California Live Oak Tree, Petaluma, CA
California Live Oak Tree, Petaluma, CA

Does it sound crazy to ask someone with ADHD to practice … focusing on one thing? For a relatively long time?

A single oak leaf
A single oak leaf

Yes, it is counterintuitive. However, there is strong evidence that this simple activity works to reduce the side effects from ADHD, and that it can be learned by almost anyone, including younger children.

The important take-away is that it is a skill that can be used, and produced on demand in a stressful situation, to improve the outcomes of everyday frustrations.

Look at the picture on top of the page: it is full of details, and it’s hard to see what is “important.” Can you shift your attention to look at a single leaf, and then back at the main picture to see how it fits into the bigger picture? Can you do this if you care less about oak trees, and you care more about pressures at home or at work? Before you imagine the excruciating boredom of sitting still, “breathing,” for 15 minutes while you feel like jumping out of your skin, think about how many times you spend 15 minutes or more on…

  • a video game
  • email
  • chatting on the phone with a friend
  • NOT doing the dishes
  • NOT doing your homework
  • tracking down an interesting artist online
  • updating your profile online (FaceBook, LinkedIn, Instagram….)

Somehow we spend our time, usually moving from one activity to the next, sometimes driven by an urgency that says, “I NEED to do this now!” Sometimes we sustain our focus on an interesting activity for a long time. Sometimes we allow ourselves to get lulled into an activity like chasing YouTube videos or playing a game. Yet we are not aware that in many instances, we are already acting “mindfully,” such as when we slow down to savor a spoonful of gelato, or concentrate on getting a recipe right.

Recently, I attended a conference called “The Mindfulness Prescription for Adult ADHD,” conducted by Lidia Zylowska, MD, and her colleague, Gloria Kamler. Dr. Zylowska and Ms. Kamler provided an insightful approach to help people develop executive skills, albeit in this roundabout way through sitting quietly for 15 minutes twice a day. As much as I support taking medication to increase focus and productivity, “Pills don’t teach skills,” as they say. Practicing mindfulness — yes it’s a buzzy word right now — is a way of creating the awareness that is so often lacking in the thought patterns of a person struggling with ADHD.

The practice of mindfulness is likened to exercise: if you do it regularly, you increase your energy and you avoid negative consequences, such as gaining too much weight. Mindfulness needs to be attended to daily; it gets easier the more you do it. It can be done in a lot of different ways. The benefits, specifically for a person with ADHD, are available throughout the day, as it becomes easier to act with purpose, not impulsively. It becomes easier to make choices, which lowers stress and anxiety, which lowers one’s cognitive load.

One of the biggest surprises for me as a clinician was to be in a room with 30+ people who struggle with ADHD, and to realize that they are bombarded with sensations all the time. In many ways, they have developed skills to balance/juggle many thoughts while still trying to push through to a goal. This inability to compartmentalize, though, greatly increases one’s cognitive load, and makes it harder to get things finished.

Dr. Zylowska conducted research on several groups of people with ADHD. She and her colleagues taught them a variety of different mindfulness exercises, which all start with sitting quietly and comfortably, then finding a single object of attention, usually mentally or internally, and practicing coming back to thinking about that one object. It could be the way your breath moves through your nose down toward your belly. It could be attending to the sounds in the room. It could be putting your attention to a specific part of your body. It could be attending to the automatic movements that make up walking. By practicing paying attention to one thing for 15 – 30 minutes a day, the participants in the studies reported overall improvement in executive skills functioning and stress reduction throughout their days.

Here’s the “work”: as you attempt to think of one thing, and only one thing, your mind will start thinking of something other than your object of focus. By reminding yourself to bring your focus back to your practice object, you get to practice/exercise building your ability to pay attention — especially to something boring or something you’re not that interested in. By engaging in this “simple, but not easy” practice, you get out of reactive mode.

To find out more about the benefits of mindfulness, here are some links which provide background and research results that it is effective for reducing stress, increasing a feeling of well-being, and, yes, helping mitigate some negative side effects of having ADHD:

UCLA‘s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center (MARC). This site has so many resources, but some of the easiest to access are the audio files that can guide you through various types of mindfulness practices.

UCSD‘s Center for Mindfulness where they are investigating many areas of life where mindfulness may prove beneficial — parenting, relationships, work performance, anxiety reduction, etc.

University of Wisconsin‘s Mindfulness Center. This website provides information on many areas of therapies, including cognitive behavioral therapy. The researcher who started this program, Richard Davidson, PhD, also started the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds.

University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society. One of the leaders in this field is John Kabat-Zinn, who started the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course, used in many companies with executives.

You can try to build up a mindfulness practice on a DIY basis, but you may benefit from following a program or joining a group to gain some confidence and allow yourself to ask questions from an experienced guide. This practice is quite abstract in many ways… but it many other ways, it’s very physical, very concrete, and you use your own body as the tool.