Stress can be hard for people with ADHD, but that’s OK

Stress can be hard for people with ADHD, but that’s OK

Oh, to be one of those people that thrive on stress! Or that just don’t generally get stressed. They really do exist – and it would seem they absolutely do have a major advantage in this crazy world. (Slighty envious over here!)

Many of us struggle to keep stress in check. Some people with ADHD are really good at it (many paramedics have ADHD I’m told) but many of us find it really hard to manage, along with other emotions.

I’m on a mission to normalise stress and reduce the stigma around finding it hard to manage.

Research by the Australian Psychological Society back in 2015 showed that:

  • 72% of Australians believe stress impacts their physical health, and
  • 64% believe it impacts their mental health

That’s pretty high, and I expect it’s much higher now. Not surprisingly, there’s a tonne of research globally indicating that stress levels have soared this year.

While we’re so fortunate that Australia has been spared the infection and mortality rates for COVID-19 that much of the rest of the world is dealing with, financial stress, unemployment, prolonged lockdown, home-schooling and isolation are taking their toll.

Stress tolerance

While there are many reasons why stress may be through the roof, and there’s no denying that this is not a good way to be, understanding stress better can help us live with it in a healthier way.

Stress itself is a slippery concept used by different people in different ways, so it can be tricky to unpack. I’m using the word stress here the way it’s used by most non-academics.

That is, the psychological distress caused by such things as day-to-day demands, being overworked, worries, interpersonal conflict and anxiety that hasn’t got to the stage of it interfering with your life in a big way.

How much stress people can tolerate varies enormously. Some of us do not tolerate stress as well as others and your happy medium will differ from the next person’s.

This is impacted by genes. In other words how you are wired from birth, and the many life experiences you’ve had since birth and particularly in infancy and the early years of our lives.

Stress tolerance is seen by some psychologists as one of our ‘executive functions’ and some of us are better at these skills than others (and vice versa). Executive functions are a group of cognitive skills that the front part of the brain behind your forehead, the prefrontal cortex, is largely responsible for.

While how these skills are defined is not agreed upon in scientific literature, there’s a lot of agreement that they’re essential for being able to keep your head above water in our complex society.

As well as stress tolerance, other executive functions include planning and prioritizing, time management, switching tasks, mental flexibility, task initiation, goal-directed persistence, working memory and more.

Annoyingly, when you’re stressed out your executive functions don’t actually function very well at all which can make matters worse – which is not really what the doctor ordered…

(These executive function categories are content from a module by psychologist Peg Dawson from ADHD Professional Certificate training that I have done. Those of us who have ADHD basically suck to varying degrees at most, if not all of them…)

For those of us who are all too familiar with feeling stressed out, there ARE ways to lessen the harm stress is causing you, both mentally and physically and to start to experience more ease and joy.

Plenty of exercise, enough quality sleep, healthy connections, and quality downtime are right up there. There is also a growing body of research findings that conclude that practising mindfulness leads to improved function of the prefrontal cortex. Hallelujah!

From my own experience, once I finally managed to get my daily meditation practice to stick, the change was phenomenal. And then of course medication for ADHD reduced the stress in my life hugely as well. But I’ll always be someone who struggles with day to day stress I imagine, and that’s OK!

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