How Meditation Can Help ADHD
Mindfulness meditation can be challenging if you have ADHD, but it can pay off in surprising ways. Here's how meditation may benefit people with ADHD, plus tips for meditating if you have the condition.
When you think of ADHD—a condition that has the words “attention deficit” and “hyperactivity” right there in its name—you probably don’t picture someone sitting quiet and still, focusing on nothing but their thoughts. But in a surprising turn of events, people who may be inattentive or hyperactive (or both) can benefit from a regular meditation practice.
That’s right: ADHD meditation is a thing, and it holds promise as an add-on to medication and therapy. Here’s how to know if the practice can benefit you or loved ones with ADHD—plus, how to meditate if you have ADHD.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is much more than a problem with paying attention. It’s a neurodevelopmental disorder, a condition that affects how the brain grows and develops. “It’s something you’re born with that affects your ability to manage yourself and the world,” says Lidia Zylowska, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota Medical School and the author of The Mindfulness Prescription for Adult ADHD. “It’s more of a self-regulation disorder that will affect attention, emotion, and behavior.”
Like many health conditions, ADHD exists on a spectrum. There’s the inattentive type (what used to be called ADD), the hyperactive-impulsive type, or a combination of both forms. It’s estimated that about 2.7 percent of adults have ADHD in Canada. It also can coexist with other mental health issues, like anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. ADHD typically is treated with a combination of therapy and medications, like Ritalin or Adderall.
What meditation does for ADHD
When ADHD experts speak of meditation, they’re mainly talking about mindfulness meditation. While some research suggests transcendental meditation can improve ADHD in middle-school students, there is more evidence on how mindfulness practices help with ADHD, Dr. Zylowska says.
Mindfulness meditation teaches people to become aware of the present moment. You can do this in any number of ways—by focusing on your breath, your senses, or what’s around you. In fact, one of the great things about a mindfulness practice is its flexibility. “It can be done in a more formal meditation practice, but it can also be done in an informal way, in the midst of daily activities,” Dr. Zylowska says. “It can be done through movement, like mindful walking, for example.”
There are two ways a mindfulness practice can help with ADHD:
Let’s say, for instance, you’re focusing on your breath during meditation. You’ll concentrate as you inhale and exhale. When you get distracted, you bring your attention back to the breath, over and over. That helps build your attention, like strengthening a muscle.
Better emotional control
The other way meditation can help ADHD is by teaching you to notice the thoughts, emotions, and sensations in your body from moment to moment without judging them. This helps with self-regulation, especially emotional regulation, Dr. Zylowska says.
(Related: How Mindfulness Can Ward Off Stress)
What’s going on inside your brain?
Mindfulness affects areas of the brain that don’t work as well in people with ADHD, mainly the networks in the prefrontal cortex that are involved in attention and emotional regulation, Dr. Zylowska says. Mindfulness also can affect the default mode network (DMN), the parts of the brain that get activated when our thoughts wander. The DMN isn’t as efficient in people with ADHD, Dr. Zylowska says, which may be one reason why you may find it tougher to concentrate on the task at hand. Mindfulness lowers the activity level, so it’s easier to pay attention.
The payoffs of a mindfulness practice
The perks of mindfulness for people with ADHD hold true for adults and kids, even those as young as eight, according to some studies. In a study published in 2020 in the Journal of Attention Disorders, Dutch researchers studied the effects of an eight-week mindfulness program on 69 families with kids who had ADHD. Not only did the kids show an improvement in ADHD-related symptoms, like cognitive functioning and controlling emotions, but the parents and kids were calmer and more aware, leading to better relationships with one another. Other benefits of mindfulness include:
Improved impulse control
People with ADHD may have a hard time controlling impulses. Being aware of what’s going on in your body and mind as you meditate can help create more of a space between the stimulus and the response, says Rebecca Stanwyck, LCSW, a psychotherapist and meditation teacher in the San Francisco Bay area. “You are less reactive, and you’re able to pause and think about how you want to respond and choose a more skillful response,” she says.
Morgan Levy, PhD, a licensed psychologist based in Florida, uses mindfulness-based therapy with some of her ADHD patients. “They’ve noticed improved attention on their work tasks and a decrease in judgment when they do get distracted,” she says. “This judgment can create a never-ending cycle of not being able to get things done, so they notice a huge improvement in productivity when they are able to break it.”
Cut back on the self-criticism
People with ADHD get a lot of negative feedback, from themselves and others. “It’s also true that ADHD frustrates you as well: ‘I meant to do this, but I didn’t follow through,'” Dr. Zylowska notes. A regular mindfulness meditation practice can help you break the cycle and be kind to yourself. By noticing your thoughts with curiosity instead of judgment, you can begin to accept them, and that leads to self-compassion.
Better awareness, less stress
If you have ADHD, you can sometimes focus on things with a laser-beam intensity, blocking out anything else. Mindfulness can boost that control, according to Israeli researchers. They found that mindfulness meditation helped young adult students with ADHD or other learning disorders become more aware of the present moment, improving their attention as well as decreasing hyperactivity and stress levels.
When to expect changes
Unfortunately, there’s no definite answer for this—or for how long you have to practice each day (that’s the million-dollar question, Dr. Zylowska says). But experts do have some data that point to clues.
Think weeks, not months
Many mindfulness-based therapy courses take eight weeks, like the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. In MBSR, you’re in a group for two-hour sessions, then practice at home for five to 20 minutes a day, Dr. Zylowska explains. “If you look at studies with MBSR, the more you do at home, the more benefit you derive,” she says.
Just 15 minutes a day might be enough
After taking an eight-week mindfulness course, U.S. Marines who meditated daily were better at controlling their wandering minds when they were doing tasks that required their attention, one study found. Dr. Zylowska’s mindfulness training starts with five minutes. “Over the course of eight weeks, we work our way up to 15 minutes,” she says. “And that has shown to improve ADHD symptoms as well as some markers of executive function.”
The perks accumulate from the get-go
“Little by little, you will gradually notice some subtle things that might be just like having more awareness of your thought process, having more awareness of your breath as you’re moving through the day, having more awareness of your level of stress,” Stanwyck says. “You’re going to begin to notice those things relatively quickly, and that’s good.” Dr. Levy agrees. “From my experience, my patients typically notice some changes immediately, like relaxation, and then they get stronger over time.”
First, motivate yourself to start
As every meditation beginner knows, concentration can be tough to sustain at first. And that’s even truer for the ADHD brain because focusing on the breath can be, well, boring. Here’s how to get past that obstacle.
Think short and sweet
Dr. Levy teaches a technique called Stop, which you can do anywhere, anytime, even on the go. “You just stop, take a breath, observe what’s happening around you and what you’re feeling or your senses,” she says. “Even 20 seconds of just stopping and focusing on the present moment is practicing mindfulness.” Think of mindfulness as a muscle. The more you work it, the stronger it becomes. The bottom line, Dr. Zylowska says: “It’s important to start at a place where people can actually engage and not feel like a failure.”
“If you have any kind of hyperactivity in the brain, it’s also in the body. And so what people need or benefit more from is practices where they’re not forced to sit still,” Stanwyck says. That’s right: you can totally meditate while moving. “I’ll often have people do a standing or walking meditation or move the body in a way that feels comfortable as you bring your attention to your breath,” she says.
Going out to the patio, backyard, or a park might make it easier for you to stay in the present moment, as people with ADHD often find they need more stimuli in order to pay attention. “If you’re outdoors, you’re going to hear the birds singing or the bees buzzing,” Stanwyck says. You also become aware of other things, including smells, what you see around you, and the sensations in your body.
Turn it into a daily habit
To maintain the gains, you have to practice regularly. Easier said than done, of course, but try these expert-approved tips.
Focus on the little things
Instead of emphasizing how long you were able to concentrate on something, work your short practices into your daily routine, Stanwyck suggests. “So it’s about how often did you pause and remember to just notice your breath in the past week? How many times in a day were you able to do that?” she says.
Strike a balance
You want to walk the fine line between challenging yourself and being kind to yourself when things get too hard, Dr. Zylowska says. “So you might be asked to sit still and pay attention to your breath. And then we debrief: ‘How was it? Was it difficult or not?'” she says. “And always, especially as the sitting increases, there’s permission to say, ‘You explored the discomfort, but when the discomfort gets to be too much, then you can use movement, like mindful walking, as a substitute.'”
Get curious and explore
“A big part of mindfulness practice is activating curiosity about your experience and seeing what works and doesn’t work for me,” Dr. Zylowska explains. “That’s really important in training mindfulness in general, but especially for ADHD, where you may have neurological differences in how you experience things.”
So if you really find it tough to sit, explore the more informal practices like mindful eating, Dr. Zylowska suggests. “If somebody is gardening, you can bring that mindfulness practice to that, just so you build a bit more intentional connection with your breath, your body, or senses,” she says.
Find a partner (or a group)
You may already have a friend who goes walking or to the gym with you. So think of mindfulness as mental training you can do with someone (or someones) else who’ll help keep you to a regular routine, Dr. Zylowska suggests.
Other helpful allies: “Maybe working with a therapist or coach that has mindfulness as part of their toolbox, taking a mindfulness class, doing a retreat, or signing up for mindfulness community online,” she adds.
Download an app
There are several apps that are more ADHD-friendly—they’re short and visually engaging and even have videos. One to try is Headspace. Dr. Zylowska also recommends My Life, which has a series for ADHD that’s geared toward teens and young adults, and Get In the Flow (for which she serves as an adviser), which incorporates cognitive behavioral therapy and includes some mindfulness practices for adults with ADHD.
Can meditation replace medication?
Maybe, if your ADHD symptoms are on the milder end, Dr. Zylowska, says. But treating ADHD requires many different tools, she adds. There’s a good chance meditation will be an add-on to therapy, medication, and exercise. Also important, Dr. Zylowska notes: “Making sure your lifestyle is supporting your brain with regular routines, good sleep, and healthy nutrition.” But try mindfulness. You may find that adding it to your meds can improve the quality of your life, Dr. Zylowska says.