Before Medication: Natural Habits to Empower Your ADHD

by Josh A.

Growing up, I always knew something was off, especially when I compared myself to other kids around me. I was the type to lose things and often make mistakes at school, which affected my performance. During my school years, I had a lot of anxiety as a result of feeling like I couldn’t get things right or do what was expected, and I feared getting backlash.

Coming from Nigeria, there are strict expectations on the behavior of kids, so having ADHD traits made me often feel out of place. At university, things spiraled as I became depressed and had a hard time with managing school, relationships, and other expectations. It was only over the past year that I got some time to reflect on my recurrent struggles and after research that the connection with ADHD became clear. In Nigeria, issues around mental health are still not widely discussed. There is still a lot of stigma associated with people dealing with mental health difficulties. There is not much out there regarding neurodiversity and potential treatment. I am starting the process of getting diagnosed, so at the moment, I have only been able to explore natural options. These are a few areas that I struggle with and some ways I have found to help me deal with them.

Cultivating Motivation

Some things I do to move past the inertia around doing tasks include: 

  • using visual reminders
  • planning ahead
  • starting small 
  • having specific goals

I have found that planning my day the night before, positions me better to achieve my goals. This strategy makes me less likely to fall into distractions than when I don’t know exactly what needs to be done. I also create to-do lists that clearly state what needs to be done and break down the tasks into the smallest actionable tasks. For example, instead of stating a goal to clean the house, it is more helpful to make the goal to remove any clutter within the bedroom.

I also try to use reminders, as well as morning and evening routines. Accountability and body doubling help me in dealing with boring tasks. One can achieve this with groups like Flex your ADHD slack group and their Monday Morning accountability calls or using the focusmate app for body doubling. Another thing that helps is identifying one’s energy profile by identifying the periods of the day you are most energetic. You can maximize productivity during that time frame.

Caring for Emotions

Emotional struggles such as depression, anxiety, catastrophic thinking and just being prone to seeing the glass as half empty are common with ADHDers. After many years of being told off at school and home, we tend to develop some bouts of negative emotions around not meeting societal expectations. 

Psychiatrist and author William W. Dodson, MD, estimates that by age 10, children who have ADHD receive 20,000 more negative messages than neurotypical children. This explains a lot of the feelings of being flawed, low self-esteem, guilt, shame, incompetence amongst others. Also according to Dr. Dodson, people with ADHD have a condition known as Rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD), which is extreme emotional sensitivity and pain triggered by the perception that a person has been rejected or criticized by important people in their life. 

This means that ADHDers are more emotionally impacted by any hint of disapproval to the point that it can be impairing daily functioning. The best ways to manage RSD are to be more self-compassionate and make time for self-care. Self-compassion can come from understanding that, given our condition and what we have been through, we are more likely to have it harder than others.  I find for example that instead of making a big deal of mistakes, adding a bit of humor into one’s life helps, including when one makes mistakes. This is a good way to diffuse negative emotions because it’s never as bad as it can often seem.  

Self-Care

I found that self-care is key to being able to stay positive. Self-care doesn’t just mean getting a massage or doing yoga. Self-care is anything that supports you being your best self and increases your ability to deal with stress. Hence investing in self-care activities is not a luxury for us but a necessity. To deal with anxiety and depression, some practices I try to adopt include mindfulness meditation, exercise, eating, and sleeping right. I use an acronym known as MEDS (Mindfulness/Meditation, Exercise, Diet, and Sleep) to serve as a reminder for my preferred daily practices. 

Exercising was a surprising one for me. I always thought you exercised for physical fitness, but apparently being actively moving has benefits in alleviating ADHD symptoms. These exercises, such as running and cycling, done for about 30 mins a day, five days a week have been found to significantly improve focus and motivation and can also reduce depression. 

Diet is another area to be considered in managing ADHD struggles. For me, I am still experimenting with what works for me. I am trying to avoid foods that could cause inflammation as this leads to a flare-up with ADHD symptoms for me. I have also added multivitamins, Ashwagandha, and Omega 3s into my daily supplements intake. These have helped significantly in emotional regulation, especially dealing with anxiety and low moods. On days I don’t take them I can tell the difference. I am also looking into natural antidepressants such as St John’s Wort, 5-HTP, and S-adenosyl-L-methionine (SAMe). 

Sleeping is another big aspect. I find that whenever I can get enough sleep, I feel more relaxed, have less negative thinking, and feel more on top of things. 

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is one way to bring the mind into the present versus in the past (depression-zone) or the future (anxiety-zone).  Mindful.org defines it as “the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us”. It can include activities such as focusing on breathing, releasing any tension in the body, and paying attention to the surroundings. Also having some mantra on hand can usually help calm down when one feels anxious. Focusing on three things I am grateful for, helps with developing a positive outlook for the day. Doing these practices as part of my morning routine helps to set the tone for the day. When one has ADHD, it is highly likely that they have really active minds firing rapidly in different directions. Thus one may find it hard to focus in the present. But with mindfulness, the mind can be intentionally focused in a direction that is more positive and calming. 

Clearing Up Overwhelm

ADHD causes me to feel chronically overwhelmed from struggling to keep up with everyday demands. I find myself easily burned out by the end of the week. It often feels like there are too many browser tabs open in my mind that need to be processed. Due to ADHD, it may take a while before I review whatever I have going on in my head which causes me a lot of stress. 

To manage my feeling of overwhelm I start by identifying the source. In addition to mental or physical clutter, overwhelm can also be caused by sensory overload, RSD, or extreme rumination. By identifying the triggers, we are better able to address them.

One way I try to handle the overwhelm is by planning mental decluttering into my daily routine. I have a brain dump session where I journal whatever thoughts come into my mind. It ends up being a mix of random thoughts and a list of things to be done. I then add the to-do list items into my anydo calendar app or reminder app (I use todo reminder). I use this app because it has a calendar section and task list section where you can include tasks based on their categories such as general tasks, priority tasks, and groceries. As much as possible I also try to frame my to-do list into the SMART goals format (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, Time-bound) and then input them into my calendar. I find that if I don’t get my thoughts down on paper and out of my head my mind would keep going over the same things leaving me emotionally exhausted and mentally foggy.  

Another game-changer is letting go of perfectionism and accepting myself as I am, flaws and strengths included. Other things to do to manage the feelings of overwhelm include affirmations and visualization. I use affirmations to counteract the negative thoughts that make me feel down, so I have a recording of a list of affirmations I listen to at different points in the day and I include this in the reminder app. I also try to do visualization as part of my morning routine, although I have struggled to stay consistent. But the idea is to visualize the day going well particularly in areas where one may struggle. 

Putting it All Together 

In general, activities that involve pacing oneself and having more self-awareness helps to manage ADHD. This may include setting achievable goals, externalizing your focus to stay calm, applying visual tools and identifying your energy cycles. Self-care is also helpful in dealing with emotional struggles as these seem to occur quite frequently. So for me, this looks like deep breathing, muscle relaxation, journaling thoughts, exercising, eating, and sleeping adequately. Furthermore, practicing affirmations and visualizations have also helped me to develop a better sense of self-efficacy in being able to tackle challenges. So far, it’s been a rollercoaster ride of days when I am consistent with applying the right habits and other days when I fall off the wagon. But then I have found that being accountable to someone helps me in the area of consistency. And now I experience less overwhelm as I am more able to manage my emotions and stay centred.

3 comments

Dorsey McFadden August 31, 2021 - 3:03 pm

Great article Josh!

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Josh August 31, 2021 - 4:59 pm

Thanks Dorsey 😊.

Reply
Josh September 1, 2021 - 8:08 pm

Thanks Dorsey 😊

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