Melissa Lee Nilles, LMHC
ADHD-Friendly Mindfulness and Meditation Strategies
As a young woman I ended up studying abroad in Japan, where I had the opportunity to try out Zazen meditation. As my first exposure to meditation, this experience felt dreadful, as a monk asked me and my classmates to squat quietly on hard cushions for 30 minutes silently and to aim to “clear our mind of all thoughts.” I felt like a failure as I squirmed, uncomfortable and unsuccessful, and tried to keep myself from thinking. For a person with ADHD this felt like a downright impossible task. Many neurodivergent people have had similarly difficult experiences with meditation or mindfulness, especially with less-forgiving methodologies laser focused on “emptying the mind” or intense self-regulation, which we struggle with, and are painfully aware we struggle with. The executive function difficulties ADHD can also interfere with the ability to get started or continue with a mindfulness practice in the first place. This is a shame, because meditation and mindfulness practices are paradoxically, of course, a thing that really can help us with our attention and mental health. I’m happy to report that thankfully I discovered more ADHD friendly mindfulness strategies over time, which have in turn, boosted my quality of life and focus (and many of my clients as well, some of whom have previously rejected mindfulness practices). One approach that I often share with clients that I felt was ultimately more helpful is the idea that our brain never really “turns off, 4” so we just let “thoughts be” or watch them pass by, as if on a stream which initially originates from Insight (or Vipassana meditation). This can feel like a much more realistic and achievable goal (but still hard of course!). Guidelines for insight meditation also involve more compassionate self-redirection, such as gently and kindly reminding oneself if you get distracted that you are meditating, and to hop back on to trying again without judgment. For some of us who have experienced shame around attention this can be a real internal shift, and can also lead to greater mental wellness for us overall, as we learn off of the meditation mat to kindly redirect ourselves to our tasks, day, and conversations without a punitive voice of shame that might be keeping us harshly oriented otherwise. There are also a few techniques and meditations I’ve encountered over the years that are a bit more ADHD-friendly, especially for beginners. I teach many clients the STOP mindfulness technique, which consists of the following steps:
Stop what you're doing for a minute
Take a breath
Observe physical sensations and mental state
This quick, low-commitment check-in style can be helpful when we’re perpetually in chronic overwhelm, when we’re distracted and losing the thread of what we were doing, in hyperfocus and needing a break, or running around “as if propelled by a motor.”
Over time I’ve also developed a breathing technique for both ADHD folks and people who have trouble taking deeper breaths that I call “escalator breathing.” It involves breathing in for 3 seconds, holding for 4, and exhaling for 4, then increasing the count each time, such as switching to breathing in for 4, holding for 5, and exhaling for 5. You can keep it going until 10 breaths or so, and feel free to stop earlier as well, if your lungs aren’t feeling the longer breaths. This breath style is based on the concept that our nervous system is better regulated by a longer outbreath than the inbreath. I find it useful to keep the mind oriented as I know our minds can often be understimulated, so thinking about increasing the number every time can keep one on task often well enough instead of with more traditional breathing techniques which involve breathing in for 4-4-4 or 4-7-8 repeatedly (which many often lose the thread of). The counting also works as a distraction technique but can keep you oriented enough to keep your focus on the breath and relaxation. It’s not too boring, and yet, not too difficult, which hits a sweet spot for ADHD-related mindfulness and meditation techniques.
Other ADHD friendly meditation styles include sound meditation, and walking meditation, or “kinhin” meditation. Managing one’s own thoughts or focusing on just the in-breath and out-breath may be too untethered for some folks at times. Sound meditation is friendly to an active brain, and essentially just involves setting a timer, closing one’s eyes, and allowing the mind to notice different sounds in your environment without judgment. Walking meditation can be useful for the active body style of ADHD, as we may need to lean into our internal and external states of restlessness sometimes rather than fighting one’s nature. A peaceful walk noticing the sensation of your feet touching the ground can be an incredibly grounding experience, and paired with a breathing technique, can feel rhythmically enlivening and soothing at the same time. I hope you have a chance to experience your own peace someday through one of these strategies.
Melissa Lee Nilles, LMHC is a licensed mental health counselor and expressive arts therapist with a Master's degree from Lesley University’s Mental Health Counseling and Expressive Arts Therapy program. She is deeply passionate about self-exploration through the arts, mindfulness practices and therapy. She seeks to collaborate with her clients using the tools of person-centered therapy, mindfulness, meditation, trauma-informed body-oriented psychotherapy and expressive arts therapy (through music therapy, art therapy, and poetry/writing therapy). Melissa also employs CBT and motivational interviewing to help you transform your life. She prefers a holistic, eclectic and interdisciplinary approach to addressing client concerns.
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