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I used to have a student with ADHD and an incredible imagination.
Dee was in fifth grade and spelled “but” as “b-i-o-u-t-e,” but he could tell you about centrifugal force and chi. After listening to a story read in class, he could answer comprehension questions that nobody else in class could. But he did nothing at school most of the day, hitting himself on the head with a pencil when his brain got stuck, which happened a lot.
It happened when he tried to subtract 7 from 12; it happened when he sounded out words like “mistaken.” He drove his teachers nuts because of his creative uses of rubber erasers and what he called “finger chi” to focus his energy—which took much longer than a teacher’s patience could stand.
Most people think ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) makes their brainwaves go faster. That’s because people like Dee are usually fidgeting and moving around a lot. It’s hard for them to sit still, and they’re happier playing sports or video games or doing something with their hands because they get bored sitting still.
But it’s actually the opposite of what everyone thinks.
An electroencephalogram (EEG) is a test that uses electrodes, or small metal discs with thin wires pasted onto your scalp, to detect tiny electrical charges that occur when neurons in your brain fire. These electrical signals are changed into wavy lines on a computer screen, and these wavy lines, the result of large numbers of neurons communicating with each other, are called brainwaves.
Brainwaves are like sound waves in music—the faster, shorter waves are high frequency waves, like a high-pitched piccolo, and the slower, longer waves are low frequency waves, like a steady, slow drumbeat.
Our brainwaves are always changing. When our brainwaves are mostly slow, we feel tired, slow, or deeply calm and relaxed. These are called theta waves. When theta waves are moving in our brain, it’s hard to pay attention or focus.
When our brainwaves are moving quickly, we may feel “hyper,” stressed, or concentrated on a task. Beta waves are small, fast brainwaves. It’s easier to focus on our work and pay attention when beta waves are moving through our brain.
People with ADHD have too many slow theta waves, and they don’t have many fast beta waves.
This is called cortical slowing.
Cortical means “bark” in Latin, and it’s the outer layer of the brain. It’s mostly made up of neurons. So, in ADHD, neurons in the cortex often do not fire quickly. This is called underarousal.
It means people with ADHD react less to things than other people do. They may get bored more easily, especially when doing something routinized—automatic tasks that don’t require focused thinking, like walking, washing the dishes, taking out the garbage, and driving home from work.
People with ADHD probably aren’t aware that they may be feeling sleepy or slow. This is because as soon as theta waves begin cycling through their brains, they do something to wake themselves up, like Dee playing with his pencil, or jiggling their knee, or pacing up and down, or fidgeting with a fidget.
It’s like when kids feel tired, but they don’t want to go to bed. So they start running around yelling, “I don’t want to go to bed!” They are fighting off their sleepiness by becoming extremely active.
Everyone experiences underarousal at some point, and nobody likes it. It’s more pleasant to have beta waves moving through our brain because we enjoy feeling excited and interested in the novelties of the world around us.
In psychological language, this is called sensation seeking, or the search for thrills and excitement.
This means that people with ADHD, who experience underarousal most of the time, are always looking for some way to speed up their brainwaves. One way to do this is to be hyperactive—run and move around quickly to try and wake the brain up.
Can mindfulness help with ADHD?
Since ADHD is a disorder that primarily affects attention (hence the name “attention deficit”), and mindfulness is often defined as the self-regulation of attention, then yes, it can help. Any treatment that can help strengthen the attention muscle in our brain is appropriate for ADHD.
A first step for people with ADHD in learning to be more mindful is to learn how to watch their behavior in a kind and respectful way.
It doesn’t mean yelling at themselves for not paying attention, “Pay Attention! I’m so stupid!“
It’s more like the way we would train a puppy not to urinate on the floor. Do we yell at the puppy for peeing on the floor? No! That would scare the pup. Instead, when we see our puppy is about to let loose on the carpet, we gently pick it up, move it to the newspaper and say, “Do it here.” And we do that every time with kindness and respect.
That’s how we can train our mind. When trying to concentrate on something, like our work, and we notice we’ve started daydreaming or playing with something, we don’t get angry and chastise ourselves by saying, “I need to be paying attention or I’m going to do a lousy job and get fired.”
Instead, we bring our attention back to our work and praise ourselves (I know, it may feel a little silly to do this, but trust me, it works!), just like we would tell the puppy, “Good job!”
Learning about how the ADHD brain works is mindfulness too.
When we notice that our legs are jiggling up and down, or our fingers are playing with a pencil, we can tell ourselves, “I notice that I’m starting to fidget. Maybe I need to get up and stretch my legs, get a drink of water, look out the window at the trees…”
If you or someone you love has ADHD, or just has a lot of trouble focusing on tasks sometimes, try out these simple techniques and let me know if they work for you.