Hacking Adult ADHD, Part 2: Quiet the Chaos

High stimulation calms the ADHD brain

THE UPSIDE OF CHAOS

I hated football practices. I loved football games. Practices required methodically running through plays, over and over and over and over, with no short-term payoff. My brain wandered from the lack of variety, leading to thinking about my homework, dog, dog eating my homework, not getting my homework done the day before, not getting my homework done today, probably not getting it done tomorrow… you get the idea. Football games, though, where the perfect stimulus to keep my ADHD brain focused. Offense, defense and special teams running different plays every down. Thousands of people cheering for every catch, interception and tackle. It was strange experiencing “focus” for 2 hours each Saturday in the fall when the other 166 hours of the week where chaos littered with inattention, misdirection and underachievement. I didn’t know then that there is a biological — genetic, neurochemical — reason for this discrepancy.

WILL WORK FOR NEUROTRANSMITTERS

Most brains are able to thrive on moderate levels of stimulation. Not so for the ADHD brain! Decreased levels of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, those critical neurotransmitters that temper emotions, stimulate organizational tasks and increase communication among the several regions of the brain, drives the ADHD brain to seek HUGE amounts of input in order to experience balance. Oddly enough, what appears to be reckless experience-seeking to the non-ADHD person is actually what, albeit momentarily, brings calm to the ADHD brain.

“Everybody’s a mad scientist, and life is their lab. We’re all trying to experiment to find a way to live, to solve problems, to fend off madness and chaos.”
- David Cronenberg

The “normal” brain releases neurotransmitters as appropriate for the situation; the ADHD one requires an exorbitant amount of stimulation in order for enough chemicals to be released, which in turn causes one to feel centered. This is where the ADHD businesswoman, gambler and skydiver find their zone. The mind and body won’t stop until enough input calms the brain — think a kid who incessantly chats in class, fidgets, and runs out of class 30 seconds before the bell rings. Take the same kid and put him on BMX racetrack competing against 10 other BMX’ers and suddenly, because of enough stimulation, his body is calm, focused, centered and optimized.

When dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin are at decreased levels in the brain the resulting emotions/behaviors occur — see symptoms in the italicized parenthesis)

QUIETING THE CHAOS, 1 DECIBEL AT A TIME

So what can the person with ADHD do to quiet the chaos? Here’s some tips to get you started.

MEDICATION

Nobody really wants to be on medication. The feelings of shame, not to mention the stigma that some attach to the use of psychotropics, often push people away from the biological help they need. This is so unfortunate! At the very least you can take the holistic route to get some of the chemicals restored in your body. This can improve your thinking, attention and self-management. Find a friend and/or a family member that will support you during this discovery process of obtaining the necessary medication and supplements. Medication is only ONE piece to a holistic approach to quieting the chaos — it’s not the end all.

Getting a routine into place changes everything

EXERCISE

The release of chemicals, and the resulting brain-centering effects, of intense exercise, such as swimming, basketball, bicycling and running, pays off in dividends throughout the day. Following-through, though, on an exercise routine, until it becomes a habit, will almost certainly require a friend who is invested in doing this with you. Start at once or twice per week and work your way up to 5–6 times per week.

RHYTHMS & ROUTINES

You may need a coach, counselor or loving spouse or significant other to help your organize a workable routine. Our pride may make us shy away from the help. Don’t let it! Punch pride in the face for the sake of your health! Here’s a starting point for creating personal, family and work rhythms that works for all.

DAILY ROUTINES

What SPECIFICALLY will you be doing each hour. Ideally, this includes times for exercise, spiritual reading and meditation, connection with family, friends and co-workers, 10 minute rests every 90–120 minutes and 7–8 hours of sleep.

My ideal workday is broken up into five sections:

  • 5:30–7 a.m., exercise, spiritual reading & meditation, prep for work
  • 7 am-4 pm, work
  • 4–9 pm, family time with kids and wife
  • 9–10:30 pm, prep for next day, rest
  • 10:30 pm-5:30 am, sleep

You can take these principles and apply them to your days off. For simplicity, the only thing we typically tweak as a family is our 7 am-4 pm block. This gives my family and I a predictable rhythm that’s essential, not only for my family, but for my ADHD brain.

WEEKLY ROUTINES

There are a couple of questions that help me filter what I commit to each week.

  • Am I out more than two nights this week?
  • Do the evenings I am out benefit or take away from my family? If they benefit them, keep it; if not, minimize the impact.
  • Are there rhythms of work and personal care, of work and family time?

Most of us ADHD’ers tend to overschedule our weeks. I find underscheduling to be the antidote, simply because there’s inevitably things that pop-up that we didn’t expect to make their way onto our calendars — last minute birthday parties, kids getting sick, car breaking down, Aunt Bertha from hell making an unexpected visit.

MONTHLY & YEARLY ROUTINES

The same principles for the daily and weekly rhythms apply here. Some helpful tools include:

  • Having a family calendar placed in a high traffic area that gets updated regularly. We have one in our dining room. By chance, having the calendar there regularly leads to discussions about upcoming events, appointments and activities. This has been a great way for my family and I to stay on the same page schedule-wise.
  • Scheduling your vacations, days off, and rest periods when the new work year begins. This has always been January for us. We schedule our vacations and holiday trips at this time and get them approved by my employer, who is me currently. This gives predictability for my family and allows my ADHD brain to put to rest having to think about days off.
  • Schedule regular periods of rest. The people who do this the best have similar routines, although whatever works for you, as long as it works, is great. The most common routine, if you are able, is to take 2 hours per week to do something that you really enjoy — reading, dancing, playing guitar, meeting a friend for coffee or whatever. Each month take a block of 4–6 hours to rest, brainstorm and get some balcony time (take a look at the big picture things in your life — goals, parenting, marriage, education, friendships) to start taking action toward those things that really matter to you. Most of us don’t have the luxury of having 2–3 days every few months to get away from the chaos of life to have some extended balcony time. If you do, great! Take it, for it will pay off exponentially. If not, do what you can each day and week to make intentional rest and reflection a regular part of your life.
Get in the game and take some action toward quieting the chaos in your life

TAKE SOME ACTION

Only about 5% of people will take action after attending a conference, reading a blog post or being motivated in some other form. Motivation is great. Motivation without action leads to the same old thing. Motivation with action leads to transformation. Which step will you take today?

  • Get medications and supplements?
  • Begin an exercise routine?
  • Create a routine?

Start today. Tomorrow never really comes anyway.