Reframe Your ADHD-Related Stress

 ADHD Weekly, April 11, 2019

Having ADHD can be stressful.

While finding professionals and following a treatment plan can be a major source of stress and irritation, it’s not the primary cause of ADHD stress.

It’s the little things that cause the most stress. That includes the messages people who have ADHD receive throughout the day—even messages from themselves about their own expectations. Lost car keys, forgotten appointments, the feeling of not having enough time—these common experiences and others like them contribute to stress. As does the general feeling that you should do better, even when you know you’re already doing your best.

“ADHD symptoms like frustration and impatience tend to compound stress and anxiety,” says Jeffrey Gersten, PsyD, of the Loyola University Health System and Gottlieb Memorial Hospital in Melrose Park, Illinois.

ADHD and feeling stressed out

Stress is the emotional and physical reaction to situations that we perceive to be difficult. If you have ADHD, you can experience a heightened level of stress because of difficulties regulating emotions and negative reactions you’ve experienced in similar situations before. Together, these things can make symptoms even worse—then make the situation feel more stressful than it would have been before.

Researchers who study stress in people with ADHD have even noted higher levels of cortisol, a hormone released when a person feels stressed, than in people who don’t have ADHD. In fact, just thinking about the things that stressed them increased the amount of cortisol present in their bodies.

Adults with ADHD really do have more things to feel stressed out about, says Ari Tuckman, PsyD, the author of More Attention, Less Deficit. ADHD symptoms affect work performance, home life, and social life. These things impact how much money a person makes and whether they could lose their job, along with their happiness in their relationships.

Reframing the source of some stress

Reframing the source of your stress and how you view the situation can make a difference. A group of researchers in Spain studied coping strategies that worked well to reduce stress for people with ADHD.

The three they saw as most helpful were:

  • Positive reappraisal or reframing the situation: Reevaluating stressful events to see them in a more positive light
  • Support seeking: Seeking out support from others in times of stress
  • Planning: Planning ahead to solve problems and find ways of dealing with stressful situations

“Positive reappraisal is about taking a negative event in your life and finding a way to see it in a more positive way,” says ADHD blogger Neil Petersen. “It’s probably not a huge surprise that being able to reframe challenging experiences in a positive way is psychologically beneficial. The tricky part, of course, is in finding how exactly to do that in your own life.”

Mr. Peterson says that the process of finding those areas that you can reframe can include:

  • Seeing symptoms in scientific, not moralistic, terms. What some people claim is laziness or a lack of willpower are symptoms related to reward processing and executive function. Struggling with them does not mean you are making poor moral choices, but that you are coping with a brain function. “We go from seeing ADHD as a character flaw to seeing it more neutrally as a result of how the ADHD brain works,” he says.
  • Understanding our own behaviors in terms of our symptoms. Behavior is related to how you may be coping with symptoms, says Mr. Peterson. Recognizing that symptoms are not personal failings can reframe how you view your stressors.
  • Recognizing that ADHD can influence your goals. ADHD influences your environment and the things you find enjoyable. Mr. Peterson says that instead of trying to live as if you don’t have ADHD, focus on creating a life that makes you happy.

Coping skills can reduce ADHD stress

So what can you do to reduce some of your stress? The general recommendations to eat well, get enough sleep, and fit exercise into your day are helpful for everyone. Other useful approaches to reducing stress include practicing mindfulness, reducing commitments when possible, using a calendar to break tasks down into smaller parts, and delegating.

The practice of taking a deep breath—or 10 of them—can immediately help reduce stress, according to research. The physical act of taking 10 deep breaths changes how the body is reacting, forcing you to slow your breathing and reduce the amount of cortisol your body releases. This gives the brain a chance to process the information coming in and react better. Combined with a mindfulness approach, a simple breathing technique can quickly bring on a more relaxed feeling.

“Regulation of breathing is a proven way of reducing stress,” says Dr. Gersten. “People with ADHD need to slow their minds down to stop the negative thinking. Otherwise, they can quickly spin out of control.”

If you have tried to practice these approaches and still feel your stress levels climb, talk with your doctor. Sometimes talk therapy can help to reframe the issues and allow you a space to get your worries out in the open. For some people, if behavioral changes and reframing don’t work, a second evaluation and treatment for a co-occurring condition, such as anxiety, can also help.

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