Rethinking Meditation for the ADHD Mind
A.K.A. Meditation isn't just sitting still and clearing your mind.
A lot of people think that meditation isn’t for them or that meditation isn’t something they can do. ADHD’ers, in particular, are often convinced that meditation, while good in theory, isn’t reasonable to practice. I understand this resistance, I was there myself once. I believed that meditation wasn’t helpful for me to a large extent because meditation was always sold to me as sitting still, being quiet, and clearing my mind. These aren’t things that work for my brain. In fact, they range from being physically painful to being physically impossible, honestly.
What is meditation?
Before we can get to answering the question of how do we make meditation work for the ADHD brain, we first must define our terms a bit. Simply put, meditation is just any focused state that brings stability and emotional calm. Everything else is optional. This means that there is nothing stopping meditation from being active, including music, being around others, or anything else. So long as there is a focused attention that results is stability and emotional calm, you are doing meditation and you are doing it right.
But, what about mindfulness!? I hear you say.
Mindfulness and mindfulness meditation have so deeply impacted the world of meditation that many people think of them as largely interchangeable. This isn’t the case! Mindfulness can be part of meditation, but it doesn't have to be. Further, mindfulness can happen without meditation at all!
Mindfulness simply refers to paying attention to your body, thoughts, and feelings in particular. Mindfulness is a useful practice which has been shown to help people with ADHD, autism, anxiety, and a range of mental health problems. As a meditation practice, though, mindfulness meditation involves being focused on your body, thoughts, and feelings as a way to inspire stability and emotional calm. While mindfulness and mindfulness meditation can be really powerful tools for working through symptoms related to our neurodivergent minds and mental health issues, the hows and whys are probably best left to another day.
However, one thing I want to make exceptionally clear is: meditation does not equal mindfulness and mindfulness does not equal meditation.
The buried lede: Tips to make meditation work for ADHD’ers
Now that we have the terms and expectations out of the way, here are some tips that may actually help meditation work with your ADHD brain
1. Include repetitive tasks
A lot of people report that repetitive tasks are quite relaxing and meditative. Repetitive tasks, much like fidgeting, help the ADHD mind focus by giving us some much needed stimulation, sometimes bringing a clarity not available otherwise. Examples include colouring, drawing, organizing lego, practicing a sport or martial art. All of these can be meditation too.
2. Include elements that are of particular interest
Fact: ADHD’ers struggle to focus on things that aren’t interesting or engaging to us, while things that are interesting to us engage our focus. This means that including elements that are of particular interest into meditation could allow us to focus better, making the whole meditation process more successful. Examples include: adding elements of an interesting spiritual practice. Be careful, however, that the elements you add don’t direct you away from the other main part of meditation: inspiring calm.
3. Consider guided meditation
Like mindfulness, guided meditation is a form or meditation that can be included, but doesn’t have to be. Guidance can take the form of guided focus on your body, thoughts, or feelings, or guidance in other ways. With guidance, there is a strong sense of accountability, especially if another person is giving the guidance in real-time, which can help ADHD’ers stay focused. However, the bigger help is likely down to eliminating decisions and giving us a stimulus (the guide) to focus on similar to with repetitive tasks above. Examples include yoga and Lamaze breathing. Meditation apps such as Headspace offer guided meditations that might also help.
4. Add music
Maybe this is a theme, but adding music once again gives our brains something to focus on that isn’t the meditation or what we “should” be feeling or doing. Like with the tips above, this can give ADHD’ers the stimulation they need and allow them to focus more attention on the task at hand.
5. Add movement
As the amazing @haloquin mentioned on twitter: “Don't sit still if it hurts! Do the thing in the way that works for you!” In fact, if your meditation practice hurts, my guess is that it isn’t likely to create that stable, emotional calm that you’re looking for. At that point, it really stops being meditation at all. So, if sitting still doesn’t work for you, move. This can be things like going for a walk in nature, swimming in a local river, practicing martial arts, or anything else that gets your body moving.
With the above tips in mind, it is important to remember that for meditation to work you need 1) focused attention that 2) results in stable emotional calm. If you are adding something to your meditation that isn’t allowing you to focus or isn’t leading you to emotional calm, you aren’t accomplishing your goal. If the music that you’re including, for example, is amping you up rather than chilling you out, that needs to change.
Most important of all, though, is tat you have to keep trying! Meditating isn’t something that comes easily, especially to people with ADHD. Even meditating for a minute or two at first can be challenging, but with practice it does get easier. Over time, you will be able to meditate for longer, or achieve the same emotional benefits from shorter meditation sessions; it is definitely worth the effort!