Being a psychiatrist doesn’t only involve ensuring my patients have the proper nutrients for healthy brain function and prescribing medication when needed. I also need to take care of their spiritual well-being. That’s one of the reasons I recommend all of my patients, and their parents, take a few minutes out of their day to practice mindfulness to ease their ADHD.
Mindfulness is based on Vipassana, a meditation technique from Buddhism.
Its two main principles are simple:
- Be attentive to the present moment—now, and now, and now.
- Be open, accepting and curious about the present moment, no matter what is happening, within or without.
Mindfulness can help a plethora of ailments including ADHD, aggression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, burnout, cancer, depression, diabetes, eating disorders, fatigue, insomnia, lung disease, memory loss, multiple sclerosis, pain, PTSD, skin problems, smoking, stress, and substance abuse.
For ADHD in particular, it makes sufferers more attentive, less impulsive, better organized, better able to think clearly and plan, and increases self-acceptance.
I’ve collected several studies to show just how effective mindfulness training is for ADHD sufferers and their parents.
Evidence of Mindfulness Training Effectiveness for ADHD
Study #1: Mindfulness Improves Executive Function
In this study, Dutch ADHD adolescents and their parents were taught to use mindfulness in certain situations.
The students were taught to use mindfulness when facing conflict and when facing difficult tasks. Parents were taught to be here and now with their kids, take care of themselves, accept their kids’ difficulties, and respond rather than react.
After two months, attention and behavior improved along with executive function.1 This particular study defined executive function as the ability to do the following:
- resist impulses and control behavior
- move freely from one situation or activity to another
- control emotional responses
- begin a task and generate ideas to solve problems
- hold information in mind to complete a task
- manage tasks with planning and organizing
- maintain order and organization
- manage storage spaces like backpacks
- evaluate personal performance
In addition to helping the adolescents with their ADHD, mindfulness training also helped their parents to reduce stress and to control their overactive parenting.
Study #2: Mindfulness Breathing Training Provides ADHD Symptom Improvement
Researchers at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center tracked 7 high schoolers and 25 adults as they took a two-month training course.
The training curriculum was centered around three main steps: focus on an “attention anchor” (usually breath), accept any distractions that come up, and move thoughts away from the distractions and back onto the “attention anchor”.
The specific techniques taught include walking and sitting breathing meditation. In the end, the participants made a lot of progress.2
Specifically they had:
- more focus in the midst of interruptions and distractions
- increased ability to shift attention from one task to another
- less hyperactivity
- less impulsiveness
- less anxiety
- less depression
- less perceived stress (the feeling you can’t cope with a demand)
- more mindfulness
As for the training program itself, 90% of participants gave it a high satisfaction rating.
Study #3: Meditation is Good for Parents Too
That’s the opinion of Canadian researchers who looked at several studies on mindfulness and ADHD. “Mindfulness training should be incorporated into current treatment guidelines as an option for families with ADHD,” they concluded.3
Those studies were on adolescents. But mindfulness can work in ADHD kids younger than 13, too.
Study #4: Fewer Symptoms for Kids, Less Stress for Parents
In one study, ADHD children ages 8 to 12 and their parents participated in mindfulness training.
After eight weeks, there was “significant reduction of inattention and hyperactivity” and a “significant reduction of parental stress and overreactivity,” reported the researchers. The kids also were better able to stay on task.4
Study #5: Greatly Improved math performance through mindfulness meditation
This study involved a group of 5th graders who were all on Adderall or Strattera. The students were trained in mindful meditation. Their meditation started at around 10 minutes and was eventually extended to almost 15 minutes a day.
The children were instructed to count breaths to 10 over and over again. They were told to observe other thoughts but maintain their focus on breathing.
After they mastered the breathing techniques in the training program, they were asked to use the technique to bring their minds back to lessons during class at school.
As a result, the students were significantly more engaged in class. That led to much higher test scores in math (as high as an 88% improvement in one student).5
Study #6: Mindfulness Works for ADHD
That positive assessment of the power of any type of mindfulness training was reaffirmed by a recent study in the Journal of Attention Disorders, which analyzed data from 10 studies on mindfulness-based therapies for ADHD.6 Overall, attention improved by 66%, and hyperactivity and impulsivity decreased by 53%.
Why Mindfulness Meditation Works So Well for ADHD
Now that we’ve seen evidence that mindfulness meditation does help relieve ADHD symptoms, let’s take a look at the mechanics behind it.
It Improves Attention
Mindfulness meditation training revolves around learning how to focus your attention on your breathing. It’s not easy at first but the ability builds slowly, similar to developing a muscle.
Gaining the skill to focus on their breathing helps an ADHD sufferer in two ways. First, it gives them a reliable way to ground themselves when frustrated or overwhelmed. Second, they can use the same “muscle” they built to focus on their breathing to focus on any task at hand.
It Normalizes the Brain
Studies show that mindfulness training energizes the parts of the brain responsible for attention, impulsivity and executive function.
As one study on mindfulness and ADHD put it: “Neuroimaging studies suggest that mindfulness meditation engenders…changes in brain areas associated with attentional functioning typically impaired in ADHD.”7
One of those areas is the default mode network, a group of interacting brain areas that have subpar functioning in ADHD—functioning that is normalized by ADHD medications.
Mindfulness meditation may work in ADHD by improving “connectivity” in this network, wrote researchers in the journal Cognitive and Behavioral Practice.7
It Calms Emotions
Besides the focus on breathing, another integral part of mindfulness meditation is being able to accept distractions and then let them slowly fade away.
These distractions can take many forms, but they are often emotions being felt by the person meditating.
Being able to observe these emotions and gently let go of them helps the ADHD sufferer who is doing the mindfulness training to see their emotional states as temporary and fleeting. This helps them to learn to respond to emotions instead of reacting to them.
Simply put: There’s no reason not to try mindfulness meditation for ADHD
The biggest problem with traditional ADHD medication is the unwanted side effects they bring. Some children may even be sensitive to certain nutritional supplements. In contrast, mindfulness meditation doesn’t have any drawbacks. It’s easy to do and it only offers benefits.
I delve further into mindfulness meditation and specific techniques you and your child can use in my award-winning book, Finally Focused.
Yours in health,
James M. Greenblatt, MD
Founder, Medical Director, Psychiatry Redefined
- van de Weijer-Bergsma E, et al. The effectiveness of mindfulness training on behavioral problems and attentional functioning in adolescents with ADHD. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 2012 Oct;21(5):775-787.
- Zylowska L, et al. Mindfulness meditation training in adults and adolescents with ADHD: a feasibility study. Journal of Attention Disorders, 2008 May;11(6):737-46.
- Cassone AR. Mindfulness training as an adjunct to evidence-based treatment for ADHD within families. Journal of Attention Disorders, 2015 Feb;19(2):147-57.
- van der Oord S, et al. The effectiveness of mindfulness training for children with ADHD and mindful parenting for their parents. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 2012 Feb;21(1):139-147.
- Singh N, et at. Effects of samatha meditation on active academic engagement and math performance of students with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Mindfulness, 2016;7(1):68-75.
- Cairncross M & Miller CJ. The effectiveness of mindfulness-based therapies for ADHD: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Attention Disorders, 2016 Feb 2.
- Mitchell JT et al. Mindfulness meditation training for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder in adulthood: Current empirical support, treatment overview, and future directions. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 2015 May;22(2):172-191.