How to be free of distressing thoughts. For adults with ADHD

Graphic image of 2 brains representing strategies for with ADHD

How to be free of distressing thoughts. For adults with ADHD

Graphic 2 abstract brains - one neat, one messy, depicting helpful strategies for with ADHD

Ever struggle with nasty self-talk or other really unhelpful, disturbing thoughts? Silly question, I hear you say. Doesn’t everyone struggle with these things? Once upon a time I would have thought it was impossible to be free of distressing thoughts because these kinds of repetitive thoughts were really common for me.

The vast majority of people experience negative self-talk. I’ve even sat in a room full of more than 100 people, many of whom were psychologists when the presenter asked the room to put their hand up if they had ever experienced negative self-talk. Almost every person put their hand up. I was one of the few people who didn’t. That was perhaps ten years ago and I’m so happy to be able to tell you how happy it makes me that I still never have horrible incessant thoughts of this nature.

It certainly wasn’t always this way. From early adolescence onwards I often struggled with out-of-control self-deprecating self-talk. My poor mental functioning causes all sorts of challenges in many other ways. But shortly after I made living as mindfully as possible a non-negotiable priority, the negative self-talk stopped.

Learning to be more mindful was absolutely key

I had somehow got it into my head that the type of benefits meditators and yogis talked about – being able to be Zen about everything so that life just flows beautifully all the time – was some far off goal that would take twenty or more years to achieve. 

But it was within only a matter of weeks I felt a little more calm. And then about a year into meditating regularly, my mental health was transformed. I’ve even seen a number of my clients have a marked reduction in the amount – as well as the overwhelming nature – of incessant thoughts in a matter of weeks of practicing mindfulness regularly. 

I understand that the hardest part can be just doing it though. These clients were having a really rough time and sometimes that’s what it takes, being at our wit’s end, to give us the kick up the butt we need to give something a good go. And then, sometimes it’s as simple as stumbling across an article, or a podcast or a meditation that just makes sense to you. 

The mind in relationship to yourself and the outside world

There are many ways to work with your mind instead of against it, regardless of whther you’re neurodivergent. This is the subject of this wonderful episode of The Ezra Klein Show podcast, which is produced by the New York Times. I hope it inspires you to endeavour to live more mindfully.

Every week Ezra has a conversation “about something that matters”. This episode is called Our Workplaces Think We’re Computers. We’re Not. Don’t be fooled by the title, or for that matter the intro. This podcast is by no means only relevant to work and productivity. It is a wonderful discussion about the nature of our mind with author Anne Murphy Paul who wrote a book called ‘The Extended Mind’.

As Ezra says early in the show, one of the main ideas is to work with your mind, not against it. While this principle is important for everyone, it takes on a whole new layer of importance for those of us with different brains. 

As they continue with the conversation, they discuss the massive problem with the analogy of the mind with a computer. The main point here is that computers will perform the same way regardless of their environment, regardless of how long they’re working for or whether it’s day or night. 

The human mind on the other hand is dramatically impacted by both its external and internal environments. This isn’t revolutionary thinking, we already know this. But the problem is that the analogy of comparing the the mind to a computer has infiltrated the way the whole world – along with everything we do – has been designed. 

To function as well as possible, we need to make sure we understand and factor in the importance of our ‘mental extensions’ – as the book title suggests.  These are all the things that dramatically impact our mental functioning. We don’t put nearly enough importance on the role the body plays in thinking effectively. 

Busyness and ‘doing’ have been ingrained in us as markers of worthiness. And unless you develop healthy mental habits, in other words slowing down and being more present, to counter these ideas that have been drummed into you all your life, you’re not likely to achieve optimal mental functioning.

For example, traditional thinking says that taking a walk is leisure time, whereas Anne Murphy Paul argues that taking a walk is imperative for maximising our capabilities so that we can achieve our goals. 

No wonder mental health problems are through the roof

There is simply no denying that in so many ways we have been programmed to work against our minds. Is it any wonder they go into overdrive and turn on us? How can we possibly feel good about ourselves when so many of us have been set up to fail by impossible expectations? 

One of my favourite parts of the podcast is when Anne talks about the things that our brain does “effortlessly” because of the way we evolved. For example, we evolved outside, not inside buildings. This is why being in nature, or even a lovely view from a window or having indoor plants is so good for our mental wellbeing. 

But it’s not just our external environment that matters. It is through cultivating more presence, through increasing our ability to be more mindful, that we can create the changes in our internal environment that help us to work with our mind instead of against it. Happiness and success really is an inside job.

By tuning in, moment to moment and without judgement, we can set ourselves up for success. Because as well as increasing your ability to be mindful, which in itself is great for mental wellbeing and reducing distressing thoughts, you also become much clearer on what supports you to thrive and what doesn’t. And then, most importantly, you can make the necessary changes you need to make in order to have great mental health.