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Feeling Burnt Out? I’m Not Surprised, and You Shouldn’t Be Either

lack-of-focus-300x249A few years ago, I had a large influx of clients. Within a month and a half, I welcomed seven new clients. Of the seven, six confided that they were on leave from work for burnout! One was on sick leave for burnout for the third time and, believing there must be some underlying cause, did his own research and discovered he’d been suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD) all along.

I was intrigued by this seeming coincidence. I began reviewing my files to determine the number of clients, past and current, who had mentioned suffering from burnout at some point in their lives. I was shocked to discover that over half, 54%, of my clients had been on sick leave for burnout, depression or stress-related health problems at least once in their professional lives. Some had had several periods of stress-related sick leave.

I began digging deep into the literature and found one study that had been conducted on a group of people who were on long-term disability for burnout or stress-related health issues. What they found astounded me. Within that pool of 62 people, they found 24% suffered from ADHD and up to 56% met the criteria for ADHD but testing results were inconclusive because of other confounding issues.

When you consider that the incidence of adult ADHD in the general population is 4 to 8%, this indicates that there’s an increased risk for adults with ADHD; they are three to six times more likely to suffer from burnout or stress-related health problems.

Seeking to gain a better understanding of the mechanisms of burnout, I began to research in earnest. While there is no diagnosis of “burnout”, we understand it to be extreme exhaustion brought on by prolonged periods of stress. As I learned more, I realized ADHD-related burnout was quite different from neurotypical or “textbook” cases of burnout.

ADHD-Related Burnout vs. “Textbook” Burnout

The underlying cause or reason that people burn out differs between the two groups. Neurotypicals (people without ADHD) who burn out often do so because they are trying to prove themselves. They (or others, such as their parents) face high expectations and are trying to “over-perform” as a way of getting noticed. People with ADHD burn out because of the stress brought on by a fear of losing their jobs.  They work harder and put in longer hours trying to catch up because they don’t feel productive. They try to make up for their poor productivity and to hide the shame they feel about their inability to meet their workload.

Neglecting your own needs can exacerbate burnout. These two groups (neurotypicals vs. adults with ADHD) neglect their needs for different reasons; whereas ADHDers skimp on sleep, abandon exercise routines and work through their lunch hour and late into the night in an effort to keep up with what they see as the “normal” demands of their job, neurotypicals do the same but because they choose to use that time to fit in more projects that will give them more visibility.

Another difference between the two groups is that while in both “textbook” and ADHD-related burnout, employees suffer from cognitive impairment such as lack of focus, poor short-term memory and challenges with managing their emotions, for neurotypicals, the impairment is due to their prolonged stress and will abate after a period of rest. For adults with ADHD, the cognitive impairment is typically symptomatic of their ADHD (made worse by the stress to be sure) and is at the source of the burnout. Those symptoms remain even after long periods of rest, so a second or even a third bout of burnout is inevitable unless changes are made beyond simple rest, because the source of the burnout has not been addressed.

Recognizing the Source of Burnout is a Prerequisite to the Right Treatment

It’s true that in all burnout cases, rest is needed to reduce the effects of prolonged stress. However, for ADHDers, the treatment must also include an “attack” on the underlying source of the burnout, by managing the ADHD symptoms. The objective is to reduce the level of impairment resulting from the ADHD, and so allow the ADHDer to improve his or her work performance. One of the most dramatic ways to optimize focus improve productivity is for the ADHD-burnout sufferer to learn ADHD-friendly energy and time management strategies as well as organizational strategies. Helping the ADHD employee build awareness of the signs of overwhelming stress and helping them prepare a plan of action to enable them to respond to it effectively is essential to prevent future burnouts.

Finally, beyond simple rest, burnout victims benefit enormously from “recovery activities” such as improving health hygiene (sleep, exercise and nutrition), connecting with family and friends and engaging in creative activities. These help reduce the effects of stress and cut the level of stress to a manageable level.

In today’s society, it’s unlikely we’ll be able to eliminate stress that could lead to burnout.  However, we can learn to effectively manage that stress by recognizing the true underlying causes of ADHD-related burnout and treating the problem at the source.

Webinar Invitation: Preventing Burnout in ADHD Women

On Monday, November 9th, at 9 pm EST, I’ll be giving a webinar for my colleague, Linda Roggli at ADDiva

overwhelmed-womanOur busy pace today is challenging for all employees, but disorganization, lack of focus, inefficiency and poor time management make employees with ADHD particularly vulnerable to burnout. Women with ADHD face even greater danger as juggling most family details and caretaker duties fall to them. ADHD-related burnout, when it happens, strikes not once but two or three times as conventional treatments do not correct the source of the problem, ADHD symptoms.

In this session, we will examine differences between ADHD-related burnout and typical burnout and outline strategies for preventing it.

This presentation is open and free and you are invited to join us by clicking here to register

And the Winner of the “Quick Wins” Contest Is….

drumroll-pleaseWe’ve been hard at work developing the new program you were invited to help me find a name for! In fact, we held a contest to name the new program, which we were calling “Quick Wins”, a program of small changes that make a significant difference in your life quickly. Today, we finally get to announce the new name, the winner of the contest AND the launch of the new program! It’s a BIG DAY!

First, thank you to everyone who participated in the contest. There were so many great ideas, it was a challenge to choose, but we finally picked a name that defines this program well. So…
Drum roll please….

The name of the new program is
Your Path Forward
Conquer Your Adult ADHD One Step at a Time

And the creative genius who came up with this name is Bob R. Congratulations Bob! (We’ll be in touch with you in the next few days). The winner gets to choose between receiving a new Fitbit Flex or a $129 credit off any one of my programs he enrolls in (we increased it from $100).

Now, I want this to be a winning program for everyone so I’m inviting you all to enroll in Your Path Forward for FREE! Click here to take this 12-week program that will guide you through a number of small, simple steps that will lead to real change in your life.

Coach Linda Walker’s Master Travel Checklist

Earlier this month, I was coaching a client who was getting ready to travel for her vacation and she related the stress that travel tends to generate in her. Her biggest issue was that she feared forgetting something important. She didn’t want to have the added expense of replacing some item she forgot.

Having everything you need when vacationing reduces stressI mentioned how one ADHDer had a great idea for avoiding forgetting things by creating a travel checklist. He would print his Travel Checklist, plasticized and kept it in his suitcase. Then every time he realized he’d forgotten something, he’d add it to the list for the next time. Of course, he had to reprint and re-plasticize his list. When I began to travel extensively for work and pleasure I adopted his strategy only I used Evernote and created a Master Checklist, which I copy into a new note so that I can use the Checklist feature. Like him, every time I’d forget an item, I’d add it to my Master Travel Checklist – no reprinting or plastifying involved. Evernote synchronizes in all my devices so I can check the same list off my tablet pc, my mobile phone and laptop. It is almost perfect now. However, if you notice anything missing, please add it in the comments box below.

When my client and I ended our conversation, I had made a mental note (Note to self: mental notes are as good as the paper they’re written on) to post my CoachLindaWalker-Master Travel Checklist. You are welcomed to use it.

As you travel this summer, please take the time to enjoy your well-deserved time off and be safe.

Is My Working Memory On Strike?

TimeManagementReminderRecently on my Facebook page, one of my readers asked an excellent question that, I think, merits some exploration. She asked me, “Why can I remember the smallest details about events that happened years ago, yet not remember what I did an hour ago?” Memory issues are a common problem in people with Attention Deficit/Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) that we don’t often discuss, but the repercussions can be huge.

Over twenty clinical studies on ADHD have shown that the volume of the prefrontal cortex and the cingulate cortex of people with ADHD is different compared to those of non-ADHDers.  These two structures in your brain are responsible for the executive functions, functions which are involved in many high-level cognitive processes such as planning, organizing, strategizing, focus, time management, project management, emotional control, initiating activity (getting started) and working memory.

If I Forget, Is It Always Caused by Lapses in Memory?

Two of the executive functions can play a role in memory issues. For example, if you are not paying attention to where you drop your keys when you come home, no information will be remembered but not because you forgot. You never had any information to store in your memory banks in the first place. Most of the memory issues ADHDers face are associated specifically with their working memory.

Wikipedia defines working memory as “the system that is responsible for the transient holding and processing of new and already stored information, an important process for reasoning, comprehension, learning and memory updating.”  It’s the process you use when you try to dial a phone number or complete some mental calculation. Imagine your spouse asks you to complete a task, and you agree to do this task. So, you’re off to complete the task, but on the way, the phone rings or you have an interesting idea or some other distraction occurs. Now, if you have a poor working memory, which is the case for people with ADHD, the task you promised to do, which is not yet in your long-term memory, is completely forgotten. It was wiped out by the new information you put in your working memory. Of course, as many of you know, this can cause a lot of problems in your relationships.

Why Can You Remember Certain Information or Events and Not Others?

Researchers have identified certain factors that influence your capacity to remember certain information or events:

  1. Your level of attention for the event. Do you have something else on your mind? Are you anxious or excited about something else while this is going on?
  2. Your interest in the subject. Of course, if you are interested or passionate about a particular subject, or it is one that you need to know, you are more motivated to expend the effort to pay attention and to retain it.
  3. Your emotional state during the event. In the past, when my ADHD husband and I fought, he was able to quote me on things I said or did during some of the more explosive fights we had five or six years before. I was amazed he could quote me word-for-word what I had said, what I was wearing, where we were standing, but he couldn’t remember what he had committed to do fifteen minutes earlier. As you can imagine the situations he was recalling were very emotional for both of us, and as a result, they tended to be stored easily in long-term memory.
  4. The sensory context. We best remember situations that were vividly captured by our sense of smell, taste, sight, hearing and touch. You’ll more easily remember a meal you had in a restaurant where the food was incredibly tasty or awful.

How Do I Manage If My Working Memory Is On Strike?

Now that you know more about your memory, it’s important to recognize that working memory is an issue for people with ADHD, and that there are strategies you can use to compensate for those issues.  Here are a few:

  1. Avoid relying on your memory for important information. Keep a small notebook on you or use an application such as Evernote on your smart phone to capture all relevant and important information.
  2. Create a system that includes reviewing your notes. You could make an appointment with yourself in your calendar to review your notes periodically during the day and to make decisions about how you will manage the information. Do you need to set an appointment with yourself to complete something? Do you want to capture the information for a project you’re working on? Use your agenda to create reminders for things you must remember later.
  3. Learn to move important, relevant, information to your long-term memory through repetition or by reviewing the information through different senses.
  4. Create systems such as habits and routines to avoid needing to remember tasks that are important in your life. This way you can “set ‘em and forget ‘em” because your system will kick in when it’s time to remember.

If you want more information on memory, here’s a good resources:   http://thebrain.mcgill.ca/flash/a/a_07/a_07_p/a_07_p_tra/a_07_p_tra.html

12 Great Strategies that Help ADHDers Thrive

As an ADHD family, we’ve had our fair share of challenges, particularly early on when we didn’t know what we were dealing with.  Looking back, I could identify twelve great strategies that helped Duane and Kyrie thrive. And no, they aren’t about productivity; they’re about feeling about yourself.

  1. Take advantage of your strengths. Identify what you’re strong in and find ways to do more of it. Keep a journal and note down when you’ve managed to learn something particularly well.  You know, when you realize “you’re a natural” at something, this is almost always an indication that you are playing to your strengths.
  2. Surround yourself with people who can embrace your differences and who accept you for who you are and for who you are not.
  3. Determine what ADHD traits aren’t going so well for you and your loved ones and consider what could change. Even though you want others to accept you, you also want to live in harmony with others. This may mean you’ll need to modify some of your behavior to reduce the negative challenges of ADHD.
  4. There will be things you cannot change. I’m thinking of your short-term memory for example. For those things, you’ll need to manage with systems and routines. I know, routines, ick! but all very successful ADHDers have a set of routines that solve many of their problems once and for all.
  5. You’ll have ADHD your whole life. That means you have all the time in the world to master the skills to thrive with ADHD. It won’t take that long to make your life fantastic, and then you can keep improving it forever.
  6. Small but significant changes are always the best way. They’re effective, their sustainable, and if they aren’t the right approach, there’s not great investment of your time and energy lost.
  7. Create a cue, a reminder, an alert, something that will help you remember to accomplish your new change.
  8. Document the changes that work for you. ADHDers often forget strategies they’ve used successfully in the past. Documenting them will also allow you to use strategy 9.
  9. Celebrate ever day you progress in your new habits. Celebrating the progress and results increases the chances you’ll repeat the habit. We all love happy experiences. Celebrating could be as simple as acknowledging your progress, noticing the results, or giving yourself a pat on the back.
  10. Ensure you balance your work life with active recreation. Engaging in hobbies, reconnecting with your creative side, connecting with friends and family are great active recreation. They bring much more joy in your life than watching TV, surfing the Internet or chatting on social media.
  11. If you forget your habit for a day, chalk it up to being human, consider what went wrong then recommit to the habit, ensuring you make adjustments to avoid forgetting again.
  12. The most important: laugh.  Don’t take yourself too seriously.  When you make mistakes, laugh about it.  Find humor in your life. Read a funny story, watch a funny video.

Contest to Name Free ADHD Adult Program

I’m creating a new program and I need your help finding the perfect name for it. I’ve been wracking my brain trying to find a great name for this program and I thought, why don’t I ask all of you Creative Geniuses. As an enticement, I decided to make a contest out of it. If you’re the person who comes up with the winning name for the program, I’ll send you a cool new gadget, a Fitbit Flex or if you prefer, you’ll receive a credit of $100 on the next of my programs you enroll in!.

Why a New Adult ADHD Program?

Here’s what it’s all about: Over the years, working with executives, professionals, entrepreneurs and other adults with ADHD, I’ve noticed that many collect information on ADHD (some of them have whole libraries full!) but never do anything with that information. In fact, a couple of years ago at an ADDA conference, one of the attendees and I were browsing through the bookstore and she mentioned to me that she already knew a lot about ADHD, having read most of the books. What she needed was to work on taking action. She laughingly said, “I just need something that’ll take me by the hand and spoon feed me one thing to do at a time!”

I replied with a smile, “You mean, you need another mother!” But it got me thinking, and I came up with this idea.

Knowledge Doesn’t Mean Change

I realized that even though a lot of information was circulating, being read, discussed and debated, and it was great information, accurate, practical, information that could change lives, people just weren’t acting on it.  And of course, without action, there’s no change.

Now, I also saw people who were putting information into action. The thing was, I noticed they were a little over-enthusiastic. They’d try to change everything at once! Imagine trying to quit smoking, lose weight and train for a marathon at the same time! When you engage in multiple major changes simultaneously, it makes you so incredibly uncomfortable that you can’t sustain the changes and you revert quickly to your old ways.

Is it an Inability to Change or the Approach?

This is why many ADHDers come to me saying, “I can’t change! I’ve tried everything.” In reality, they’ve tried two approaches that don’t work: “change everything all at once,” and “learn everything and change nothing.” They haven’t tried the always successful, “learn a little, apply the change in your life, evaluate and adjust, repeat” approach.

A New Program for ADHD

That’s why I was inspired to create a training program for adults with ADHD where members receive excellent information in small doses, and they are assigned a small but significant action to take. Once they take action, adjust and get comfortable, they get another dose of information with another small but significant action to take. After all, that’s how you change, with small but significant actions applied in your life.

Soon, I’ll be inviting any who dare to take action to join me on a three-month journey where you’ll begin to really make transformative changes in your life. Right now, I’m calling it my “quick wins” program for lack of a better name (and because it’s too long to say, “learn a little, apply the change in your life, evaluate, adjust, repeat”!)

These “quick wins” are small changes that make a significant difference in your life quickly. Oh! and by the way, the journey will be free! That’s right, I’m launching this new program at no cost (though there are no guarantees it will stay that way, so if you’re interested in taking part, keep watching for my announcements. If you’re not already subscribed to my newsletter – like if someone forwarded you this email – make sure you sign up today to be notified when we launch!)

Details of the Contest

Ok, now that you know a bit about the program, I’m sure you’ve got some great ideas for a name. I’m totally serious about giving a Fitbit Flex (or the $100 credit on your next Coach Linda Walker program purchase) to the winner! Click here to enter your ideas. Don’t procrastinate, because the contest closes on February 27th, 2015 at 11:59 pm PST.

P.S.:  Yes, I’m completely serious. I am giving away a Fitbit Flex to the person who suggests the winning name for this new program. And I’m completely serious when I say that this new program won’t cost you a penny during our three-month pilot, so if you’re not already subscribed to my newsletter, make sure you sign up for my newsletter to be notified when we launch!

The ADHD Blue Print to Your Best Year Ever

The beginning of a new year inspires hope for new beginnings and better outcomes. Many people will review their goals and chart a new course or make New Year’s resolutions. Other people, perhaps even you, have abandoned any hope that this year can be different than years past. While you may be motivated to change – after all, if you’re living with ADHD, you likely face major challenges in your life that you’d like to address – you’ve learned the hard way that maybe you’re better off avoiding setting goals and making New Year’s resolutions.

After all, your track record for achieving either has been poor and you can’t, or don’t want to, deal with the disappointment and guilt you feel when things don’t pan out. It’s true that one sure way to avoid failing is not to try, but unfortunately, if you want your circumstances to change, you have to change something you are doing. That change demands that you form an intention to change – that’s where the goals or resolutions come in – but it also requires effort and a plan, and that’s where things often go wrong for anyone with ADHD. However, there is another way.

How to Have a Better Year without Setting Goals

If setting goals scare you, there’s a simpler and just as effective approach. Create new habits that manifest the desired changes in your life. We’ve all heard that a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, but there’s an even more powerful underlying truth here. A journey of a thousand miles, or even ten thousand miles, is made up entirely of single steps! Achieving long-term goals by creating new habits is extremely powerful, and ultimately, even more effective than traditional methods of achieving goals.

Your 6-Step Blueprint for Creating a New Habit

Here are a few steps to creating a new habit:

1)  What results do you want? Do you want to be more physically fit? More organized? On time? More focused? Less chaotic? Have better relationships? The sky’s the limit. Pick just one that means a lot to you. Once you master the process of creating new habits, you’ll be able to take full control of every aspect of your life, but choose just one to practice on first.

2)  What small but consistent actions would allow you to move closer to the results you want? Many people want to lose weight or get in better shape. They join a gym, buy exercise equipment and eat only salads. By the time they’ve been working at it three weeks, they’re exhausted and fed up! If you want to become more physically fit, start small. Create a new habit to always take the stairs instead of the elevator at work.

If you want to feel more organized, don’t start a major cleanup of your whole house; create a new habit to make your bed every morning before you leave your room. You’ll immediately feel more organized and that feeling will slowly spread to other areas of your life. Once you’ve established a habit of making your bed so well that it’s automatic, add another habit, like washing your dishes immediately after using them.

Every big change in your life starts with one step, one new habit. If you want to be on time for work, start by creating the habit of preparing your clothes and lunch the night before. If you want to improve your focus, create a habit that will help you sleep better. If you want to improve your relationship, develop a habit of listening instead of interrupting.

You may need to break some changes down to even smaller steps and work your way up, especially if you’ve never purposefully created and kept a habit. (You do have some habits; how often do you accidently forget and leave your house naked? Getting dressed is a habit!) Analyze the actions you need to take. For example, what steps would help you sleep better? You will sleep better if you turn off the computer at least two hours before bed. It also helps to dim the lights in the house after supper. Don’t do them all at once, but create a habit of first one, then the next, and so on, and before long, you’ll sleep better than you ever have.

3)  Improve your odds. You won’t remember to do what you’re supposed to automatically in the beginning – it’s not a habit yet! Set visual or auditory reminders. Find a buddy who is also striving to build new habits and encourage each other. Make a game of it. Anchor your new habit to an existing one. For example, when I wanted to write my first program for adults with ADHD, “Grow With the Flow” (now called “Thrive!”), I anchored the new habit of writing every morning by placing a pencil and paper where I sit to have breakfast, a habit I’ve now had for quite some time, and that has helped me create many programs for adults with ADHD, one step at a time!

4)   Determine how you’re going to track your progress. Even after repeating the action for what seems like a very long time, ADHDers often forget habits they’ve created. You get distracted. However, if you also make it a habit to use tracking software like HabitBull or a scorecard, it can help you stay motivated, especially if you reward yourself as you progress, and you won’t forget to keep up the habits you’ve put in place.

5)  Celebrate your progress. You need to stimulate the hedonistic part of the brain (right brain) by creating a positive experience of change. Make it fun to create habits, not something you dread. This will help you keep going and make future change easier.

6)  Be OK with occasional slip-ups. It takes an average of 66 days to create a habit – and that’s only an average – but the longer you maintain it, the more solidly it’s anchored. Aim for consistency but if you fail one day, just let go of the guilt and disappointment and recommit to your habit. Chalk it up to being human. Miss one day and all is not lost. However, we tend to see little slips as failures and actually help make that true. If you cheat on your diet by having a cookie, you can get back on track by not having any more cookies, but many people see that as a failure and say, “What the heck, I’ve cheated now. I’m a cheater! I might as well eat the rest of the bag!” That’s when the trouble starts. No slip up needs to be a major crash. If you lift weights every day but one day you miss your weight training, you don’t have to start over at the beginning the next day. It’s the same with habits.

Remember, start with a small, simple change and create one habit at a time. Build from there. And please share your new habit with us in the comments section (above)!

Adults with ADHD Are More Vulnerable to Daily Stressors

While doing some research this fall in preparation for a conference on ADHD in the Workplace I was invited to do for the Sudbury Partners in Prevention Conference and Trade Show, I discovered a study on how ADHDers manage stress.

The study measured the level of the stress hormone, cortisol, and the heart rate of subjects with and without ADHD and had them complete a questionnaire to measure their level of psychological distress several different times, including before the event, to see the stress they felt in anticipation of a stressful event, during the stressful event and after the stressor was eliminated.[i]

Feeling a Little Stressed? There’s a Good Reason for That

ADHDers demonstrated and reported significantly more psychological distress than non-ADHDers, but despite that, their levels of cortisol, which increase in the face of stress, as well as their heart rate, were lower than those of non-ADHDers when faced with the same stressful situation. In addition, ADHDers took longer to recover from stress even after the stressor was eliminated.

Yes, it’s interesting. But what does it mean for you? Glad you asked! 😉

What Can You Do About It?

This explains why, when faced with the multitude of ADHD-related stressors – disorganization, struggling with decision-making, poor planning, etc. – many of my clients reveal they’ve suffered one or more breakdowns due to stress. Over time, your vulnerability to stress and the very stressful lives you lead can even lead to burnout, anxiety or depression.

No one wants that, but what can you do about it?

Actually, There Are Two Things You Can Do

There are two things you can do. You can change your response to stress and you can reduce the amount of stressors in your life. A combination of the two gives the best results.

Learning to manage how you respond to stress can reduce the intensity of stressors you encounter. A very simple – maybe too simple – approach is to learn to:

  1. notice cues in your body that you are becoming stressed, and to
  2. take several slow deep breaths. Each breath reduces the tension you’ll feel in your body.

The other strategy is to reduce the number of stressors in your life. You cannot eliminate stress completely but you have many more stressors in your life than most people because of your ADHD. Managing them better will offer some relief.

Some years ago, often when I was getting ready to go to work, I’d realize I’d lost my keys. I’d look in all the obvious places but couldn’t find them. My stress levels would escalate since I had to be at work on time and I needed those keys. I’d request demand everyone in my household’s help to find them. When we found the keys, I’d run off in a hurry and drive to work, berating myself the whole way for, not only losing my keys again, but for putting my family through the worst possible way to start the day.

I finally found a long-term solution to the problem; I now tie my keys to my handbag, which always hangs at the same place in my home. That one simple habit dramatically reduced the level of stress in my life and in my whole family.

I know you deal with much more than just losing your keys. Each time you need to make a decision you increase your level of stress. Each time you face your To Do “book” (remember back when it used to just be a To Do list?) and don’t know where to start, you’re stressed. Your level of disorganization – visual and procedural – heightens your distress. Poor planning that leads to forgotten commitments or late starts are also major stressors. Let’s face it; having ADHD is very, very stressful. This is why, in the New Year, I will be launching a “Quick Wins” program, a series of actionable steps you can take to help manage the most common stressors in your life. How much will it cost? Nothing! So stay tuned.

Next Steps:

1) Notice the body cues that warn you that you are becoming stressed;

2) Get into the habit of taking slow deep breaths when you feel those cues coming on;

3) Share your experiences with me in the comments box below. What are your top 5 stressors? I’ll try to address them here (I can’t guarantee I’ll get to all of them, I will do my best), but I’ll be sure to include strategies for dealing with them in “Quick Wins” (watch for it in January!)


[i] Lackschewitz, H., Hüther, G., Kröner-Herwig, B. (2008). Physiological and Psychological Stress Responses in Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Psychoneuroendocrinology. 33; 612-624

ADHD and Sleep Issues from A to Zzzzz

If you have ADHD and you struggle to fall asleep, you’re not crazy, you’re not being bad and most of all, you’re not alone. Several studies have revealed that people with ADHD are more likely to have irregular circadian rhythms. What’s a circadian rhythm? According to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, “circadian rhythms are physical, mental and behavioral changes that follow a roughly 24-hour cycle, responding primarily to light and darkness in your environment.”

Are You Out of Sync?

Circadian rhythms are the changes that happen in your body that make you sleepy at night (when it gets dark) and make you want to wake up in the morning as it grows light. As many as 70% of adults with ADHD complain they have difficulty falling asleep, wake up tired (or not at all without enormous effort) and feel out-of-sync with the rest of the world.

If you work independently and don’t need to follow the same schedule as the rest of the population (perhaps you live on a desert island?!), this may not be a problem. (Sounds pretty lonely though!) However, if you must interact with family, friends, peers, customers or anyone else who’s not on the same schedule as you while they’re awake, this can cause problems.

It’s Not Just “Beauty Sleep”

Falling asleep at 1 or 2 AM may not be a problem if you’re a freelancer who answers to no one in real time and you can wake up at 9:30 or 10 AM, but if you have a day job or if customers expect you to answer the phone between 9 AM and 5 PM, you’ll have to cut your sleep short to make it to the office on time. The resulting lack of sleep will affect your ability to focus, your capacity to deal with and manage stress and the functioning of your working memory.

If you’re “tired” of struggling (wink! wink!) luckily, studies show that you can adjust your circadian cycles with a few relatively simple techniques. As someone who has struggle all my life with insomnia, I have tried many of these strategies myself. Here are a few that have the biggest impact:

Humans are like plants; our internal clock is usually set with day light. When daylight hits your eyes, your brain signals your body to increase your body temperature and starts secreting hormones, like cortisol, to modify the electrical activity in the brain. In the evening when light begins to dim, this triggers the production of the sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin. In ADHDers, however, melatonin production is often delayed.

1. Manage Your Light

If you struggle to fall asleep, start dimming the lights at home as early as right after supper. Stay away from blue-light-emitting sources, like computer screens at least 3 to 4 hours before you need to fall asleep.

2. Exercise

Many of my clients with ADHD report dramatically better sleep quality with earlier sleep onset when they engage in cardiovascular exercise (not at bedtime, but during the day!). Cardiovascular exercise is any activity that makes your heart beat faster for at least 20 minutes, such as jogging, taking a brisk walk, moderate biking, aerobics, cross-country skiing, hockey, basketball, skating, etc. Pick one or more sports you enjoy and do at least 20 minutes each day. You’ll find your sleep will come more easily.

3. Top Up on Melatonin

Studies have shown that supplementing melatonin with light management can advance sleep onset. You can find melatonin supplements at some pharmacies and certainly at health food stores. They work even better when you use them in combination with light management.

4. Zone Into Sleep With Sound Waves

Research shows that the brain is frequency-following, that is, you can train it to fall into a certain brainwave pattern by listening to sounds in that frequency. Our brain regulates our state of wakefulness by changing the amplitude and frequency of brain waves. To fall asleep, we produce Delta waves in lengths of 0.5 to 4 Hz. Some sounds induce our brain to fall into Delta waves. I use the sounds of the ocean and find that it really works for me. My youngest daughter, Kyrie, and ADHDer, had problems falling asleep until we started playing ocean sounds, along with improving her sleep hygiene, at bedtime.

5. Change Your Mind

Many ADHDers find their thoughts churn at bedtime, which keeps them from falling asleep. By thinking about what happened today or what will happen tomorrow, you’re activating certain hormones that keep you awake. Changing what’s going on in your mind might be as simple as reading stories – not work-related stuff – before bed. If you struggle to put a novel down, read short stories like the ones you’d find in Readers’ Digest.

6. Do a Mind Dump

If you’re still plagued by concerns over what you have to do, dump all those thoughts in a notebook that you place next to your bed. “Dumping” will help you avoid staying awake because you’re afraid you’ll forget.

ADHDers need to be vigilant about taking care to engage in good sleep hygiene. Lack of sleep DOES NOT CAUSE ADHD; however, lack of sleep can make your symptoms worse, so taking care of your brain and its creative genius by sleeping enough can help reduce your struggles. Everyone, whether or not they have ADHD, needs 7.5 to 9 hours of sleep per night; less sleep than that and you’re not able to tap into your brain’s potential.

If you find that one of these strategies has helped you, or if you have your own approach that works wonders, please share it in the Comments section below.

And have a life time of great night’s sleep!

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