitivity dysphoria, anxiety and depression. It’s certainly helpful to be aware of our own emotions and those of others in our lives. By exploring our emotional intelligence, both how we recognise and manage our emotional states as well as how we sense and relate to others and their emotions, we can develop and strengthen our understanding of relationships. Loving Kindness Practice is a mindful strategy that can help with this. It involves showing kindness that starts with yourself and then is focused on other people. It takes practice to send love and kindness this way, but it can increase your self-acceptance and improve your relationships with others.

One simple way to start loving kindness meditation is by choosing a phrase or a number of phrases that have meaning for you and that feel authentic, for example, ‘I wish you well’ or ‘I wish you happiness’. Loving kindness practice involves focusing our thoughts on one person and saying these phrases slowly and with intention. Choose a quiet moment to repeat these and let the well wishes sink in. It helps to strengthen emotional connections and you can focus on yourself, people you know, people you don’t know well and even people you have a difficult relationship with. By recognising and regulating our emotional responses in this calm and personal way, we enhance the parts of the brain involved in emotional processing and control.

Flexibility Control

Flexibility control refers to being able to stop what you’re doing and start something else by choice. It can be really difficult to transition between activities when you’re hyperfocused on something you really love doing. Shifting our focus to prepare for the next activity requires a sort of mental bridge to get us from where we are to the next activity. We need to reassure ourselves we can let go of one thing and come back to it later as well as preparing to face the new action with courage. Task initiation is a real difficulty for people with ADHD, as it requires envisaging the next steps and processing the sequence of events. This processing can sometimes be stalled if we’re anxious or nervous or we fear being judged or criticised. And we are often the harshest critics of ourselves!

The Sunshine Body Scan is a mindfulness practice that can help someone to transition from one activity to another. This is a sensory soothing process where we imagine our bodies being gradually filled with “sunshine”. This starts by bringing our “mind’s eye”, our attention, to our feet and ankles, up to our legs and then progresses up through our entire body until we reach the top of our head. There are also other sensory soothing actions that you may find effective. These could be simple actions that comfort you such as stroking a cat or touching a mug holding a warm drink. Find a palette of sensory soothers that can bring you back to a state of calm after sensory triggers throw us off-kilter.

Focus And Attention
ADHD makes focus and attention challenging. If we break down the “art of placing attention” we can consider it to be a three-part process: firstly, we select what we will place our attention on, but then we have to maintain our focus on the chosen task (by the way, there is no such thing as multitasking, only task switching) and finally, we have to ward off distractions until we have completed an activity. If you can’t keep focused, then something such as paying bills or filling out forms, can be difficult and you will be unsuccessful if you become distracted by something else. With ADHD, it’s common to zone out or stop listening. However, it is possible to train our focus to come back to what we were doing.

One way to do this is by using the mindfulness practice of Mindful Curiosity. This works by breaking down each of the senses and really focusing on just one thing. This could be the way a piece of chocolate tastes, or appreciating the way a tree looks when it’s bathed in sunlight. It could be choosing your favourite sense, for example listening to a piece of music, but not just as background noise, but really listening to it. If you can learn to apply focused attention to singular sensory stimuli, then you can start to apply these skills to other tasks you need to complete. Mindful curiosity takes practice, but it’s a very effective way to develop our focus and attention.

Working Memory

Another ADHD symptom is a poor working memory. It’s incredibly frustrating not being able to recall information when you need it, and it becomes worse if you are agitated or escalated. Visual cues such as a launchpad in your entrance hall for keys etc can help establish a place for the essential things we need to function efficiently. Habit bundling, like listening to a work podcast while running on a treadmill, or checking diary appointments while waiting for the kettle to boil, can help make remembering things more “physical”. When the brain releases dopamine (by doing fun and physical things) it fires the neural pathways and our recall potential is heightened.

While there’s no miracle solution to help your memory, Mindful Movements really help to slow things down and reduce agitation. When we are calm, it’s easier to focus our attention and improve our recall. Mindful movement involves focusing your attention on your body movements as well as your breathing. It can be done through simple physical exercises such as walking, stretching and brain breaks. Once you’ve started doing mindful movements, the most effective ones are those that are easy to fit into your everyday routine. Attaching an extended movement, like stretching for a bit further when you reach for the tin of beans, or noticing the crunch of the gravel underfoot as you walk up the path to work, can reset the brain and help us focus on one thing at a time which is how we’ll remember things better.

It’s important to note that mindfulness is not just sitting on the floor with your legs crossed humming for half an hour! While this formal practice can be incredibly strengthening mentally and physically, it can be very challenging for those with ADHD. The six mindfulness meditations discussed above can be done in a short time, even when you’re on the go. In fact, building mindfulness into your daily life in this way is one of the best ways to use it. ADHD can cause us to escalate into hyperarousal, leading to overreaction and dysregulation. Mindfulness practices are an effective way to develop executive functions as they bring back control, calm and clear thinking.

Want to find out more about our online Essential Mindfulness Course for ADHD?

If you’d like to learn more about mindfulness for ADHD, we run a short and practical online six-part mindfulness course with guided practices from Alexandra Loewe. You can access it here and the first lesson is free.

To learn more about our ADHD Coaching, Private ADHD Assessments and evidence-based treatments, please get in touch with The ADHD Centre. You can reach us on 0800 061 4276 or by email at [email protected].

Further Information

Here is more information and further examples of some of the mindful meditations mentioned above:

For Breath Focus Breath Meditation: A Great Way To Relieve Stress

Loving Kindness Meditation How To Practice Loving Kindness Meditation

The Sunshine Body Scan 4 Health Benefits Of Body Scan Meditation And How To Practice It

Mindful Movements Getting Started With Mindful Movement

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