How to "Outgrow" ADHD with Motivation and Meditation

Research suggests activities to reduce the symptoms of ADHD in teens and adults.

Posted Nov 15, 2020

 Meditation by twenty20photos.
Meditation can help those with ADHD, similarly to medication.
Source: Meditation by twenty20photos.

Is it possible to outgrow ADHD, asked Cheryl Maguire in a recent post in the NY Times? She reports that there is no consensus, but that many teens and adults develop coping skills, engage in beneficial activities, productively use medication, and choose careers and interests that engage their brains. Many teens and adults previously diagnosed with ADHD may become asymptomatic as they mature. Or they might continue to have some symptoms, but not display any significant life impairments. These observations suggest that it may be possible to outgrow ADHD, but don't necessarily provide the science about how to do so. Three interventions—motivation, medication, and meditation—may be particularly helpful.

Many children and teens with ADHD are described as "unmotivated". However, find those activities that interest them and they can become overly focused, motivated, and active learners. As adults, individuals formerly diagnosed with ADHD who pick a career that engages them are more motivated and often become highly successful entrepreneurs. The role of parents who want to help their children outgrow ADHD is straightforward: Nudge them toward their interests, where they are motivated to grow, and where they learn how to sustain their focus and effort.

Medication is often the first line of defense for treating ADHD. It is commonly prescribed because it works. Medication increases focus and reduces impulsivity for approximately 75% of those diagnosed with ADHD. But it might be most helpful for teens and adults who want to develop executive function skills and establish daily habits such as exercise and meditation that will help them when they stop using medication.

There are many daily, lifelong activities that can help individuals outgrow ADHD. Exercise, exposure to nature, and mediation all are daily activities that can minimize the symptoms of ADHD. Mindfulness meditation is one of the most promising interventions for kids and adults with ADHD. However, many of these kids and adults describe how they can’t sit still or do “nothing” for more than a few minutes. For them, ADHD is defined by their need to have something to occupy their mind and body. Meditation is viewed as a silent, motionless, emptying of the mind—impossible for many with ADHD.

But what if we used a tool that reliably engages many kids and adults with ADHD—a screen? Guided meditation apps and videos engage the brains of those with ADHD and can be more suitable tools for developing a meditation practice than traditional methods. Parents and experts have long recognized how readily kids and adults with ADHD can be transfixed, fully attentive, and unmoving when engaged by a screen. This observation often leads to using screens as a type of babysitter for kids or as a stress management tool for adults. However, engaging screen-based technologies have also been successfully used for the education of individuals with ADHD

In mindfulness meditation, people focus their full attention, learning how to pay attention to moment-to-moment experiences. The process is an exercise in attending only to what they want to focus on. Many people practice mindfulness meditation by focusing on their breath and attempting to screen out all other distractions. This can be difficult for a novice and particularly problematic for adults and teens who are distractible by their nature. Meditation can be challenging to learn and requires ongoing practice and patience. Indeed, most people talk about their mindfulness meditation as a “practice,” and aptly so because it is most helpful to engage in meditation on a regular basis.

Other techniques that involve meditative and focusing practices, such as sitting meditation and yoga, may also be helpful for individuals with ADHD. Many adults with ADHD report that while the practice of traditional meditation can be difficult due to the need to sit still for 10 to 20 minutes at a time, it is also extremely helpful. Some adults with ADHD have found that guided meditations in which they watch a video or listen to a tape that walks them through specific areas of focus are a better fit for their needs. Others report that yoga, which uses a variety of breathing techniques and allows them to move, has been more helpful to improve focus.

Meditation works because it changes the brain. MRI scans show that after eight weeks of meditation practice, the amygdala—the fight-or-flight center of the brain—shrinks. This change in brain structure suggests that meditation results in less responsiveness to stress. Furthermore, the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with executive function, becomes thicker after repeated meditation practice, suggesting an improvement in the capacity for self-control and regulating attention.

A study of mindfulness training found that an eight-week training program resulted in a number of improvements in teens and adults with ADHD. Participants reported meaningful declines in core ADHD symptoms of inattention and hyperactivity and gains in self-management. They also noted a reduction in symptoms of anxiety and depression. They found that they were willing to spend the time involved with the meditation training and were planning to continue to use it after the conclusion of the formal training.

There are many different forms of meditation, and it can be confusing to understand the difference between meditation, mindfulness, and mindfulness meditation. However, all of these different forms can be useful in helping teens and adults with ADHD relieve some of their symptoms of inattention. The key is to find a system that works for the individual. Using screen-based technologies that can overcome some of the attention difficulties faced by those with ADHD is logical and effective. It is also important to recognize that, as with many other activities, mindfulness meditation will seem to work really well on some days and not as well on others. It may also prove to be most effective when combined with daily medication, exercise, and organizational strategies.

Apps and media including Headspace; Calm; the videos of Jon Kabat-Zinn; and even Peloton's guided meditations can help teens and adults develop a mindfulness meditation practice.