Living with ADHD means you’ve got a race car brain with bicycle brakes. That’s the analogy we’ve used with our patients in our decades of clinical practice — to much success. Not only does it comprehensively sum up the realities of ADHD, but it does so in a shame-free way that restores a positive self-image. Managing ADHD symptoms, we explain, is all about strengthening those brakes – and there are a host of ways to do that.
But thriving with ADHD starts with something more elemental: rethinking our core concept of the condition. On our end, we’ve gone as far as to rename attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD). We think a more accurate name is variable attention stimulus trait, or VAST, which places focus not on a “deficit” of attention, but an abundance of it.
In essence, living a happy, healthy life with ADHD (or VAST) comes down to eliminating shame, understanding the unique workings of your mind, and following strategies that focus on and nurture your strengths. Here’s how.
How to Live a Happy Life with ADHD
1. Don’t Feed Your “Demon”
The ADHD mind, more so than the neurotypical mind, may be hard-wired to ruminate and stew in negative self-talk. The antidote is a simple cognitive trick dating back to antiquity.
When our thoughts aren’t focused on anything in particular, we enter what’s called the default mode network (DMN). Opposite to that is the task positive network (TPN), which activates when we are paying close attention to something and our imagination is positively engaged.
In neurotypical people, switching to the TPN is associated with a balancing decrease in DMN activity. This allows the individual to focus on what whatever demands attention. But for individuals with ADHD, the DMN does not deactivate as much as it does for neurotypical people. The DMN persistently demands our attention, pulling us away from whatever deserves our focus, and making it difficult to sustain focus.
This leads to trouble. It means we can get trapped in the DMN, which also happens to contain our history, feelings, attitudes, and images of ourselves. For diabolical reasons, the DMN (which we call the “demon”) pours out a stream of negative thoughts, images, and possibilities. You can get stuck in these ruminations in ways that people with ADHD know only too well. What’s more, these thoughts tend to steal our attention away from other tasks and priorities.
The solution? Don’t feed the demon with your attention. How not to feed it? By redirecting your attention. It’s simple, but it’s difficult – like trying to look away from a horrible accident as you’re driving past it. Fortunately, any redirecting activity will do: Call a friend, jump up and down, do a crossword – do anything to activate the TPN and your attention away from the DMN’s stream of negativity and brooding.
2. Train Your Cerebellum
The cerebellum, which is involved in balance and coordination, is also tied closely to ADHD. This explains why clumsiness and discoordination are common in individuals with ADHD. Research over the last few decades has also revealed that the cerebellum is involved in our higher brain functions. We now know what we hadn’t known until recently, that the cerebellum doesn’t just regulate movement and coordination, but also strongly impacts cognition, emotion, and attention.
So what can we do to stimulate the cerebellum so that it can help improve ADHD? We can target it through daily balance and coordination exercises that work to improve these skills and to sharpen cognition, emotional control, focus, and attention. For 15 minutes a day, work through balancing exercises – stand on one leg; stand on one leg with your eyes closed; stand on a wobble board; hop; do a plank exercise; or change clothes with your eyes closed! And do sports that demand balance: skateboarding, long boarding, surfing, skiing, snowboarding, fencing, wrestling, ice hockey, cycling, karate, kick-boxing (but stay safe!), even dancing!
3. Seek Connection
Studies show that finding social support and feeling connected have a positive impact on health, and that social isolation is detrimental to it1. If you’re living in a state of disconnection, that can cloud your mind and exacerbate ADHD symptoms.
As good as it is for them, many people fear connection – perhaps because it makes us feel vulnerable. But controlled vulnerability is good for us. Opening up and connecting with others – waving at the person across the street; smiling at the person at the checkout counter; making time for friends, family, and community – gives us doses of much-needed neurotransmitters, hormones, and peptides. It is a powerful way to make the brain sing, and one of the few things in life that’s free, fun, and good for you.
4. Find Your Right Difficult
Those of us with ADHD spend our lives being told that we don’t do things well. Usually, however, we’re exceptionally good at something difficult. That is your “right difficult” – a challenging activity, creative outlet, talent that matters to you and challenges you.
You can find your right difficult at any age. You may have known since childhood, for example, that you love writing or playing a sport. You may realize later in life, after opening yourself up to a new activity, that you particularly enjoy a certain hobby. Your right difficult can also be your career or your family. You could have more than one. One of the best ways to get the most out of life with ADHD is daily engagement with a creative outlet, your “right difficult”.
5. Create Stellar Environments
Set yourself up for success by finding environments that suit your unique strengths and getting rid of the ones that shame and humiliate you. Be around people who support and value you, whether in your career or in your relationships. People with ADHD face all kinds of negative messaging daily, which can make us feel like we actually deserve to be insulted and ridiculed. Don’t fall for this trap. Deliberately affiliate yourself with the right people who admire you and give you nothing but positivity.
6. Harness the Power of Movement
Exercise and movement do so much for our ADHD brains. A bout of exercise – be it dancing, walking the dog, playing a sport, or being in nature – is like taking a little bit of Ritalin and a little bit of Prozac. Multiple studies have shown that physical exercise can improve core symptoms of ADHD — and executive functions as well 2 3. It’s no wonder why so many people with ADHD describe exercise as a non-negotiable component of their daily routines.
7. Respect Medication
Medication can be powerful tool to help ADHD but an awful lot of people fear it. Used properly, ADHD medications are safe and effective, which is why they’ve been in use since 1937. Used properly, they can be true life-changers. Still, many families come to our practices and immediately talk about medication in a pejorative way. (“I don’t want to drug myself/my kid.”) Once they learn the facts, however, most want to give medication a try. After all, a trial is a trial, and the effects are totally reversible.
Though most patients will require some trial and error, medications remain a highly effective treatment for ADHD. About 80% of people who have the condition will improve on medication. It would do us well to shift our views on what ADHD medication can do for us, and collectively treat it as a tool that can help propel us enormously as long as it is used properly.
“Treating” ADHD, we like to say, means unwrapping your gifts by using as many of the strategies above as work for you. Take these even further by using them habitually, be it exercise, practicing your right difficult, expanding your world of connections, or taking medication. When you crate a multi-modal “unwrapping” plan, you’ll be able to turn ADHD into true asset in your life. Remember that ADHD is a good-news diagnosis. Once you know you have it, your life can only get better.