Recently I’ve talked with several women with ADHD about how they manage their ADHD-induced overwhelm.  They all noted that they had a strong need, several times a day, to break away from what they were doing in order to “recalibrate” or calm themselves.  The youngest of them walked out of the house several times a day to run an errand.  In so doing she:  listened to music in the car (calms the ADHD mind); got a Diet Coke and smoked a cigarette (both impact the chemistry of the brain); knocked something small off her “to do” list (lessened overwhelm) and got outdoors.   Her routine is an amazingly neat package of calming strategies, all unconsciously designed to change the chemistry of her brain and provide greater focus.

The second woman reported that before she got her medications straightened out, she used to sneak away for a cigarette regularly, which “reset” her so she could better manage what was going on around her.  With medications for her ADHD (which lessened her need for self-medicating with cigarettes and caffeine) she was able to quit the smoking, making both she and her husband quite happy.

The third woman simply gets up from whatever she is doing (including family dinner) to go take a walk, sometimes disconcerting those around her.  She exercises constantly and teaches exercise classes.  Exercise has been repeatedly shown in research to improve focus for those with ADHD.  It allows her to deal with whatever might come at her when she returns home.

Everyone “resets” themselves in some way, I think.  After a hard day I will put my feet up and read, or go for a walk.  The difference is only in the immediacy and frequency of the need.  Where the women with ADHD feel an immediate need to recalibrate because they are overwhelmed in that moment, I can “wait” until the end of the day and recalibrate at a time of my choosing.

The issue these couples were having was with the interruption of the “flow” of their day, and with the non-ADHD partner feeling abandoned – as if he mattered less than the errand, the walk or the cigarette.  This put the ADHD partner in a tough position – she needed the break, but knew that her partner disapproved of her leaving so it increased her anxiety and resulted in her not always reconnecting when she arrived home 10 or 30 minutes later.  This lack of connection then reinforced her partner’s dislike of her habit.

This is a classic “symptom/response/response” pattern, and the way to deal with it is to break the pattern with better understanding as well as slightly modified behaviors.  Here’s how:

  1. Recognize that this “resetting” of oneself is necessary for the ADHD partner (the need for it may be diminished with medication).  In the overall, the recalibration should allow the partner to better engage with the partner, therefore it should be viewed by both as a positive for the relationship.
  2. However, it is not a positive when it results in repeated disconnection or hard feelings.  Therefore, the ADHD partner should make a concerted effort to include in the recalibration routine some sort of soft start (such as “I need to go out for 10 minutes but will be back soon”) and reconnection at the end (perhaps a hug, or verbal offer to reconnect such as “I’m back…what would you like to do?”)
  3. The non-ADHD partner should find a way to make the exit as stress-less as possible.  In one couple, the man had set up his office so he could knock a few things off while his partner was out, thus distracting himself from her absence and creating additional time to be with her upon her return.
  4. Lastly, I would recommend experimenting to find multiple options for self-calming routines.  For example, some ADHD adults find it helpful to have a “quiet room” or place in the home to which they can retreat when they need to recalibrate.  This might include a tool room, basement or a study with a door (and when the door is closed that means “don’t interrupt!”)  Others can recalibrate by knocking off some housework – perhaps going through a single room.  The activity is calming.

 One ADHD spouse noted that she feels “guilty” taking the break at home, and so had trouble envisioning creating a retreat space.  I would encourage her to celebrate the fact that she had devised an effective coping strategy and simply work with her partner to make sure it didn’t have any negative impact on their relationship.  With better attention to each partner’s needs in this interaction (recalibration for one and continuity for the other), both can feel good about this routine.

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