Substantial research confirms that mindfulness meditation can treat both the symptoms and causes of ADHD.
By Anna Ciulla
Until recently, stimulant medications have typically been the first line of treatment for ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).
This disorder affects roughly 11% of children in this country, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control.
The Limitations of ADHD Medications Like Adderall
Medications, at best, only control the symptoms of poor attentiveness, impulsivity, and hyperactivity that characterize ADHD — they do not treat the underlying root causes of the disorder.
These have been revealed on brain imaging scans that show that children with ADHD have: (3)
- smaller brains than their unaffected cohorts
- differences in the prefrontal cortex, basal ganglia, and cerebellum
- reduced connectivity in white matter tracts of key regions of the brain
- dysregulated levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a major role in reward-motivated behavior
Stimulant medications for ADHD can also be hard to tolerate and, in some cases, addictive.
As a clinician in the field of addiction treatment, I’ve seen this trait firsthand with medications like Adderall, which have a high capacity for abuse and pose dangerous side effects.
And, in some cases, medication may help manage symptoms for only a period of time before becoming ineffective.
In other words, medications for ADHD are not for everyone, and even for those who can and must take a stimulant drug, there are limitations to what they can achieve therapeutically.
The Therapeutic Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation for ADHD
In light of these medication drawbacks, new research into the therapeutic benefits of mindfulness meditation for ADHD is especially promising.
Many of them have a co-occurring disorder like ADHD, anxiety or depression, and have experienced the therapeutic benefits of mindfulness meditation.
As an illustration, a client with ADHD recently approached one of my therapists saying he was unable to stay focused in group therapy for extended periods of time.
With some simple meditation techniques and the support of a daily morning meditation group, the client learned how to bring his attention back to the present in moments of mind wandering (a common experience for ADHD sufferers).
As a result of that process, the client was better able to retain the information he was processing in groups better than most clients and had fewer sleep problems, my colleague reported.
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Keep in mind that the above example is only one of many.
We have often utilized meditation for clients with ADHD and have found it very helpful.
Often, these clients are diagnosed with ADHD due to difficulty concentrating, restlessness, or impulsivity.
These symptoms can be contributing to various issues, and while the diagnosis may be accurate, the mind wandering and impulsivity can often be addressed using meditation.
Just because someone has difficulties concentrating or staying still does not mean they are incapable of doing so.
What Is Mindfulness Meditation for ADHD?
What, then, is mindfulness meditation for ADHD?
For starters, I like the simple definition that my colleague Richard Warren, LCSW, (the therapist mentioned above), uses:
“Mindfulness meditation teaches us to systematically maintain focus on an object, and when we catch our minds wondering, we simply bring our attention back.”
There are at least two components to mindfulness meditation that seem to be responsible for eliciting positive changes in the brain and in behavior, according to new research at Brown University: (4)
- Open Monitoring (OM) – Taking the perspective of a distant and compassionate observer in relation to negative feelings, the idea being that you’re simply cultivating self-awareness about your present experience without judging or reacting.
- Focused Attention (FA)– Maintaining focus on or shifting it toward a neutral sensation — your breath, or your breath paired with a mantra or image — to disengage from negative emotions or distractions.
OM and FA are two key working elements in mindfulness meditation for ADHD, regardless of the type of mindfulness meditation or particular exercise.
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How Mindfulness Meditation Treats the Causes and Symptoms of ADHD
More and more studies are shedding light on how these exercises, when practiced regularly, treat not just the symptoms, but also the causes, of ADHD.
Some of these findings appeared in a May 2014 New York Times blog. (5)
Adults who undertook mindfulness meditation combined with cognitive therapy found that their improvements in focus and mental performance, including less impulsive errors and less self-judgment about mistakes, were on a par with improvements achieved by subjects taking ADHD medications, in a study in Clinical Neurophysiology. (6)
In a study by Emory University researchers, mindfulness meditation strengthened the neural circuitry that governs functions like focus and attention. (7)
Mindfulness meditation also improved neural connectivity and decreased neural activity associated with mind wandering in a region of the brain known as the “default mode network,” according to a 2011 study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (8)
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An earlier 2007 study in the Journal of Attention Disorders found that about eight in 10 adult and adolescent subjects who practiced mindfulness saw a reduction in their ADHD symptoms. (9)
Research at UCLA has found that in multiple studies, mindfulness exercises helped school-aged children develop greater attention, focus, emotional self-regulation, and calm while enhancing their social skills. (ADHD can impair interpersonal skills too.) (10)
A long-term mindfulness meditation practice was associated with thicker cortical regions in the brain that govern attention and sensory processing, and the thickness of these regions corresponded with the length of meditation experience.
The authors of the 2005 study in Neuroreport concluded that a long-term meditation practice produces positive, long-lasting changes to the brain. (11)
These and other findings together reveal that by changing the brain over time, mindfulness meditation strengthens attention as well as cognitive and executive functioning, reduces impulsivity, and helps regulate mood and emotion.
Mindfulness Meditation Exercises for ADHD
If you’re wondering how to use mindfulness meditation for your or your child’s ADHD, the good news is that you have many options.
Here are some of the many options to consider:
Various forms of yoga integrate mindfulness meditation with intentional stretches that strengthen the mind-body connection, boosting focus, calm and emotional self-regulation.
Sahaja yoga meditation is one form of yoga that was found to help kids with ADHD and their families, in the same research at UCLA cited above; but hatha yoga and asana yoga are other accessible forms of yoga for beginners that can achieve similar results.
And nowadays the yoga options for adults and children abound, whether at a local YMCA, community center, or summer camp for kids.
Learn more —
How to Do Yoga for Depression and Anxiety (and why)
Transcendental Meditation or Centering Prayer
Thanks to Meetup.com, it’s not hard to find a group that regularly meets to practice transcendental meditation.
Some churches also host centering prayer groups.
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) are clinical interventions that have been successfully used to improve calm and focus in children and adults affected by ADHD or stress-related disorders.
For MBCT, there are sometimes therapists or support groups that practice this program of mindfulness, depending on where you are.
For MBSR, you can often take a short weekly course to teach you how to apply it in your daily life.
These are just some of the ways that you can use mindfulness meditation to treat your ADHD.
Additionally, according to 2015 research in the journal Cognitive Behavioral Practices, mindfulness exercises for ADHD can include: (14)
- a formal sitting meditation
- a walking meditation
- mindfulness applied to daily activities
- the simple recalling of one’s breath throughout the day
- a loving-kindness meditation like the 15-minute exercise taught by UC Berkeley’s Center for Greater Good in Action
- reflection on a positive visual or mental image
Mindfulness Meditation for ADHD: The Bottom Line
Medication for ADHD has its drawbacks — the biggest being that stimulant drugs treat only symptoms, not causes, of the disorder.
An abundance of research now confirms that mindfulness meditation can treat both the symptoms and causes of ADHD.
Mindfulness meditation can teach you to draw your attention back from mind wandering to the present moment.
There is no scarcity of mindfulness meditation exercises and formats to choose from in an area near you.
The key is to find a practice that works for you.
Mindfulness meditation is not a quick fix for ADHD, but with time, patience, and a little self-discipline, you will see positive results.
About the author
Anna Ciulla is the Vice President of Clinical and Medical Services at Beach House Center for Recovery. Anna helps clients with substance use and co-occurring disorders achieve successful long-term recovery using a variety of evidence-based methods, including mindfulness meditation.