What the Research Says
Back in 2008, a research study created quite a stir among therapists and those suffering from ADHD. The study, titled Mindfulness Meditation Training in Adults and Adolescents with ADHD: A Feasibility Study, indicated a reduction of up to 30% of symptoms for participants in the program.
What was even more surprising was that this reduction happened without the addition of any therapy or medications. Now, 30% is a pretty serious improvement for a meditative practice that can take only 30 minutes a day.
Since this foundational study, there have been numerous studies confirming positive results for mindful meditative practices.
Clearly there is something to all of this. But why do these results occur?
For that, we need to understand the science behind what’s called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the fact that our brains are constantly learning and changing throughout our life spans. This is why, for example, an individual whose cerebellum was damaged and loses the ability to walk, can then regain that ability over time.
What happens internally is that the brain rewires other areas to take over the functionality for the damaged section.
This is how we learn in general. When we learn to ride a bike, or speak another language, our brains are restructuring to hardwire those skills and actions in. Fire it to wire it, as they say.
The same thing happens with the way we think. There is a reason that script writers for comedies can constantly come up with new material. They’re brains have been trained to do so.
Creating New Pathways
This is an example of the brain creating neural pathways through regular use. As we use certain pathways more, they become more ingrained and get better at processing the task.
Symptoms of ADHD such as impulsiveness, hyperactivity, and inattention are no different. These pathways become reinforced the more we use them. However, we can also create alternative pathways.
Instead of riding a bike, we can learn to drive a car. Will we ever forget how to ride a bike? Of course, not. But we can choose to drive the car instead of riding the bike every day.
This is how mindfulness meditation works. We are building new pathways in our brains that are controlled, calm, and focused. The old pathways are still there, but we simply choose to use the new ones we are creating instead.
Our brains also like to follow the path of least resistance. This is why old, familiar pathways are almost always our defaults. They say it takes around 28 days to form a new habit. That’s because it takes that long for a new pathway to form and become strong enough that it becomes the easiest one to take.
Patience and Consistency Are Keys to Success
Just like we didn’t learn everything about how to drive a car overnight, meditation is the same. We need to start small and build. When learning to drive, it was first learning the rules of the road before ever even sitting down behind the actual wheel. This is like learning how to meditate before actually sitting down to do it.
Then, if you remember your driver’s ed as a student driver, you started going on the road for only 10 minutes at a time, before working up to 30 minutes or more. As those with ADHD are already highly distractible, we need to do the same. Just start with mindfulness or meditation for 5 minutes and learn to do it well, before changing to 10 minutes a day.
If sitting is too hard in the beginning, try walking meditation instead first.
Over time, as you build your new pathways and use the old ones less, you’ll become better and better at doing so.
How to Meditate
Now that we’ve convinced you that meditation is absolutely worth trying for those suffering from ADHD, and you know why it works, let’s take a look at how to do it.
There are many different styles and techniques of meditation, so we’ll just cover one of the most common here, sitting meditation, or zazen.
1) Remove distractions. This means finding a quiet time and place. This could be a room in your home or it could be at a special meditation center in Seattle.
Make sure your phone is off and we recommend leaving it somewhere out of reach, like another room or your jacket pocket with your jacking hanging up on the coat rack far, far away :).
2) Sit. Obviously, we always see pictures of people meditating in the Lotus Position with their legs crossed, but there is no reason to do so. You can meditate just as well sitting however you feel comfortable. That might mean with your knees up and back against a wall. It really doesn’t matter.
3) Find a focus. You want to have something to concentrate on. The simplest is probably breathing. Just really focus on your breaths and count them from 1 to 10, over and over again.
Or you can try to build an image in your mind, just like you hear on all those meditation CDs. Start with a beach, then imagine a calming wind, then put the stars in the sky, etc.
We often imagine meditating with our eyes closed, but you could also try doing it with your eyes open and simply stare at a picture or object in front of you. Some Buddhists use special images called mandalas to do so.
That’s it. Pretty simple, right?
Don’t Worry About Obstacles
Meditation is not easy. Many first-time practitioners will complain that they can’t stop thinking about things while meditating. Their body is sitting, but their mind is racing. This is completely normal, even for those who don’t have ADHD. So don’t worry about it!
Buddhists call this “the monkey mind”. Just like we talked about above, our minds are so used to always thinking about something, usually many things. We have to train our brains to focus. It’s all about creating those new pathways.
You may also not be able to find a quiet place. Maybe you live near train tracks, like me, or off of a busy street. Try putting on headphones with soothing sounds or calming music. Even if that’s not an option, it’s OK to meditate in a noisy location. You just might find it a bit more challenging to do so.
Expand Your Horizons
Don’t just stop with mediation. After you’ve gotten some practice at it, try to expand it to other parts of your life. Remember, your brain has now learned how to do this. We can drive a car in Seattle as easily as we can in Portland, right?
But, just like perhaps driving in Britain, where they drive on the other side of the road, we may have to learn a little bit more once again to be successful.
You can now expand your mindfulness skill set to things like reading, studying, completing work, or anything else you can think of. The sky is the limit and you have the power to take control.
Remember, just like you can’t forget how to ride a bike, your ADHD will always be with you, but you can choose to get behind the driver’s wheel of your life instead. Combining mindfulness with therapy and medication can be an extremely effective combination for some. So give it a try and let us know how it goes in the comments!