Monday, May 10, 2010

Stress Less! Coaching Tips to Turn AD/HD Chaos to Calm

In our fast-paced world, we all experience stress and find our own ways to minimize it. For a person with ADHD, normal daily stress becomes debilitating. This is mostly due to the way the ADHD brain is wired. Because our brains have a faulty attention system, they are unable to slow down, block out, or prioritize stimuli. What’s more, adults with ADHD, especially when it has gone undiagnosed, often have poor self-esteem. They dwell on past failures or feel as if they haven’t lived up to their potential and expectations, or those of others. This causes them to approach situations pessimistically or to avoid tasks altogether, increasing their stress levels.

So why are many people with ADHD known as “stress junkies?” In my coaching practice, I see many clients who wait until the last minute to finish a project or to leave the house for an appointment. They can’t say no, and take on too much responsibility at work or in their social life. Creating these pressure-filled situations has served them well by helping stimulate their under-aroused ADHD brain. But the repercussions can take a toll on their health, adversely impact their family life, and put their job at risk. Talk about stress!

When Janice first came to see me, she was about to lose her job: She was often late for meetings, and she wasn’t prepared once she arrived. Her stress was so high she would break out into hives and couldn’t sleep at night. She was frustrated by the fact that she couldn’t get things done unless she had a gun to her head. She admitted to me that she would have been fired a long time ago if she hadn’t been quick on her feet.

As we talked, Janice learned why she waited until the last minute—the eleventh-hour pressure stimulated her ADHD brain, enabling her to finish the job. She also recognized that she continually fooled herself into believing that “I could pull it off this time,” only to fall short again. Her brain would get stuck in the moment, causing her to forget the past consequences of her actions and her present goal of not repeating those self-defeating behaviors.

We developed a middle-ground strategy. Because Janice needs a certain amount of pressure to jump-start her brain, she set up false deadlines with her boss to help her divide projects into smaller pieces. By doing this, it was easier to chunk down the project instead of waiting until the last minute to finish the whole thing.

I have other clients whose brains don’t have “brakes.” This causes them to over-respond to everyday situations. Simple things—transitioning from one task to the next, going from work to home, packing for a vacation— result in “mini-panics.”

One of my clients, George, struggles with transitions, especially leaving the office to go home. He lives close to his job, so his commute time is short. Within minutes of arriving home, his wife, Helen, asks George to help her with the kids or to assist in another task. George, still unwinding from the pressures of the job, is overwhelmed and storms out of the house. All these arguments have put their marriage on the rocks. Helen sees George’s behavior as resistance to helping around the house. George feels guilty and demeaned.

George and I worked on solutions. He now walks home from his office, so he can decompress from his day’s work. Helen smoothes the transition by calling his cell phone or e-mailing him with things that need to get done when he arrives home. George can visualize what will be expected of him before he walks in the door. The end result? Less stress for all.

People with ADHD already spend a lot of time and energy compensating for their neurobiology, so they have less of both to combat stressors in healthy ways. This ongoing pressure from all sides can result in chronic stress, which can harm the body and brain, create hopelessness, and lead to substance abuse. A person with ADHD needs to develop appropriate strategies to manage stress. Here are some that work for my clients. Maybe they’ll work for you!

Acknowledge Your ADHD

Understand and accept that your neurobiology is different. If you don’t know how your ADHD affects you, you can’t work on ways to help yourself fend off stress.

Keep Your Brain in Shape!

Exercise! Exercise! Exercise! It’s key to peak mental performance, and to gaining focus and control! Don’t skip it, ever. Physical activity delivers lots of benefits: It can make you feel good, look good, and promote longevity. It is also good for your brain, increasing beneficial neurotransmitters and other chemicals that help the brain work at its best. If your brain is frequently overwhelmed, keeping it in shape will enable you to better handle what life throws at you.

Make Structure Your Friend

Plan out the next day before going to bed. You will wake up more directed, centered, and be better prepared for any transitions or curve balls thrown your way.

Observe Yourself

People with ADHD are not good self-observers. This often results in not knowing you are stressed and burned out until after you get sick. Be aware of your body and how you feel. Pulling all-nighters won’t help you; it will only compromise your performance.

Remain Vigilant

One of the hallmarks of ADHD is forgetting that you have the condition and thinking you don’t need strategies and structures to improve your wellbeing and combat stress. Wrong. Send reminders to yourself, post notes, and ask friends and family to reinforce the importance of using strategies. And don’t let down your guard!

Take Time to Play—Recess for the Mind!

Slot down time, play time, “you” time into your planner, just as you would a deadline for a report that is due at work. Read, eat cookies, journal, do art, sit on the floor of a bookstore and talk, change your location, cook—whatever. Do what you love without guilt. The cost benefit of not taking breaks from today’s ultra-busy lifestyle sets you up for burnout and loss of control.

Create Book Ends

Get up and go to bed at the same time each day. Establishing regular body rhythms, as well as predictability and consistency in your schedule, will help increase efficiency and reduce overwhelm and stress.

Think in Terms of Three’s

Ask yourself which three pressing items you can complete that will give you a sense of accomplishment. They do not have to be big items. Returning a phone call, filing several papers, and filling up your car with gas will do. Write them down and keep the list in front of you. Cross off each task as you complete it. Then move on to the next three items.

Stop Avoiding

A well-known author once told me, “You become the first thing you do in the morning. If you want to be a writer, write.” People in general know what they leave to last or what they are avoiding and it’s generally the most important task! Post a note by your computer asking, “What am I avoiding right now?” Then do it first. That is the first step is gaining control!

Park It

Distracted by random thoughts? Write them down on a piece of notepaper, so you can stay focused on the task at hand. You will reduce the noise in your head, and can go back to these items later. I have found that these distractions are often not priority items.

Create Boundaries

Give yourself permission to ignore “shoulds”—those imposed by other people and those imposed by you. Learn to say no. Ask yourself, “If I say yes to this, what am I saying no to?”

Try these tips and I’m sure your life will become calmer and more fulfilling.

Until next time!

Warmly, Nancy