At first glance, ADHD and mindfulness appear to be opposites. But what if that wasn't actually the case? One research study, Mindfulness and Attention Hyperactivity Disorder (from the Journal of Clinical Psychology), shows how one distinct ADHD characteristic can actually help opposites attract and make mindfulness easier for adults with ADHD.
Why This Study is Important
Mindfulness is defined as the ability to monitor attention in the present moment. It can also be described as an open, nonjudgmental, non-reactive way of noticing or paying attention to one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions in the moment.
ADHD, on the other hand, is described as and manifests as difficulty with attention and having focus in the moment, and can lead to an over-reliance on judgment (especially negative self-judgment). It can also lead to impulsivity or extreme reactivity, which is the opposite of mindfulness.
This study on mindfulness and ADHD, by Smalley and colleagues, investigates traits that are involved in both ADHD and mindfulness, and hypothesizes that “ADHD and mindfulness will be negatively correlated because of the [opposite] role of attention in each.” (Okay, keep reading because there’s a big reveal coming up…)
The (Unsurprising) Findings
In this study, the authors describe one important type of attention called conflict attention. Conflict attention occurs when you have to decide where to direct your attention when two or more things are competing for it, as in when you have to read the word for a color but the word is printed in a different color: Blue, Yellow, Green.
Researchers found that people with ADHD have a “decrease in conflict attention.” They also noted that people who practice mindfulness have an “increase in conflict attention.” Sounds opposite to me, as least as far as conflict attention is concerned.
The researchers also discovered that mindfulness is associated with more openness, agreeableness, extraversion, and conscientiousness. Folks with ADHD were less so, on all of these measures.
Overall, the findings of this study supported the hypothesis that people with ADHD are less naturally mindful than those without. They even go so far as to insert this little equation into their results: presence of ADHD = lower mindfulness.
I don’t think it’s quite that simple, though. (Also, I have met some very open, agreeable, extraverted, and conscientious people with ADHD in my practice so it was important for me to remind myself that research studies look for statistical patterns, not individual variation.)
The Surprising Reveal
The study, while clearly finding that ADHD and mindfulness traits are opposites, did have one surprising result that I think is extremely important. It turns out that there is one mindfulness trait that people with ADHD seem to have more of than those without ADHD: self-transcendence (Okay, I don’t blame you if you are asking yourself what the heck that means...)
Apparently, self-transcendence is one of the three traits that help make up personality. The researchers define self-transcendence as...
“a character trait associated with an experience of being part of something greater than oneself, a relationship of self to the universe at large” (p. 1095).
People who have a lot of this trait tend to be “judicious, idealistic, transpersonal, faithful, and spiritual”, but not necessarily in a religious way. People who have less self-transcendence are described as “self-oriented, materialistic, irritable, controlling, and serious.”
Interestingly, self-transcendence is correlated highly with both mindfulness and ADHD. We don’t seem to know why this is the case, but because the adults with ADHD in this study were more self-transcendent than the study participants without ADHD, the authors speculate that, “An elevated ST [self-transcendence] in ADHD might make adopting a meta-cognitive stance easier (despite attentional difficulties) and that might foster greater success when compared with other forms of behavioral interventions.”
In other words, mindfulness might be a strong contender for relieving ADHD symptoms because people with ADHD could find it easier to do after all. Do opposites, like ADHD and mindfulness, attract? Looks like a good match.
What This Means for ADHD Coaching
It probably doesn't come as a surprise to you that people with ADHD have lower levels of mindfulness overall. One of my clients summed up her expectations of incorporating a mindfulness practice by listing all of her “impossibles”:
clearing her mind
doing something every day
making the time
starting a new habit
Here's the important part when it comes to ADHD and mindfulness - in order to benefit from a mindfulness practice, you don’t have to sit still, clear your mind, or be good at any of those other ADHD impossibilities. If we go back to the definition of mindfulness (the ability to monitor attention in the present moment), nowhere in this definition does it require sitting still or clearing your mind. When people hear the term “mindfulness”, they often conflate it with meditation. But even meditation doesn't require you to sit still and clear your head. Meditation can be done while standing, walking, running, swimming, or even doing the dishes.
Though ADHD and mindfulness seem to live on opposite sides of the spectrum, this study shows that they can actually play quite well together. In fact, mindfulness can actually meet clients where they are and work with them as they are.
As a coach who works with clients having ADHD, I strongly believe that it is both useful and empowering to know that mindfulness is an accessible option for ADHD care. So much so that this isn’t the first (and won’t be the last) article I’ve written about ADHD and mindfulness. Check out these articles,Mindfulness Might Be the Answer to Help ADHD Symptomsand5 Myths About ADHD and Mindfulnessto learn different ways to engage in mindfulness when you have ADHD.
Smalley, S. L., Loo, S. K., Hale, T. S., Shrestha, A., McGough, J., Flook, L., & Reise, S. (2009). Mindfulness and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 65(10), 1087–1098. http://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.20618.