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:
- notice cues in your body that you are becoming stressed, and to
- 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.
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!)
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.
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!
What did I accomplish all day? Many of my adult ADHD coaching clients and learners ask themselves this question every day. Heck! You’re likely asking yourself the same question today.
What’s most frustrating is that while you came into work fully intending to tackle the three-inch pile of work in your inbox, and you didn’t stop all day, now you’re leaving the office with a six-inch pile! To add fuel to the fire, you’re leaving two hours past quitting time. What happened?
You’re “Suffering” from OCB
Many adults with ADHD engage in what scientists call “organizational citizenship behavior.” You helped person after person; you put out fires for your team, you saved your boss’s day and you even “rescued” another department struggling to meet a deadline, all while your own work continued to pile up. The solution seems obvious until we look at why you do it.
It’s All About Rewards
Why wouldn’t you just let your colleagues deal with their own work challenges and instead, deal with your own work? Helping your colleagues solve problems provides you with something you crave. Everyone enjoys accolades and recognition, but ADHDers require more immediate feedback than is typically handed out in the workplace. Positive feedback is often only offered as part of a bureaucratic process of annual evaluations; it’s too bad we don’t do the same with negative feedback. No one seems to have a problem dishing out negative feedback immediately and often at high volume!
How Will You Retire Your Hero Suit?
Let’s suppose you decided to do your work instead of helping your colleagues. You won’t be nearly as motivated to do your own work when getting through your piles rarely seems like “saving the day.” No warm fuzzy feeling and what about feedback? If you’re lucky, your boss has a great memory and mentions your great work the next time you get your next annual evaluation in five, six, or twelve months from now. Not very immediate, or gratifying, is it?
Three Great Ways to Deal with OCB
I’m not proposing you retire your hero suite altogether; after all, helping your colleague also provides goodwill you can use to get out of a jam in the future, that is, if you and your colleague can remember the numerous incidences when you saved the day. You might also enjoy other aspects of OCB, such as the teamwork and camaraderie it provides. However, approached correctly, your OCB can actually help you craft a better work environment.
- Identify ways you can be more present to what you accomplish when you complete a task you’ve been assigned. You can give yourself your own immediate positive feedback.
- Some of my clients pat their own backs – no joke! They lift their right arm straight in the air above their head, bend at the elbow and pat away.
- Others print out their to-do list so they can enjoy the sensation as they energetically scratch out the task off their list for the day.
- Target a job that allows you to do more “hero work.” I’m not suggesting you slip permanently into a spandex uniform and call yourself a superhero. Rather, choose a career where your strengths can be put to good use, such as in a customer service role, or researching solutions for people etc.
I can already hear some of you say “Yeah! but…”
- You may not be able to leave your job because your family depends on you, or you have great benefits, such as a pension and medical plan. What you can do, though, is ask your boss for more feedback, or look for opportunities within your current organization that allow you to do more hero work. Many organizations are willing, even eager, to offer new positions to existing employees rather than lose a good employee to the competition. Seek out a position where you have more opportunities to solve problems or work on special projects.
You could also take on a slightly bigger challenge that will make your organization a better place to work for everyone. Whether you’re playing the hero and saving the day, or you’re completing your normal workload, ask your internal clients about the impact the work you do has on them, and then reciprocate. Tell them you appreciate what they do; be specific and honest. It is amazing what one person can do in a workplace. Teaching others how they could thank someone by modeling what you are looking for can, over time, even change workplace culture. It’ll certainly make your day more enjoyable.
One of the top reasons adults with ADHD are reprimanded at work or lose their jobs is for what is perceived as bad behavior. Adults with ADHD are very familiar with their issues with productivity, but ADHDers often struggle to control their emotions. You may ruminate more than most people, become defensive and overreact in the face of real or imagined criticism, become easily frustrated and blurt out your feelings (once again asking yourself, “Oooops! Did I say that out loud?”)
ADHD Makes Me Lose Control
ADHD affects your brain’s executive functions, one of which is to control frustration and other emotions. You may also enjoy the stimulation of an extreme emotion. Many ADHDers I know seek or create situations where emotions run high because it keeps their mind focused on what’s going on. My husband often says that while it’s not listed as an ADHD symptom, it should be! ADHDers are “drama addicts”! Finally, you may have scars from numerous reprimands and put downs that make you more vulnerable to negative thoughts.
Controlling Your Emotions Starts With Taking Care of Your Physical Needs
You may remember the recent candy bar commercial where the late, great Robin Williams played a football coach (with typical manic impersonations of numerous characters) before transforming into the actual football coach once he’d eaten this candy bar. The message that “you’re not yourself when you’re hungry,” applies very well to ADHDers. I quickly notice how much more emotionally charged conversations are in our house when one of the ADHDers I live with is hungry or hasn’t slept well the night before. Exercise also helps you manage stress better, so skipping your regular workout makes you more susceptible to feeling frustrated.
Become Familiar with Your Internal Workings
You can help gain control over your emotions by learning how they work. And I’m not referring to “theoretical” knowledge you’d get from a book; I mean you need to take the time after an emotional outburst to think through what happened. What triggered the event, what was your reaction, and why were the results negative? You can then plan ahead by considering how you could have responded that would have had a different result so that you can better manage it the next time. This is a huge challenge for many ADHDers who, once the emotion has quieted down, don’t pay attention to it, other than to wonder how they can make amends for saying or doing what they just did.
However, if you can practice analyzing your emotional outbursts, you may need to apologize far less often. I know many ADHDers find rehearsed “scripts” that may or may not involve speaking very useful. One of the most common such scripts that everyone has been taught at some point is, “If I feel I’m going to say something I might regret, I’ll count to 10.) The problem is always how to know an outburst is coming before it’s too late (more on that in a minute.)
Techniques such as mindfulness can also be helpful. Mindfulness is not about contemplating your navel; rather, it’s about being present in the moment, engaging all your senses and feeling what’s going on now. What you want to review are:
1) What event triggered your emotional blow-up?
2) What sensation did you feel in your body shortly before the emotional outburst occurred?
Was there tension in your shoulders? Did you feel something in the pit of your stomach? Did your breathing or heart rate change? Paying attention to these signs can be very helpful for managing your emotions in the future. The next time you start feeling those sensations, you’ll be better able to predict and possibly prevent an imminent blow up.
3) What emotion did you feel?
Was it fear? Anger? Jealousy? Outrage? Sadness? At first blush, they all appear as, “I was just mad.” However, you want to hone in on the true source of the emotion you perceived as “mad.” This will shed light on the thoughts the event triggered.
4) What were you thinking?
Events trigger thoughts, which trigger emotions. What belief is at the root of the thought? For example, your boss may look at you one day with a strange look on her face. You might think to yourself, “I’ve done something wrong, she’s going to fire me” and begin to feel anxious. This feeling will cause a lot of tension in your shoulders and a lump in the pit of your stomach, thinking that you’ll probably be raked over the coals. You start telling yourself things like “I’m always making mistakes or saying the wrong thing.”
I’ll discuss how you can manage that thought in a future segment. For now, let’s keep our focus on how you can control the outburst at work.
Crafting a Game Plan
It’s always better to craft a game plan for those emotional outbursts that happen often while you’re not emotionally volatile. The best way to control your emotions is to be aware of triggers and clues that you’re losing your cool and to have a plan on how you’ll deal with these triggers when the clues show up. Most of us have a few options when events make us emotional.
1) You can react: This is of course, what you’ve been doing and you might want to change it since it is exactly what’s gotten you into trouble.
2) You can remove yourself from the situation: You can create a “script” to explain why you need to remove yourself; prepare it in advance.
3) You can let it go: As you become better at controlling your emotions, this will become an option that’s open to you.
4) You can prepare a response ahead of time: This requires forethought. Take time to analyze past experiences for clues. Once you have identified a few clues to help you predict an imminent emotional outburst, you can craft a game plan for managing your emotions BEFORE they occur. Become sensitive to the clues that something is about to happen and decide how you’ll handle things the next time these clues appear. The nice part is that you can even ask for help in preparing your game plan from someone who has more experience and more success dealing with people. You may want to practice your response in front of the mirror or with the person helping you, as long as they are someone who has your back and is willing to help you.
Your game plan may look like this:
- When I notice myself feeling overwhelmed, I’ll take two deep breaths. As soon as I feel the tension dropping, I’ll make a list of what needs to get done and if needed, I’ll talk to my boss to determine priorities.
- When I notice that I’m clenching my jaw and my fists and I know I’m close to losing my cool, I’ll tell people “I need a bit of time to think about this; I’ll get back to you later.” or you can simply use an excuse to walk away so that you can “regroup”.
The workplace has become a very challenging place, even for neurotypicals. Maybe it’s always been this way, but with the speed things happen today, increased expectations from bosses and clients and world-wide competition for your job, it certainly seems more stressful than ever. If you have adult ADHD, you add a big bunch of extra challenges to the mix:
- Inattentiveness and lack of focus can lead to missed details, and make it challenging to accomplish work that requires concentration at the best of times,
- Forgetfulness has very likely already led to more than one missed commitment and the resulting loss of credibility,
- Disorganization has you feeling overwhelmed, distracted and jumping from one task to another,
- Procrastination leads to last-minute, gun-to-the-head, high-stress production to meet deadlines, causing you great stress,
- Or you play the hero, pitching in to put out other people’s fires while your own work goes undone,
- and more.
These extra challenges make the workplace a veritable minefield of reprimands and disappointments, but what can you do about it?
The obvious answer, and the one most experts provide, is that “You should ask for accommodations at work.” That sounds simple, doesn’t it? Accommodations have been proven to help, and it’s likely they would help you, but there’s a little problem. How can you ask for and get accommodations unless you disclose your ADHD at work? And as we know, there are risks associated with that.
So what can you do? There are ways of asking for accommodations without disclosing your ADHD. If you don’t feel it’s safe to disclose your ADHD at work, or if you’d just rather not, you’ll be happy to hear there’s a “formula” that will help you to ask for “accommodations” without outing yourself. Use this model “script” to write down what you’d like to say, adapted to your specific circumstances, practice and use again and again with success:
Step 1. Describe your specific struggle and the circumstances surrounding it.
Step 2. Describe a possible solution you’ve thought of.
Step 3. Describe the benefits your boss, your co-workers and you will get from implementing this solution. WIIFY & M (What’s in it for you and me.)
For example, if there’s too much noise in your cubicle farm and you feel you’d be able do a better job preparing a particularly challenging report that you need to do regularly if you had a quiet place to do your work, you would apply the three steps as follows:
Step 2. Describe a possible solution: “I’ve thought of one possible solution: when I work on these reports, would it be possible for me to use a closed office, conference room, or to work from home?”
Step 3. Describe the benefits: “This will help me get it done much faster, so Joe can get started on his part sooner, and I’ll complete it with fewer or no mistakes so it’ll reduce the time you spend double-checking everything.”
You’ve done a good job of selling the solution by pointing out the benefits to all, it doesn’t sound like you’re whining… and no one mentioned ADHD!
So the formula is:
“Job accommodation means modifying a job, job site, or the way in which a job is done so that the person with a disability can have equal access to all aspects of work.”1
Job accommodations may also include the use of tools such as headsets, assistive technology, training, job restructuring, job reassignments or even an administrative assistant.
One of my clients, an administrative assistant, had to review all of her supervisors’ direct reports’ expense reports once a week. This was tedious work that required a lot of focus and some quiet uninterrupted time. The challenge she faced was that she was expected to answer the phone at the same time, which led to numerous mistakes. Here’s the script she used:
Step 2. I know that I need two or three hours of uninterrupted time when I am most focused to ensure I don’t make these mistakes. I’ve found a possible solution: Could Carol take my phone calls on Tuesday mornings so that I can do the work uninterrupted?
Step 3. With this solution in place, I’ll be able to dramatically reduce mistakes and make sure all the receipts are there and accounted for. This will prevent you from getting calls from the Accounting Department or the company paying out more than allowed by receipts. With fewer interruptions, I may even be able to get it done faster.
Her supervisor thought it was an excellent idea and allowed the phone call transfers so my client was able to complete this work without mistakes. And they all lived happily ever after!
This year the ADD Association (ADDA) will be celebrating its 25th Anniversary in Orlando, Florida from July 24 to 27th during the ADDA Conference, a conference specifically for adults with ADHD and their loved ones.
I’ll be one the presenters. In the recording below I talk about two of the sessions I’ll be offering:
- Overworked, Overwhelmed and on a Collision Course for Burnout
- ADHD in the Workplace
If you’re still on the fence about attending this year, or you know you’re registered but don’t know which sessions to attend, ADDA has a solution to help you figure that out. They are offering a couple Taste Test sessions next week. You’ll hear various speakers talk about their sessions and what’s in it for you.
In the meantime, here’s a recording I did to tell you more about my sessions.
I hope to see you this July 24th to 27th at the ADDA Conference in Orlando, Florida.
I’m excited to announce that I’ve been selected to speak at this summer’s ADDA Conference, the only international conference for adults with ADHD.
Overworked, Overwhelmed and on a Collision Course for Burnout has been selected.
I’m also organizing a panel discussion for spouses of ADHDers: For Non-ADHD Spouses Only! Creating a Strong Relationship with Your ADHD Spouse Non-ADHD Spouses Share Their Recipes for Success, along with Eva Green (TotallyADD), Victor Roggli (spouse of ADDiva, Linda Roggli), Dean Solden (Sari Solden’s husband) and Wilma Fellman who has agreed to moderate.
As ADDA Worplace Committee Chairperson, my team and I will be showing off our new presentation targeted at employers to sensitize them about the challenges of ADHD in the workplace.
and finally, I’m really excited about offering a full-day pre-conference workshop, Managing ADHD in the Workplace for HR Professionals, with Michelle Geiman, Director of Human Resources at Ohio University.
The conference takes place from July 24 to 27, 2014.