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ADHD

How Meditation Can Sharpen the ADHD Brain

Understanding the ADHD 'hunter' brain framework and tools to harness its power.

Key points

  • Some facets of ADHD reflect the 'hunter' or 'explorer' brain.
  • Some settings are not conducive to those with ADHD and result in negative schemas.
  • Specific styles of meditation may be useful for those with ADHD.

Perhaps you've found yourself at a red light, watching your takeaway coffee roll down the windshield, because you left it on the car roof, again. Maybe you feel like a magpie as you're frequently distracted by 'shiny' new projects, careers, or organizational systems (none of which become implemented). Yet, when you get stuck into something, you go deep for hours - rarely surfacing to eat, drink, visit the toilet or even sleep. All of these are signs you're a hunter living in a farmer's world, and this is the month to celebrate: Attentional Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Awareness Month (October 2022).

The Hunter Brain

Hunters often meet the criteria for an ADHD diagnosis, an utterly misleading name. An ADHD brain can propel you to success in the right environment; you see, ADHD brain traits have survival value in a hunter-gatherer culture:

  • Noticing changes in your environment is vital to catching prey and avoiding threats.
  • Slow decision-making leaves you open to becoming a tiger's lunch.
  • Complete immersion in a hunt without concern for time or bodily functions is vital for success.
  • Being drawn from the safe and mundane toward novelty opens new territories and opportunities. We might call the 'hunter' brain an 'explorer' brain, as our ancestors were spurred to cross oceans and lands.
  • The challenge for adventure-seeking hunters is that we live in a farmer's world. In fact, we have clinically termed these explorer traits: distractibility, impulsivity, time blindness, hyper fixation, and risk-taking.

A pervasive sociocultural expectation is that you shouldn't be distracted by your environment or become bored by repetitive tasks or slow moments. Instead, you must focus on the long-term, pay attention to all details, and be risk-averse. Sure, in a lot of settings, these are indeed valuable skills!

However, there are many areas in our world where hunters excel. For example, entrepreneurs, creatives, and sales folks, to name a few. These hunter minds were likely the 'secret sauce' of Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Salvador Dali, and more recently, Simone Biles and Richard Branson. So you can see, our world needs these adventurous brains.

ADHD in the Classroom

Unfortunately, formative life experiences of ADHD'ers often result in developing negative core beliefs about themselves or maladaptive schemas – namely, a sense of low self-worth.

514692835/Shutterstock
Young child at desk looking sad
Source: 514692835/Shutterstock

Exhibit one: the classroom. An environment where children are expected to sit under fluorescent lights and direct their attention to whatever the teacher is teaching, regardless of interest, while resisting the urge to fidget, run around, or daydream.

Some children with ADHD internalize the sense that they are failures, to be abandoned if they ask for what they need, and that nobody will ever understand how they feel. If If you're a person with ADHD, you might feel an ever-present sense that, at some point, everyone will find out just how flawed you are. This is evidenced in the significantly higher number of stress-related disorders experienced (i.e., anxiety and depression).

Psychoneuroimmunology and Meditation

Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) has demonstrated that both stress and how you think influence your health. Many people are therefore impacted by both neurophysiological and neuropsychological experiences.

Meditation cultivates attentional control, bolsters mood and decreases anxiety. A hallmark of the ADHD is the default mode network (DMN), the part of the brain that is active when you're not fully engaged in the present moment. This is because those with ADHD have trouble being here, now. Meditation is one of the best tools to cultivate such present-moment awareness.

Chances are you've heard of mindfulness, which is frequently taught as an open-awareness practice. Specifically, you are open to all your senses: sounds, smells, sensations and the like, along with awareness of your private experiences such as your thoughts, feelings, and urges. This style of meditation is beneficial. However, it is not the top recommendation for people with ADHD.

Focused-Attention Meditation

Focused attention is a more practical choice for some with ADHD, because the mind is focused on the breath, a sound, a sensation in the body, or repeating a particular word or sound. This is a very different experience from the quickly-shifting attention of the ADHD brain and improves attentional control and focus.

Yoga

The moving meditation practice of yoga is also helpful. Various movement forms support you to practice coordinating a movement goal with sensorimotor feedback while engaging in a mindful exploration of the physical movement experience. Yoga also offers an opportunity to enhance vagal tone through stretching and contracting movements.

The vagus nerve is the largest of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), responsible for regulating internal organs. Essentially, it evokes a 'relaxation response' after sympathetic arousal. Heart-rate variability indicates that those with ADHD may have reduced cardiac-linked parasympathetic activity. This means that the emotional reactivity associated with ADHD is indicative of ineffective parasympathetic responding: Normal levels of emotions or physiological arousal are experienced as more difficult to manage.

Enhancing vagal tone has long been prescribed as an intervention for immune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis. Such conditions have high comorbidity with ADHD. This may reflect shared genetic profiles. Regardless, enhancing immunity and mood are helpful.

Additionally, the multitude of sensory experiences in physical yoga suits the ADHD brain in maintaining attention. Increasing the heart rate offers an additional benefit as exercise is vital.

Community Connection

One final tip: practice in community. This may not be all the time, but it helps you plant the habits that are harder to cultivate at home, on your own, with ever so many distractions. If you can get into a meditation hall or yoga class, you'll be one step closer to harnessing the power of your ADHD mind.

Remember, the intention is to sharpen the ADHD brain, not to get rid of the ADHD. Hyperfocus, creativity and adventure are beautiful skills. So adventure well, and we'll dive into a more detailed PNI exploration in my next article.

References

Balogh, L., Pulay, A. J., & Réthelyi, J. M. (2022). Genetics in the ADHD Clinic: How Can Genetic Testing Support the Current Clinical Practice?. Frontiers in psychology, 13, 751041. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.751041

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Katzman, M. A., Bilkey, T. S., Chokka, P. R., Fallu, A., & Klassen, L. J. (2017). Adult ADHD and comorbid disorders: clinical implications of a dimensional approach. BMC psychiatry, 17(1), 302. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-017-1463-3

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