Friday, August 19, 2011

Mindfulness CBT: ADHD, Anxiety, Mood, and a Helpful Hack

I've mentioned before that in addition to my crazy, I have ADHD (predominantly inattentive type).  Like a lot of ADD-ers, I've been scared to death of trying meditation.  I've done other spiritual practices, like guided visualizations, or trance work, but meditation "just didn't work for me".

A lot of this has to do with past trauma related to growing up with ADHD.  When you've been shamed your whole life for your failures in attention, anything that sounds like paying attention will raise your defenses.  I'm bad at paying attention.  Everybody always said so, and then I got a diagnosis to prove it.

Since I started taking a class in Mindfulness CBT, I've come to realize something very important -- the only thing required for meditation is that you know how to breathe.

I wish I'd learned this years ago, because I can already tell that meditation is helping me a lot.  It helps even though I don't do it every day like I'm "supposed" to.  I've discovered that I'm calmer after meditation, whether or not I was aware of feeling anxious before.  It lifts my mood if I'm in one of my late-afternoon slumps.  I can't say that it's made me more mindful overall (the goal of the class is to teach us to be mindful in general, so we can recognize our depressive thoughts before they really seize hold of us) but it's definitely helpful in the moment.  And "in the moment" is where you're supposed to be when you meditate anyway.

So how can you possibly meditate when you have ADHD?

Rule 1. of Meditation: You Can't Get It Wrong

Meditation is about breathing.  If you can read this, you can breathe.  Therefore you can meditate.

Your mind will wander away from your breath.  This is true whether or not you have ADHD -- human minds wander, they make associations, they ruminate on what they need from the grocery store, or on the nerve of that jackass who cut them off this morning.  If you notice your mind doing this, gently return your thought to your breath.

If you can do this, you've had a successful meditation.

Each week, someone in my class shares that they felt their meditation was "unsuccessful".  The great thing about meditating is that there is no success or failure.  There's no "right way" to do it, and therefore no way you can screw it up.  If you let go of the idea that you're doing it wrong, and return to your breath, you will derive benefits -- be they emotional, cognitive, or spiritual.  Probably, you'll derive benefit in all three areas.

My ADHD Meditation Hack:  Music

Last week I had an astonishingly successful meditation when I performed a simple experiment.  I turned on some music.  In this case it was Bach's lovely Sonatas for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord, but I suspect any instrumental, sparsely-textured piece would do.  What I found was that when my thoughts wandered, they went to one place: the music.

Having ADHD, it's not always a case of "noticing that my thoughts have wandered from my breath and returning them".  I have to track them down first.  Since they can be anywhere in the universe -- on the Voyager deep space probe, or the Battle of the Somme, or with my family, or in my past, or in my future -- this takes a fair bit of time and effort.  I guess it's harder to recognize that my thoughts are wandering when that wandering might take any form it likes.

By using the music as a container, I found that my thoughts were likely to be in one of two places: my breath, or the music.  If I found myself thinking things like "Bach sure likes that seventh scale degree!" I knew immediately that I was thinking about the music, and therefore not about my breath, and I returned my thoughts to my breath.  It has never been so easy before.

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