Living with ADHD: Taking back your life with simple strategies

I’m in Religious Studies class.  The professor believes I’m paying attention…

I’m at war with myself.

My thoughts are pulling me in every direction. Everything is chaotic. I’m barely sitting still. Before I can clear my head, the class is over.

I learned nothing.

I walk towards the street where I parked. My car is lost. I search for an hour with no luck. My brain is tired. I want to roll up into a ball. It’s ninety-five degrees. I just want to feel air conditioning.

“Dude, where’s my car?” I ask myself.

I call the police department and towing company. They have no record.

I’m walking in circles, exhausted and frustrated.

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” I shout.

My car is right across the street. I’ve probably walked past it three times. I sit on the sidewalk and laugh.

I’m used to this kind of absurdity.

Call it a bad day. Call it the heat.

The truth is I have attention deficit disorder.

Did you know there are 11 million adults in the U.S living with ADHD? That is five percent of the population.

If you’re one of those people, I want you to know, there is nothing “wrong” with you. I’ve had it my entire life. I’ve taken all the medications, seen every specialist, and grew up feeling like a test tube.

ADHD is a brain disorder. You didn’t choose it. Medication and therapy can be useful. Sometimes that’s not enough. I still deal with inattention and forgetfulness. I can be extremely self-critical, making my symptoms worse. External influences only help so much. Recently, I had to stop taking the medication altogether. Since then I’ve become more proactive about my condition.  I refuse to let the disorder limit my success.

While medication and therapy are the gold standards for most people, doctors and therapists can’t “fix you.” Taking control of your condition and life requires personal accountability. This entails developing daily habits and skills that can help you manage your symptoms more effectively.

Here are some guidelines for managing ADHD:

Sleep Hygiene

Getting enough sleep is crucial. Sleep deprivation will increase symptoms of distractibility and hyperactivity while reducing stress tolerance. During the late evening, do yourself a solid–avoid caffeine and intense exercise.

Once a sleep pattern is established, it can be difficult to change. Having a consistent time for going to bed and waking up is critical. Turn off all electronics at least an hour before bed. Artificial light from phones and television can delay the release of melatonin in the brain, causing poor sleep.

The last hour before bed, I dedicate to winding down. I’m not swiping my phone, checking emails, or watching Netflix. I like to have a hot cup of tea and reflect. The idea is to have time to nourish your body and mind in preparation for sleep.

Regular Exercise

Exercise is especially helpful for individuals with ADHD. Five to six days a week is ideal. Alternating days with aerobic exercise and strength training is a great way to ensure you’re getting the most benefit while avoiding overexertion.

How does exercise help improve symptoms of ADHD?

Exercise increases serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine in the brain, responsible for focus and attention–the same chemicals ADHD medications act on. While any is better than none at all, research has shown activities such as martial arts, gymnastics, ballet, and yoga might hold the most therapeutic value.

A study conducted at Hofstra University found kids who participated in martial arts programs, performed better academically and displayed less behavioral issues, than their peers in traditional exercise routines. Experts believe the technical and coordinated movements involved in these activities, activate regions in the brain responsible for balance, timing, evaluation, and concentration—all related to improving symptoms of hyperactivity and inattention.

Meditation

If you have ADHD, you’ve probably experienced a racing mind. These are often related to events throughout the day, though sometimes are self-critical. Thoughts can become overwhelming when our lives feel unmanageable. The key to gaining control over symptoms is developing self-compassion. When we stop beating ourselves up, we no longer feed our “powerless” identity. We are still going to make mistakes. The key is to hold ourselves accountable and learn from them.

Meditation creates space in our minds to view thoughts and feelings objectively. We can choose whether we engage in them. To start, it’s helpful to have an anchor to come back to, if we’ve become distracted by our thoughts. I count the breath— “one” with the inhale, and “two” with the exhale. Count to ten. If you become distracted, just return your attention to the number you were on last. If we bring this practice into our daily lives, we will experience enhanced focus and engage in less negative thinking.

A 2008 study, involving twenty-five adults and eight children in an 8-week mindfulness program, showed significant reductions in both inattention and hyperactivity among participants. Carl Sherman Ph.D. explained “In cognitive tests, the participants got better at staying focused, even when different things were competing for their attention. Many of them also felt less anxious and depressed by the end of the study.”

Changing Perspective

While ADHD can feel overwhelming, uncomfortable, and intolerable, we must learn to view our symptoms as opportunities to exercise our self-control and discipline. This is very empowering.

My symptoms usually arise either before I start a project, or when I’m experiencing writer’s block. My thoughts often look something like this:

“You don’t need to do work on this today, you’re too tired.”

“I really don’t want to do this right now, this is really hard. My brain is not working, whatever I do it won’t be any good. I might as well just call it off.”

These thoughts can be extremely persuasive if I don’t challenge them.

Today was another example at the coffee shop, as I felt writer’s block.

“I have to sit still for four hours, and write? Nothing I’m writing is any good.”

Instead of engaging with these types of thoughts, which are counterproductive, I observe them and use my rational mind.

“First, I enjoy writing. It’s not always fun, but nothing is. I also know that if I get work done today, I’m going to feel a lot better than I if I did nothing.”

By pushing through habitual patterns of thought and emotion, we understand ADHD is self-manageable and doesn’t have to limit our success. Every time you feel the urge to distract yourself, view this as an opportunity for empowerment, rather than succumbing to it. With practice, it will become easier to override distracting feelings and thoughts.

These self-management tips have been beneficial for me in managing ADHD. However, I would advise that if you have the condition, or suspect you do, always consult with your doctor before making any changes in your daily regimen.

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