ADHD: Mindfulness as Medicine

How do we use mindfulness to treat ADHD (attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder)? First, we understand that the ability to pay attention and control our impulses depends on our emotional state. Another way of saying this is that the Emotional (motivation) system drives the Executive (control) system.

As we see in the ThinkPrint slider, there are 5 systems in the brain that allow us to experience, remember, and respond to events – the Sensory (input) and Motor (output) systems, and the Emotional (motivation), Executive (control) and Cognitive (understanding) systems.

The brain prioritizes emotion, because its most important job is to ensure our survival, which requires that we obtain what we need and avoid harm. So the Emotional system rules. And the rules are pretty simple: we either want it (there’s a positive charge on it), or we’re afraid of it (there’s a negative charge on it).

The Executive system controls input and output – whether we pay attention to an object or event and whether we respond to it. Both of these depend on what kind of charge it has on it – positive or negative. If something has no meaning to us or we have no interest in it, we don’t pay attention to it. If we want something very much we will reach for it, like another cookie. If we are dreading something we won’t do it, even if it’s important, like our taxes, or the paper we have to write.

Because the brain prioritizes emotion, we can’t pay attention, plan ahead, make decisions, or control our impulses (all functions of the Executive system) when we are upset. When we are anxious, angry, sad, or irritable, we are all kind of “ADHD.”

So, the way we treat ADHD with mindfulness is to learn to be mindful – to focus on our breath, be aware of our feelings, identify our distress and take care of it, so that we can be calm and present. We can then look through a clear lens, so to speak, and see things clearly. We can focus our attention on what is going on right here, right now, in the present moment, rather than on our thoughts and feelings about what happened in the past or might happen in the future. We can temper the emotion that is driving our impulse to act or speak out of fear or anger, by calming our mind and our body by focusing on and enjoying our breath. Dwelling in the present moment, we can understand that the emotions will pass and then we will be able to focus and respond more effectively.