Growing up in the 1980s, I think about twenty-percent of my friends must have had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), but at that time, it was a rarely-diagnosed issue. For some, that was okay. They were able to largely self-regulate and achieve success in school and work. For many others, however, that meant struggle and failure and feelings of inadequacy in a world that demands that we sit still and focus on things.
When I was finishing my Ph.D., around 2015, one of those friends offered me some of her ADHD prescription—just enough to improve my focus for a week or two as I struggled through my last round of edits. I didn’t take it, but I thought a lot about how nice it would be to have “focus in a pill” whenever I needed it. By then, however, I had been a regular meditator for about 15 years, so I was happy to rely on my mindfulness practice to push through those daunting final days.
But I would note that the medication did help my friend profoundly, so I am grateful for that and see it as a viable way forward for many people with ADHD. However, for others, there could be practices that will help to conquer and move through the buzzing distractions, endless stimuli, and rapid pace of life. These practices that can offer a calming refuge—a sanctuary where individuals with ADHD can discover a profound sense of tranquility and self-awareness.
The Mind’s Turbulent Waters
First, we can acknowledge that the human mind, even for those without ADHD, is often akin to a turbulent ocean. Thoughts surge and recede like relentless waves. For those with ADHD, this internal sea might appear even more tempestuous. It’s essential to understand that this is not a fault but a natural aspect of the human experience.
As a meditator, I find that my go-to practice for calming the mind is often sitting and breathing practice. However, sometimes this isn’t effective. Instead, I might need to go for a walk, particularly in a natural setting with lots of trees and broad views. This allows me to disengage with the turbulent thoughts and more objectively observe them.
The goal for all of us is to ride the waves—rising when they rise, and falling when they fall, realizing that our battle against any one of them is bound to fail. Paradoxically, perhaps, once we are really riding the waves confidently, they tend to settle down. The water of the mind becomes calm and clear. When this finally happens, we have control over how and where to direct our thoughts.
Mindfulness as an Anchor
Mindfulness provides individuals with ADHD a means to anchor themselves in the present moment. Instead of perpetually drifting amid racing thoughts and impulses, mindfulness encourages focused attention on the here and now. Through simple practices like conscious breathing or body scanning, as I’ve written about in past blogs here, those with ADHD can gain mastery over their scattered thoughts.
The beauty of mindfulness is that it doesn’t require one to suppress the mind’s inherent restlessness. Instead, it encourages an acceptance of the mind’s natural state while also gently guiding it towards stillness. That stillness is a sort of non-struggle. It’s not “giving in” to a mind that wants to jump around and simply going with it, but rather stepping back and noticing all of the things the mind wants to do, noticing the chaotic waves.
One of the things that helped me push through that difficult time editing my Ph.D. was knowing that the agony was impermanent. The incredible hard work and concentration would have to be sustained, but only for so long. Knowing that, I could set aside the countless other interests and activities tugging at me.
I have come to see impermanence as a fundamental truth of existence. Embracing this concept can be liberating, especially for individuals with ADHD. The ups and downs, the chaos and calm—it’s all fleeting. Acknowledging impermanence allows those with ADHD to find relief in the knowledge that restlessness will pass, just as the serene moments do.
This helps us get out of the “struggle” mode that we’re often in when dealing with ADHD. We desperately want to control the mind and keep it where we want it, but it refuses. Taking a couple deep breaths and noting the bouncing around can be a powerful way to both give yourself a calm break and to bring the mind back to where you want it at last.
Another key to letting go of my struggle against my own mind was through non-judgmental awareness. It was okay that I really didn’t want to focus. It was okay when my mind fantasized about food, about hanging out with people, about all of the other things I could have been doing at that time.
This practice invited me to observe my thoughts and emotions without harsh self-criticism. For folks with ADHD, it’s common to wrestle with self-blame. However, this practice of noticing without judgment helps us to break the cycle of self-blame.
Like so many difficulties in our lives, this might arise from our genetics or our upbringing. Our society may make them worse or make it more difficult to seek and find help. It also doesn’t help to specifically blame others, but knowing that it’s not entirely our fault can help.
Seeking solace and kinship within a community of other people working on navigating ADHD can help you transform your perceived limitations into strengths, sending you on a journey of self-discovery and inner peace. You might also find a mindfulness community or help through therapy.
And one of my favorite sources of community is nature. It’s fall now in Montana, which for many is the most beautiful time of year (despite the occasional ultra-cold snap). If nothing else seems to work or appeal to you, I highly encourage a walk along a river or in a park or in the woods. Nature has a powerful way of centering us and bringing us inner peace.
Justin Whitaker, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in Buddhist ethics from the University of London. He has given lectures, and taught Buddhist studies and Philosophy at Oxford University, the University of Hong Kong, the University of Montana, and at Antioch University’s intensive study-abroad program in India. A certified meditation teacher, he is a regular contributor to Patheos.com, and Senior Correspondent for Buddhistdoor Global. Justin is the official blog writer for Sunflower Counseling MT in Missoula, Butte, Kalispell, Billings, and surrounding areas. He lives in Missoula with his family.