Coping with Adult ADD/ADHD

You’ve been recently diagnosed with ADD or ADHD. Now what?

All your life you’ve been fighting distractedness, time management problems, and a constant feeling of being overwhelmed, without knowing why these problems were dogging you. Now that you have an ADD diagnosis, you can take steps to improve your well-being and overall functioning. Your doctor may suggest medications to deal with the biological components of the disorder. But there are also simple steps you can take in your daily life to reduce distress caused by ADD symptoms.

The first step is to understand what you’re dealing with. In order to begin coping with ADD-related problems, it’s important to know what ADD is and why it affects you the way it does. There are a number of good books and websites that describe ADD/ADHD symptoms and the current understanding of what causes this disorder. See the Resource list for recommended reading.

Now that you have some idea of what ADD really means, take a moment to think about its effects on your life. Before you can begin to alleviate ADD-related problems, you have to identify them. One of the criteria for ADD is that it affects every aspect of your life, from work to family life to social functioning. Consider each aspect of your daily life and how it may be affected by ADD symptoms. For example, do you put dinner on the stove and then sit down at the computer, forgetting about what’s cooking until a burning smell fills the air? That problem is easily solved by setting a timer to remind you to check on the food. Or you could choose to remain in the kitchen area while dinner is on the stove and do some less absorbing task, such as sorting mail or unloading the dishwasher.

While you’re thinking about problem areas related to ADD, it’s important to also consider what works well in your life. Susan Roberts and Gerard Jansen, authors of Living with ADD: A Workbook for Adults with Attention Deficit Disorder, point out that it’s important to acknowledge your strengths as well as areas of weakness. When something is working well for you, don’t change it! Instead, try to figure out why it works, and apply that understanding to weaker areas. For example, perhaps you do a great job of filing important papers at work, but at home the bills are always paid late because you have trouble keeping track of them. In that case, you could set up a home bill-paying center that mimics the setup of your filing system at work.

A frequent tip regarding to-do lists is to break each project into small steps to make the project feel more manageable. This is especially important for someone with ADD, who is likely to become quickly overwhelmed with complex tasks. Use a daily to-do list, but break down each task into its smallest component. For example, if you need to get started on a research paper about autism, the first step toward completing that task might be going to the library to find books about autism. In that case, what you’ll write down on the list is just that one step: “go to library to find autism books.”

There are many tools you can rely on as coping mechanisms for ADD. A timer can be used to keep you on track during a task. If you know that you can only focus on one thing for 15 minutes, then set the timer for 15 minutes and then ignore everything else but the immediate task. You can use a simple kitchen timer, or try one of the free software timers for your computer, such as Chimoo. Another tool to help you focus is the use of non-distracting music or white noise to block out external distractions while you’re working. Many people with ADD use music in this way, but what works for you may be something different, such as having the TV turned on low in the background, or the hum of a rotating fan nearby.

Internal distractions can also be a problem. If you find that you’re restless and constantly hopping up to get a drink or talk on the phone, it may help to schedule in brief breaks. Try working for 20 minutes, then rewarding yourself with a five-minute break. If you’re constantly thinking of other things you need to take care of, keep a small notebook nearby where you can quickly jot down these thoughts and then return immediately to the task at hand.

Many people with ADD find that a simple day planner is essential for keeping track of tasks. However, choose one that’s right for you. If it’s too complex or badly organized, you won’t use it. You may find that a simple lined notebook is enough, a place where you can make lists and jot down reminders. The important thing is to put everything in one place and always have your planner or notebook with you.

In his book Healing ADD, Daniel Amen recommends dietary changes that can have a profound effect on your ability to focus. First, he suggests that you eliminate “toxins” from your diet, including caffeine and processed sugar. Many people with ADD self-medicate with caffeine, but it can actually hurt your ability to cope with the disorder. Daniel Amen points out that caffeine decreases blood flow to your brain, which affects your oxygen levels. No one can think straight without adequate oxygen! It’s also important to realize that caffeine use affects your sleep patterns, and sleep deprivation can be a real killer for someone with ADD.

Other changes recommended in Healing ADD include a higher-protein, lower-carb diet with frequent snacks rather than 2-3 huge meals per day; 30 minutes of intense aerobic exercise 5 times a week (to boost your level of serotonin, which affects overall mood); and certain supplements to increase focusing power, including L-tyrosine and grapeseed extract.

Finally, a support system is vital for people with ADD. The frustrations of attention problems and small mistakes can lead to feeling overwhelmed or depressed. Spend time with supportive friends and family who can reassure you that you’re doing a great job. And make sure to engage in hobbies that you enjoy-low-stress activities that are rewarding and fun.

An ADD/ADHD diagnosis may be distressing at first. These coping techniques can ensure that the diagnosis actually improves your life. Now that you know exactly what the problem is, you can address longstanding issues and make life less frustrating and more rewarding.

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