Meditation or Medication for ADHD
By: Lewis S. Odell, Ph.D.
One of the most promising interventions for adults with ADHD is mindfulness meditation. In mindfulness meditation individuals focus their attention fully so they can deliberately pay attention to moment-to-moment experiences. Many people practice mindfulness meditation by focusing on their breath and attempting to screen out all other distractions. The process of mindfulness meditation is an exercise in attending to only what one wants to focus on. This can be very difficult for the novice and particularly problematic for adults who are distractible by their nature. It may be challenging to learn and requires ongoing practice and patience. Indeed, most people talk about their mindfulness meditation “practice” because it is most helpful to engage in meditation on a regular basis.
Other techniques that involve meditative and focusing practices such as sitting meditation and yoga may also be helpful for individuals with ADHD. Many adults with ADHD report that while the practice of traditional meditation can be difficult due to the need to sit still for 10 to 20 minutes at a time, it is also extremely helpful. Some adults with ADHD have found that guided meditations in which they watch a video or listen to a tape that walks them through specific areas of focus are a better fit for their needs. Others report that yoga, which uses a variety of breathing techniques and allows them to move, may be more helpful to improve focus.
Meditation works because it changes the brain. MRI scans show that after eight weeks of meditation practice the “fight or flight” center of the brain, the amygdala, shrinks. This change in brain structure suggests less responsiveness to stress as a result of meditation. Furthermore, the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with executive functions, becomes thicker after repeated meditation practice, suggesting improvement in the capacity for self-control and regulating attention.
A recent study of mindfulness training found that an eight-week training program resulted in a number of improvements in adults with ADHD. They reported meaningful declines in core ADHD symptoms of inattention and hyperactivity and gains in self-management, self-organization, and self-discipline. They also noted gains in their ability to regulate their motions and tolerate stress. Participants found that they were willing to spend the time involved with the meditation training and were planning to continue to use it after the conclusion of the formal treatment.
There are many different forms of meditation, and it can be very confusing to understand the difference between meditation, mindfulness, and mindfulness meditation. However, all of these tools can be useful in helping adults with ADHD relieve some of their symptoms of inattention. The key is to find a system that works for each individual. It is important to recognize that, as with many other activities, mindfulness meditation will seem to work really well on some days and not as well on others. It may also prove to be most effective when combined with daily medication, exercise, and organizational strategies.
Here are a few different tools that can help you in developing a mindfulness meditation practice.
Headspace – An app that describes itself as a “gym for the mind” and provides guided and non- guided exercises for mindfulness and meditation.
Jon Kabat-Zinn – A series of videos from one of the world’s leading experts on the power of meditation.
Calm – an iPad app and website that allows users to meditate, relax, and collect their thoughts.