Getting a break from my ADHD brain
April 27, 2021 7:37 AM   Subscribe

I have ADHD and my brain is buzzing with thoughts and ideas and feelings all.the.time. Even when I try to relax my mind is picking out little details in the ceiling, or thinking about what the melody in the music reminds me of, or trying to solve the world's problems, etc. etc.

Since starting medication and learning more about ADHD I've begun to see these crazy buzzing thoughts as mostly a good thing, they make me really creative! But sometimes I just want a break, you know? I just wanna chill out and... not think about anything for an hour or two.

Of course the internet is full of strategies for this kind of thing, but I'd love to hear personal stories about what's worked for you. I have some strategies but they only provide temporary 5-10min relief and I'd love to be able to get a longer break.

Things I've tried that help:
  • Mindfulness-type meditation (honestly I feel like this is the best answer and closest to what I need, it's just so HARD for me to stick to a consistent practice)
  • Calming touch, e.g. splashing water on my face, self-massage, soft blankets
  • Getting into a flow state working on a task: I can't really do this consistently but when I do it provides some relief; my mind is still buzzing but at least all my thoughts are pointed towards a single goal instead of floating around randomly
  • Sensory deprivation, especially using earplugs

Things that have given me mixed results:
  • Music: some calming music helps, but usually it just engages my analytical brain
  • Weed: can help me get into a flow state, but also turns the buzzing thoughts up to 11
  • CBD: haven't noticed any effect at the dosages I've tried
posted by mekily to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Mindfulness/being present seems to be a big key in being at peace in general and bringing calm specifically with ADHD.

I have found that activities that engage the mind by requiring focus and the body through physical activity tend to be helpful. If you have a sport or activity that gets you into a flow state, making a habit of practicing that activity at the same time every day could be beneficial.

Boardriding helps me out personally. I find myself fully focused on the next turn or the terrain in front of me and, since it's something I love, it's easier to tune out distracting thoughts.

You seem to be in tune already with what may help you. I'd suggest you expand on the ideas you already have, maybe throw some passion in there, like finding a task you really care about to get you into a flow state or a sport that you'd love to excel at to focus on. Good luck!
posted by jumanjinight at 7:56 AM on April 27, 2021 [4 favorites]

Have you tried physical activity / exercise? I know folks who swear by challenging exercise for this purpose -- I'm talking about things like an uphill hike, marathon training, bouldering, heavy gardening, etc. Even moderate exercise has been shown to have well-documented benefits for those with ADHD.
posted by ourobouros at 7:57 AM on April 27, 2021 [6 favorites]

I am neurodivergent and have these same problems. My brain is always going. Sometimes its a superpower, most times I just want to relax.

I really agree that challenging exercise is the best thing for it, because I also struggle mightily to set up a reasonable meditation/mindfulness practice.

My personal favourites are active team sports (think basketball/soccer) where you're going hard the whole hour, or precise physical activity (yoga/pilates) where you have to focus inside your body or on your breathing so hard there's no room for anything else.

I've also had some luck combining background noise with reading/work so I get better focus. Music is too much, I just get distracted, but there are some neat white noise and background noise options. I like Calm Office. So I can do that and read a long article without getting distracted.
posted by dazedandconfused at 8:04 AM on April 27, 2021

Archery does it for me, more than any other physical activity I've tried. I can't get an hour (is that even possible? I can't imagine) but I do get some time away from my chattering brain.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:09 AM on April 27, 2021 [1 favorite]

I take a day off from my adderall and that helps a ton. Sometimes even a mid-week day.
posted by bbqturtle at 8:15 AM on April 27, 2021

I am also going to suggest exercise, I'm afraid. I only get in this sort of calm state of mind on my bike, or sometimes out walking in nature. Mindfulness in my room? Nah, not happening. Walking in a forest I can focus on the feeling of the breeze, the silence, the sounds, the space... I feel mindful and connected to nature in a way that is not possible for me indoors. Apparently walking meditation is a thing, so I strongly recommend that instead of the sitting kind.
posted by stillnocturnal at 8:27 AM on April 27, 2021 [2 favorites]

Yes, challenging exercise, like HIIT or cardio, works great for me as a person with ADHD. Knitting can also induce the flow state and allows me to "meditate" without getting bored.
posted by chaiminda at 8:29 AM on April 27, 2021 [2 favorites]

Video games are this for me. They kinda fill the meditation slot. Especially ones with a bunch of little details to manage like colony sims, city-builders, 4x games. My mind is engaged on the thing I’m doing and Nothing Else. It’s great.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:31 AM on April 27, 2021 [2 favorites]

Counted cross stitch embroidery
posted by Cocodrillo at 9:35 AM on April 27, 2021

With sincere happiness for the people who say exercise, that has never worked for me, so don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t for you either! Exercise helps me with all kinds of things (general ADHD management, energy levels, heart health, etc), but my brain goes WILD with thoughts if I am not actively distracting it with multiple other inputs while I’m working out.

For me, the only thing that quiets my brain is hyperfocus—which is, admittedly, not the same “quiet” I imagine neurotypical people feel during meditation where they are super in the moment in their bodies & environment. But even though hyperfocus is kind of definitionally an active brain state, it feels quiet to me because it is only ONE thing going on, without the zing-zing-zing of tangential thoughts, self reminders, environmental distractions, etc. My most reliably calming hyperfocus activity is reading novels, especially romance and YA, where big feelings are front-and-center, because it activates both my analytical/emotional brain and induces those heart-clenching/stomach-swooping feelings, which help with full immersion. (If I could handle thrillers/horror, I feel like it would work the same way.)

I’ve also been working on strategies to help encourage hyperfocus during other activities, with mild success. This generally involves surrounding myself with sensory inputs that are mild enough not to be overwhelming but distracting enough to take up some brain space, which is a very tricky needle to thread. Some things that help me are: scented candles, especially with wood wicks that give good crackle/flame; “ambient” music mixes like this perfect YouTube channel; noise-cancelling headphones; stim toys/gum/crunchy snacks/hard candy; a bullet journal where I can quickly note down thoughts that do pass through without actually following them.

A milder tactic I use when I’m in the middle of other activities is listening to podcasts, or very aggressive daydreaming. (Like, almost playacting whole elaborate scenarios in my head.) Again, this isn’t exactly quieting, but it is calming, in the sense that it reduces the frenetic, unceasing barrage of thoughts and keeps my brain in just two places at once.

I’m also going to be watching this thread because I still feel like I could use more help in this area. Thanks for asking the question, and I hope you find some strategies that work for you!
posted by CtrlAltDelete at 9:39 AM on April 27, 2021 [7 favorites]

Put me down as another fan of exercise. Hard bike rides are one of the most important pieces of my routine for my personal ADHD brain. Losing my bike commute to covid was something I didn't think too much about at the time, but replacing it with evening rides was really helpful for me. It's a place where I'm in the moment and it's easy to let my thoughts flow past me as I ride in a way that's hard to get to elsewhere in my life.
posted by lhputtgrass at 10:44 AM on April 27, 2021 [2 favorites]

Lots of folks are talking about exercise. I don't always get into a flow when I am exercising, but I do think, as CtrlAltDelete says, that it helps with overall ADHD management even if it doesn't quiet the brain.

A new activity that involves physicality can help. Something that requires me to concentrate on how I move my body--so walking on a bumpy trail, doing a new sport or activity, that sort of thing. I usually distract myself by listening to podcasts on walks, but I can't do that if I really need to focus. So, leave the phone at home for this (or put it in a backpack or someplace inconvenient).

What would probably really help: dumping my smart phone. A few years ago I spent several months someplace where I didn't have consistent data on my phone, so I had to ration it. I read so much and thought so much more clearly there.
posted by bluedaisy at 10:47 AM on April 27, 2021 [1 favorite]

Dancing. Good music, whatever that is for you, and dancing, especially choreographed dance, so you have to attend to the steps. Contradancing is good. Or DDR. The combination of music & exercise-that-requires-attention/skill really works for me.

Reading. I lost my ability to focus on books for a while after being ill, and am working on regaining it. It's definitely coming back and is a big part of my life.
posted by theora55 at 11:07 AM on April 27, 2021 [1 favorite]

What worked for me:
  • Daily mindfulness meditation practice. 30 minutes every morning. I will reach a one-year continuous streak tomorrow. It was also hard for me to establish a daily practice, and I had gone without meditating for a few months early last year until I realized how stressed-out and scatterbrained I felt. Every time I feel like skipping a session, I remind myself of what it felt like before I started my daily practice.
  • Daily exercise. 30 minutes minimum, alternating between cardio (typically cycling) and strength (guided TRX workout). Saturday is a rest day.
  • On particularly stressful or busy days, I set aside time to sit and relax to some music without use of phone or computer. Usually some piano pieces by Chopin, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, and the like.
  • Abstain from alcohol on weekdays. Enjoy in moderation on Fridays and Saturdays, but only if I feel like it. Many times I don't want any.
  • Abstain from all caffeine, no exceptions.

posted by TrialByMedia at 11:21 AM on April 27, 2021 [1 favorite]

I have recently found that, like a number of the people above, exercise helps me to be able to cut the mental chatter. However, I can't just get on the treadmill and go--I need to have a secondary form of input that does not engage my brain. A playlist of instrumental music is the thing.

(I can also use exercise + playlist to help me focus on writing: I've curated a playlist that I listen to while writing, so my brain associates it with the story, and if I get on the treadmill and put on that playlist, my brain will move into Story Mode and I can think of characterization, plot issues, etc. in a way that I can't while sitting in front of my computer or even a blank notebook.)

Music alone doesn't do it for me, as I'm not a Music-with-a-capital-M person: music for me is, at best, a soundtrack to the things I'm doing and thinking.

Arranging my surroundings so that they're mostly dark except for focused task lighting also helps block out everything else so I can get into the flow state more easily. If I can see stuff out of the corner of my eye, that stuff will just distract me or spark other thoughts or remind me of something I intended to do or, like yesterday, just SIT THERE in a REALLY ANNOYING MANNER until I am forced to get up and do something with it (at which point I'll likely get distracted by something else, then something else....
posted by telophase at 11:37 AM on April 27, 2021 [2 favorites]

Also, something that hasn't been available to me since early 2020: massage. Something about the constant physical input of massage allows my brain to slow down, so before All This happened, I got a professional massage once a month. I originally started to see if it would help my frequent tension headaches, and while I think it did some good for those, the ability to just lie there and rest my brain was a much more significant effect.
posted by telophase at 11:43 AM on April 27, 2021 [3 favorites]

I've found getting thoughts out is very helpful. I do this either by writing them or dictating them. Even just speaking them out loud can help. I keep them somewhere I could find them and make use of it, but put no pressure on myself to ever do so and I usually don't.

I think the reason this helps is because some of the franticness of my thinking has to do with the fear that I will forget important or interesting things. Or, it is that the thoughts are interesting and so they're engaging, but I think about them for longer than I need to or it is circular. If I record them, its easier to let them go and move on. Same goes for something you are ruminating about.

If I'm repeatedly having the same feelings or thoughts I also write or speak about them. If I feel blocked from starting a task, I write about what I'm feeling, why that is, and what I could do about it.

Anything you can do to relieve stress may help simplify your thinking - including reminders, alarms, etc for actually important events. Similarly, planning your time, writing down the plan so you know what to do next, then setting timers so you know when it's time to do the next thing relieves some of the load on your brain to keep track of things like "when do I need to eat", etc.

I think the important aspects of these notes are that it does not become a chore, it does not clutter up or mess up your physical space or your existing systems, and ideally is saved in some way that you could find it later if you really want to.

I would keep stuff like this separate from whatever your other systems are for keeping track of actually important information or reminders.

I usually use Google Keep for this, and use the Google voice to text to enter them. Then, optionally add a label to the post with what issue it is related to. If you use Google assistant you can say "take a note" then the note goes into Keep as well. The other thing I sometimes use is use Otter since it uses AI to create transcripts and they're usually pretty good. So, I'll go for a walk, listen to music, and leave the recording going so I can just say the thought out loud if it seems important, and then there's a searchable transcript if I need it later (without actually having to listen to voice recordings which I will never do.)

I also sometimes work things out on paper since I can organize my thinking about it and come up with some conclusions and plans. For paper, I make sure it doesn't become clutter by taking a picture or scanning it if it has anything useful, and otherwise getting rid of it. Something about keeping a record of it makes me more at ease. Sometimes I'll keep piles of paper and later scan them in and organize or label them somehow, but usually not.

Then I forget about most of those notes and generally speaking don't look at them again. But, I know they are there if I need them, and I could always search the text. I think the process means I don't feel as strong an urge to keep thinking about it, and something about it makes it feel easier to let these thoughts go when they come up.

I've got a longer-term project that will probably never be completed of looking at some of these notes and distilling any useful insights about myself, projects to work on, or whatever. However, I think the important part is that there's no pressure to do anything with it.
posted by lookoutbelow at 2:37 PM on April 27, 2021 [1 favorite]

Oh, yes, videogames. This is new for me! I am so very into Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and can play it for hours without my brain demanding attention. Animal Crossing did that at first, although for a shorter time (maybe 30 minutes).
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:56 PM on April 27, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'm very familiar with that buzzy all-over-the-place feeling!

healthy fats, protein, vegetables
low sugar, low carb

enough to fill you up until lunch.

I worked with an ADHD coach for adults and this was one of the most effective things for me.

+ enough exercise to sweat and breathe heavy (could be as little as 10 min) especially in the beginning of your day. My theory is it just removes excess energy.
+ a willingness to completely walk away from what I'm doing for a 10 minute walk outside
+ step out of the environment - sit down, close your eyes, and just feel the buzzing. After a couple of minutes it seems to subside
posted by jander03 at 7:15 PM on April 27, 2021 [3 favorites]

I found a whole reddit thread of people saying “holy shit all the chatter just…stopped” which was in response to the suggestion “focus on your peripheral vision”. You can google how to do it if that doesn’t yet make sense.
posted by lokta at 4:40 AM on April 28, 2021

Short ADHD-compatible minutes of sitting calmly and mindfully helped a lot. Longer, structured, more formal mindfulness never worked for me. YMMV.

* Short bursts - I usually do a few minutes, but even 30 seconds is helpful
* Done when I feel like it - ADHD makes sticking to a schedule nearly impossible, so don't. Do it when overwhelmed or as wanted. Work with the natural tendency to know what you need in the moment.

Seconding trying to see out of your peripheral vision / think about your full field of view. I don't know why it works - we're consciously acknowledging all this unfiltered input instead of trying to bury it, maybe? - but it does.

The third thing is having a calming routine to fall back on where I get up, walk to a specific location, and slowly do a specific thing I know makes me happier. For me it's making hot chocolate: I have to leave my desk, go to a room dedicated solely to food aka the kitchen, make the chocolate, and then I have a few minutes to just think about how nice the cocoa is and how much I like it. It's sort of like mindfulness in that I'm just resetting my brain was doing, but also there's cocoa. :D It's a little bit easier because after a enough repetitions the physical routine triggers the mental relaxation.

Finally - this is mental exercise & skill development. Don't get discouraged if it doesn't 'work' right away, etc. You can do this. Pay attention to what works for you and be patient and kind to yourself. The timeframe is measured in months if not years, but it will work. I'm a *lot* better at this than I was even a few years ago, and it does help a lot.

For sensory deprivation, a nice eyemask also helps a lot.

Everyone suggests exercise but it never helped me at all. My mind just switched over to thinking about the exercise, put that input into the free-association engine and kept running at top speed.
posted by Ahniya at 11:01 AM on April 28, 2021

I like a nice calm canoe or kayak on flat water. Usually with earbuds for music or a podcast but sometimes not. I hesitate to label this "exercise" because the point isn't to get my heart rate up or endorphins going, it's just a pleasant activity that engages body and mind. And since you have to paddle to shore to stop, it's harder to get distracted and quit. You can't be anywhere else except where you are without putting forth some effort, which is not the case when doing things around the house. This is probably why I like camping as well — the feeling that I "can't" be anywhere else (at least without expending some effort) seems to calm my mind a bit.
posted by Tehhund at 6:46 PM on April 28, 2021

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