Having ADHD and Being in the Present Moment? Really?

 What is Mindfulness?

What’s in this Post?


• What is Mindfulness and What Isn’t •

• The Two “Keys” of Mindfulness •

• The 3 “Ns”: Notice, Nourish, Nature •

• 3 Simple Practices to Try •

• Resources

When I think about October being Global ADHD Awareness Month, I think about how much we have learned over the past 5 to 10 years about how simple mindfulness practices can be a real help to people’s good health and brain power. I like to call it by it’s longer name, Mindful Awareness of the Present Moment.

One of the best lines I’ve picked up is from a client with ADHD who began treatment and made this discovery, “The future stays out there!!” Mindful awareness of the present moment has many possibilities and many benefits for all of us, and for people with ADHD in very special ways. So I like to emphasize AWARENESS rather than MIND-FULNESS!!

Here’s how I look at it: So what person with ADHD would volunteer to force focus, to use laser sharp awareness. Or, what person with ADHD would voluntarily pay attention to something over a period of time, without being forced, as when under a deadline, or being supervised or evaluated, or fearing other dire consequences?

What we are talking about today is none of that.  We are not interested in stuffing the ADHD person’s mind to make it full. There’s no need to do THAT on purpose.

Mindfulness, the kind we are talking about today, is not any of those things. It is not that unpleasant state of filling up the brain with facts and due dates, and remembering where the keys are, and looking for lost grocery lists. It’s easier for me to think about mindfulness as giving the brain a rest, and thus resting all of the body’s systems – all connected.

Mindfulness, rather, is paying attention without the fatigue of paying attention. It has qualities of relaxation, and safety, even of interest. It doesn’t feel pressured importance, but it does have an element of importance as far as health and wellbeing goes. People with ADHD wired brains do suffer from attention fatigue, just like everyone else. But for them, it happens more often, with the rapid onset of fatigue-created boredom compensated for by the brains re-set to distraction.

Distraction, in ADHD terms, is another way of saying “let me find something of interest and importance. “ The point here is to explore a bit more about building brain power to focus and re-focus, to gain perspective, and to recover from attention fatigue. The results can be a much more beneficial brain environment. This is not only for ADHD-wired brains, but for everyone.

People with ADHD tell of some real issues with spending time wisely and sorting out the present moment from all the other moments that float around loosely. In her book, The Mindfulness Prescription for ADHD, Dr. Lydia Zylowska has captured the beneficial relationship between practicing mindful awareness of the present and supporting the ADHD-wired brain.  The idea here is noticing the difference between a state of Random Awareness to ALL the Moments versus Choosing Awareness of the very most Present Moment, — as opposed to all other moments floating around, past and future. Is it really possible to learn how to make things better, easier? If so, how?

Dr. Zylowska’s first key to mindfulness is Awareness of the Present Moment. It’s the choice we make. That can be tricky! People with ADHD sometimes have great difficulty keeping “the future out there” as I’ve mentioned. Choosing what to be aware of is not so automatic for anyone, people with ADHD included. So Dr. Zylowska gives two keys to tell us how.

The ADHD Brain’s gift of curiosity can make the change. The present moment can be made INTERESTING ENOUGH and IMPORTANT ENOUGH for people who have ADHD-wired brains. This is Dr. Zylowska’s second key: Curiosity.

People with ADHD sometimes have great difficulty spending time wisely and to their own benefit because of losing the power to choose what to notice. And Mindful Awareness requires a both Choice of focus (that is, focusing only on the present moment) and Curiosity (about only the present moment). So, can people, who have difficulty with focus – especially focus on things that are NOT INTERESTING AND NOT IMPORTANT, really practice even a simple version of mindful awareness? And, is it really possible to learn?

Dr. Kelly McGonigal, in her book, The Willpower Instinct, says it is possible.  Dr. McGonigal has coined a new phrase: “dopaminizing.” That means, making the choice to make things interesting and important and pleasurable. And it is possible to use mindfulness to strengthen dopaminizing choices around how to pay attention.

So, is there an “ADHD” how-to? If so, how can the “PRESENT MOMENT” be captured and held by people with ADHD? By anyone at all?

The ADHD mind is really not INATTENTIVE, but OVER ATTENTIVE. It is quite capable of over focusing on minute details, on dreaming away on loosely connected thoughts, and on creating interest and focus in random bursts. The ADHD mind really is a champion at curiosity. These ADHD capacities, hyperfocus and curiosity, are the seeds of mindful awareness in the present moment.

The Many Benefits of Mindfulness

Mindful awareness of the present moment gives us resources to be happy, be close, be grateful, savor the moment, celebrate, and love lots!

  • Reduces Stress – Lowers heart rate – Lowers blood pressure – Relaxes muscles
  • Brain Changes – Suppresses Stress Hormones – Releases Calming Hormones – PFC Comes “On-Line” – Helps with “Attention Fatigue”* •
  • Builds Focus – Reduces Distractibility – Keeps the Future “out there” – Helps with Prioritizing •
  • Calm Focus – Reduces Restlessness – Builds Self-Regulation – Builds Perspective

*Frances E. Kuo and Andrean Faber Taylor, PhD write in the American Journal of Environmental Science (2004) that: “…[A]ttention fatigue and ADHD are linked to the same underlying mechanism. In non-ADHD populations, the right prefrontal cortex has been implicated in both the capacity to deliberately direct attention and the presence of attention fatigue.” They note, “A number of studies have produced evidence of a right frontal–cortical locus of attention control,and another has shown that the right prefrontal cortex is subject to fatigue after sustained demands on directed attention. (Glosser G, Goodglass H. Disorders in executive control functions among aphasic and other brain damaged patients. J Clin Exp Neuropsychol. 1990;12:485–501. [PubMed])”


“The 3 Ns”: Notice, Nourish, and Nature

  • Notice Your Breathing

If you get distracted, GOOD! Notice the distraction, and refocus. The more practice you get re-focusing, the more your brain trains itself to concentrate

  •  Nourish Your Body Mind and Brain

Pay attention to what goes into your mouth. Become aware of ingesting toxins. Become aware of toxic thinking

  • Nature Is Where We Thrive

Practice mindfulness in the same place the other inhabitants of the planet spend their time: Out In Nature!

There are lots of chemical toxins indoors, in our well-sealed buildings and homes.  Take a break from them, for your mind’s sake!

Be outside, every day, for a few minutes.  Try to get some natural light between the hours of 8 am and 12 noon.

Use your 5 senses to experience the 3 Ns.

Notice Your Breathing: “Soft Belly Breathing”

(This is also called “Diaphragmatic Breathing.”)

Try for up to 5 minutes at first. Less time is fine, too.

  • First, allow yourself to feel safe and comfortable. Then,
  • Breathe in through your nose, inflating your stomach
  • Breathe out through your mouth, raising your diaphragm to expel the air. “Blow out a candle.”
  • Only think about your breathing.
  • Re-focus without being judgmental.  You will definitely start to think about other things.  Just notice them, and let them go.
  • Use your diaphragm and stomach, not your rib cage, to inhale deeeeply and exhale deeeeply
  • Don’t worry if you feel 5 minutes is too long. Just try it.

You can stop during the day many times, and just give this little brain break a try, wherever you are. If it helps you, add you own words to your inhalation and exhalation, for example, “Breathe in 2-3-4, Breathe out 2-3-4.”  The only rules: Start by being safe and comfortable. Then, try what works for you.

Dr. Rick Hanson has developed a mindfulness resource entitled, Just One Thing. Here’s a quick tip from Rick Hanson’s research that’s even easier: Just take 10 deep breaths.

You can do it any time during the day. It just gives your brain and nervous system a chance to re-set to the calmer side of the dial.

Just focus on breathing in very deeply and breathing out very thoroughly, as in the 5-minute exercise.

Count this ten times, hold for a moment between inhaling and exhaling.

Nourish Your Body, Mind & Brain

Savor what you take in, — take your time noticing what it is that is becoming part of you.

When you eat, allow yourself to experience the goodness of whole, live, food – slowly and singularly.

You can ask, “What is the life’s journey of this food?”  Contemplate. Be amazed.  Wonder about the lives and stories of those who made this food possible today.

Use Your Senses to Savor


Look at this picture of freshly baked bread. See it as if for the first time ever. How many things do you notice? What senses are linking with memories? Can you remember a fragrance? What about touch? Can you feel warmth? What textures are present? Is your body sending ghrelin, the hunger hormone, to your brain? If you let yourself, could you start to salivate? This is just a simple example of the power and ease of the mind-body connection.

Nature Is Where We Thrive

Rachel and Stephen Kaplan’s research* shows that periods of forced attention creates fatigue in certain areas of the brain. We all experience this. But it can be particularly problematic for people with ADHD, as their brains are very likely to find themselves in forced attention situations. Forced attention often comes from the outside, from expectations from superiors at work and school for example.  And fatigue from these day-to-day events occurs more frequently in ADHD wired brains than in others.  It is a really uncomfortable thing to experience.

However, we have learned a simple way to really and truly reduce attention fatigue and improve impulse control and distractibility.  It’s easy, Kuo and Faber Taylor tell us, “Being outdoors in open green areas tends to relieve that fatigue and increase concentration and impulse control after exposure.”

See: *Kaplan S. The restorative benefits of nature: toward an integrative framework. J Environ Psychol. 1995;15:169–182. 10.; and Kaplan R, Kaplan S. The Experience of Nature. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press; 1989.

Dr. Rick Hanson, of whom we spoke earlier, has revised an old anonymous saying “The mind takes the shape of what it rests upon.”

Hanson says that, in fact, research now tells us, not just the mind but, “The brain takes the shape of what it rests upon.”  The brain physically changes, we know now, based on its focus, what it “rests upon.” It is physically altered by whether we are in a stressed mindset over time, or if we are able, from time to time, to re-set our nervous system by periods of focus on calming thoughts.  And it all starts with breathing!

Hanson continues, “…if you regularly rest your mind upon, for example, noticing you’re all right right now, seeing the good in yourself, and letting go, then your brain will gradually take the shape of calm strength, self-confidence, and inner peace.”

Finally, what can work for people with ADHD who have problems with focus? Practicing mindful awareness of the present moment.  At last, it’s actually an advantaged to get readily distracted!  It actually builds brain power when the mind is asked, gently and without judgement, to calmly re-focus. The practice of focus-distraction-refocus builds the capacity of the pre-frontal cortex, and that’s a good thing!

Remember these elements: Choose what to focus on in the present moment. Add the notion of “now,” as opposed to “then” and “when,” to your practice.  Add interest and importance to your mindfulness practice by using the strengths of curiosity and hyperfocus. Get outdoors, eat live food, love well, and be kind to yourself.  Remember, “the brain takes the shape of what it rests upon.” So think of all things good, and pure, and beautiful!!


True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart by Tara Brach Link: http://amzn.com/0553807625

The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live–and How You Can Change Them by Richard J. Davidson et al. Link: http://amzn.com/0452298881

Love 2.0: Creating Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection by Barbara L. Fredrickson Ph.D. Link: http://amzn.com/0142180475

Glosser G, Goodglass H. Disorders in executive control functions among aphasic and other brain damaged patients. J Clin Exp Neuropsychol. 1990;12:485–501. [PubMed]

Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time by Rick Hanson PhD Link: http://amzn.com/1608820319

Kuo F. E. and Faber Taylor, A. A Potential Natural Treatment for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Evidence From a National Study. Am. J Public Health v. 94(9): Sep 2004,PMC 144897

Kaplan S. The restorative benefits of nature: toward an integrative framework. J Environ Psychol. 1995;15:169–182.

The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective by Rachel Kaplan et al. Link: http://amzn.com/0521349397

The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal Ph.D. Link: http://amzn.com/1583335080 Self-

Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind by Kristin Neff Link: http://amzn.com/B004JN1DBO

The Mindfulness Prescription for Adult ADHD: An 8-Step Program for Strengthening Attention, Managing Emotions, and Achieving Your Goals by Lidia Zylowska et al. Link: http://amzn.com/1590308476


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