Thursday, December 11, 2014

ADD and the Holidays

Yikes!  Another article about the holidays?! Isn't it more than enough that Christmas music starts on radio stations the day after Halloween, or that every magazine has beautiful edibles on the cover and gorgeous photos of decorated homes featuring Normal Rockwell scenes? Everywhere we look, we are inundated with photos, advertisements, music, articles, TV shows, and let's not even mention the stores.   We know that therapists' offices are busier at this time of year.  (Well, maybe you didn't know that, but it's true.)  And why is that?  It's due to stress, of course,  and overwhelm and inner critics and old stories.  What is this all about?  Likely, we know the many and varied answers to this question, but I will list them here anyway, in case you may have missed or forgotten one.  The main causes of stress and angst during the holidays include: 
  • Extra tasks (shopping, writing cards, mailing, wrapping, cooking, cleaning, planning);
  • Financial hemorrhage;
  • Forced interaction with people we may not even like (even if they are family);
  • Losing our routines and structure;
  • Repeating old patterns from childhood;
  • Guilt;
  • Travel;
  • Gaining weight;
  • Expectations, of others and of ourselves;
So how does this have anything to do with ADD? 

The last item on the list, expectations, is the focus of the rest of this article.  I sense that this may be the biggest stressor for all people, with and without ADD.  However, adults with ADD/ADHD have even more stress during the holiday season, because accomplishing what is 'expected' can be so much more challenging than for the average person.  "I often say that living with ADHD is like being in the height off the holiday season all year round", says Sari Solden, MS, LMFT, author of Women with Attention Deficit Disorder.  She continues on to say, "People feel embarrassed when they can't cope well.  We tend to have high expectations during the holidays and if we can't meet them, we feel like failures."  This may be true for all adults, but what is different for those of us with ADD is that our challenges are much more in the spotlight at this time of year.  Many of us feel that we really can't hide.  Hiding is a way of life for many people with ADD, and particularly women. We may not invite people to our homes, because they aren't tidy (a huge understatement for some) or because we feel they are not well-decorated, or because the thought of planning and preparing a meal for our own families, let alone company, is simply overwhelming. 

Shopping???  OMG!  It's bad enough that some folks with ADD fear and/or loathe shopping at anytime, but at this time of the year?  So not only do we have to do all of the things that may normally be challenging, but now there are both added and public expectations.  If we actually do manage to purchase the gifts (at all or on time), we now have to wrap them.  Did we remember to get the wrapping paper? Or did we choose not to purchase it because we knew we already had some, but now can't find it?  Do we even have time to wrap them before we get to Grandma's or just to get them under the tree in our own homes?  Or worse, what if we actually have to MAIL THEM???  OH NO!!!! Mailing is the worst!  We have to figure out how to package them, determine if we have the appropriate packing materials, tape, markers and do this enough IN ADVANCE to transport them to the post office (yet another issue) in enough time to ensure delivery BEFORE the holidays are over.  Often we can't even get a birthday card purchased or mailed on time during the rest of the year... how are we supposed to manage this monumental feat, in addition to everything else that is expected?  And, uh-oh... what if Hanukkah is early this year?  Fortunately, this year, it's not nearly as early as lit was ast year, when we celebrated Thanksgivikkah. ;-)  

So if societal and familial expectations appear to be unattainable for the majority of folks, not to mention those of us with ADD, what is the solution? I contend that if you consciously adjust your expectations and DEFINE YOUR OWN TERMS of what constitutes a fulfilling and successful holiday season, you will be able to shed a great deal of angst, stress and heavy energy.  What does this mean in practical terms?  Here are some suggestions: 
  • Think about what is important to you;
  • Determine the most difficult or challenging tasks and either drop them or delegate;
  • Be creative (not in the Martha Stewart kind of way, unless you love that AND it does not cause you stress); 
  • Don't overbuy;
  • Solicit the help of family or friends to come with you when you shop, mostly so you actually DO IT, but also to help you stay on task while you are out.  (Or, if you have enough time, shop on line!) 
In addition to these practical tips, I encourage you to think a bit more spiritually.  Regardless of whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, or another holiday, take some time to think about what is important to you at this time.  Just sit quietly and let go of merchandizing,  family and societal expectations, and ego.  Just breathe...  How do you YOU WANT this holiday season to be?  Realistically, what can you let go?  Try to take yourself forward in time, to when you are drifting off to sleep on 12/25, or waking up the next morning.  Perhaps even further, to next year, looking back on the previous year.  What do you want to remember?  What do you want your family to remember? Is it the stuff, the food, the decor, or is it a feeling?  If it is about a feeling, what do you want it to be?  Try to really put yourself in that space... really inhabit it...  Once you know how you want to BE, now decide how you want your holidays to look from this perspective.  

Perhaps you can create a new tradition, one in which everyone chips in somehow or you decide that everyone will make a present for one person, like a grab, but that you have to create the gift yourself.  Maybe you'll decide that you won't buy presents, but instead, create a collage of gifts you'd buy for your loved ones if you were rich, or even if you had simply had a bit more discretionary income.  What if you drop some of the expected food items and make one particular treat?  Maybe you and family can start a tradition of taking a walk together... you get the idea.  

Once you know how you want to feel and the energy you want to create, own it and BE in that space.  Even if you say what you consider to be the "right" things to family and friends, if you are just giving lip service, people know.  They can feel it.  Drop all expectations, unless they serve you and give yourself (and your family) permission to just be.  Wherever you are and however you are, simply enjoy and what is and don't dwell on what isn't.  Keep in mind that if you are a parent, you are modeling how to conduct yourself during the holiday season and you are creating memories for your children.  Do you want them to remember stress and lack?  Do you want them to remember gluttony and excess?  You can only be who you are; no more, but quite possibly, less.  Do the best you can with what you have, capitalize on your strengths, remember your sense of humor and enjoy this and every other time of the year without the pressure of living up to others' expectations.  And don't forget to breathe... 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

It's all about dopamine!

What is dopamine? 

Dopamine is a type of neurotransmitter, or brain chemical. It helps level out the nervous system, thereby reducing anxiety and stress, and it is responsible for feelings of mode, attention, motivation, thinking, sleeping, seeking and reward. 

The dopamine loop

In the past, scientists have held dopamine responsible for our experience of pleasure. However, recent research indicatesthat dopamine is actually the chemical that causes us to want, desire, seek out and search.  Dopamine induces a loop - it starts us seeking and anticipating, and then we get rewarded for the seeking which makes us seek more. So, dopamine is responsible for the wanting, which triggers us to seek. When we find what we seek, we get satisfaction, or pleasure.  It's actually the opioid system which allows us to feel pleasure which allows us to feel pleasure. Feeling pleasure is , well... pleasurable, so we start the cycle again.  And again. Want, seek, anticipate, achieve, feel satisfied.  So, what's the problem?  The dopamine system is stronger than the opioid system so we tend to seek more than we are satisfied.

What does dopamine feel like in our bodies? 

If all of these words and the image don't make much sense to you, try thinking about it in terms of what it feels like in your body.  Although everyone experiences it differently, it basically feels like a little (or big) energy blip, or burst.  It's that feeling of: YES!...Let's get going!... Aaaaahhhh..... WOO-HOO! and so on.... It is the anticipation feelings we get from our successes, completions and victories, both small and not-so-small. 

ADHD and Dopamine

Although research is ongoing and often conflicts, it does appear that both scientifically and anecdotally, there is a relationship between ADHD and dopamine.  Specifically, for those of us with ADHD, the problem is that we absorb dopamine too rapidly ("re-uptake") before it has a chance to do its job.  We are, therefore, chronically under-stimulated.  This can explain why many folks with ADD, particularly when it's unmanaged, constantly seek out stimulation, and often by things things that mimic or trick the brain.  Unfortunately, not only do many of these activities NOT help us achieve our goals, (or even set any goals), they can actually prevent us from doing so, or worse, they can can harm us.  Some examples of activities that can trick the brain are: computer games, texting, Facebook, Twitter, solitaire (for me it's Freecell), crossword puzzles, sudoku, crossing off the quick or minor items on our to-do list first, shopping, socializing, making art, watching TV, reading or gambling.  Although low dopamine is certainly not the only reason that people engage in this activities and most are not harmful in an of themselves, they can create the feelings of reward and motivation that many of us with ADHD so crave, and which we do not get from low-interest, low-stimulation tasks such as homework, tax returns, household chores or any kind of maintenance tasks. 

When we struggle to apply our under-stimulated minds to these types of activities, we often find ourselves day dreaming, bored, distracted, avoiding and procrastinating.  Sometimes, and for some people, this behavior is initially unconscious or reflexive, but can also occur knowingly and guiltily.  Another issue caused by problems regulating dopamine (which many with ADD are intimately familiar), is the phenomena of getting really excited and motivated to START a project, task, business, but either not finishing, or even starting.  It might be really exciting to go out and buy all of the stuff for an art project or house project, but then not actually begin it.  You might start it, but if it takes longer than you expected, gets hard or boring, or the novelty simply wears off, it might just get left and 'stuck' somewhere, to be forgotten and/or replaced by a new idea.  (I personally, have NO idea what this might feel like.)  ;-) 

I've attached a link to a short, informative but easy-to-follow, animated video, which explains how dopamine is the cause of our dependence or addiction to texting and other social media.

If you have identified with some, or much of what has been described here, you may be wondering what to do about it.  In my coaching practice, I work with teens, college students and adults who struggle with the challenges ADHD can present, including our ever increasing reliance, even even addiction, to our cell phones, social media and other ways we avoid what is painfully boring or monotonous. There are many strategies we can employ to overcome these, and other ways, ADHD can get in our way of achieving goals and enjoying our lives.  In addition, in the near future, look out for 'Part II' of this blog, in which I will include specific strategies to address issues and problems caused by a lack of dopamine. 

NOTE:  In this, and other articles, I use the terms ADD and ADHD interchangeably. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014


This morning, I accepted a Facebook challenge that has been floating around for the past couple of weeks.  The instructions were "to find 5 photos that make you feel beautiful, post them, and then challenge 5 other women to do the same." 

I had seen the challenge and was actually hoping that one one would tag me on it.  No luck.  Thanks, AnnMarie.  :-P  

No, seriously. THANK YOU, AnnMarie!

Regardless of how others see us, we all have those self-sabotaging voices and thoughts about our physical appearance. And, I think we all have a couple of photos of ourselves that we particularly like. So of course, I chose them first. As I started perusing my photos, it was interesting to me that some that may have reflected some outer beauty didn't make the cut. 

As I looked at the photos, I kept hearing myself say, "photos that make me FEEL beautiful". So, my lovely lesson this morning was that I don't just feel beautiful when I'm having a good hair day, or I'm not bloated, or the color I'm wearing makes my eyes pop, or my thighs are hidden. (Although those things certainly do help.) ;-) 

I feel beautiful when I see beauty.  I feel beautiful when I see loved ones looking at me.  I feel beautiful when I feel hope.  I feel beautiful when I'm happy and having fun.  I feel beautiful when my senses are alive.  I feel beautiful when I'm doing things about which I'm passionate.  I feel beautiful when I'm with the people who matter most to me. I feel beautiful when I create art and beauty. 

Of course, I couldn't only choose 5 photos.  I'm not so good at following instructions. :-)  What a wonderful way to have started my day.  ≠What makes you feel beautiful?  

Tuesday, July 22, 2014


Most of us are familiar with the term body double as it relates to film or television.  It is a person who stands in for another actor in a particular scene, such as a sex scene.  However, that is not at all what I am talking about here!   In the world of ADD/ADHD, we use the term body double to refer to a person who hangs out with you while you work on a task which is difficult for you to start or complete while alone, or on which you have been procrastinating.  The concept may seem pretty simplistic, but it can actually be an extremely helpful strategy.

Here are some DOs and DON'Ts to keep in mind when selecting a person to be your body double:

  • DON'T choose someone who will nag, instruct or judge  (Often, but not always, true of a family member); 
  • DON'T choose someone with whom you tend to be especially chatty (unless you are certain you can resist chatting or perhaps agree to use it a reward);
  • DON'T choose someone who is likely to step in, unsolicited, to give you "advice"
  • DO choose a person with whom you have some comfort level;
  • DO choose someone you know can sit quietly and do her own thing;
  • DO choose a person who really 'gets' your challenges, if possible;
  • DO choose someone with whom you can reciprocate, either at the same time, or at a later date
Having someone there with you can be very effective in helping you begin and stay on task.  This is not because the person is acting in the role of taskmaster; simply, the mere presence of another person can serve as a reminder of what you want to accomplish at that time.   The body double can also function as a sort of mirror.  For example, have you ever said something like this to yourself, perhaps while procrastinating?  "If I had a boss, who was watching me right now, that would NOT be a good thing!"  When you know that someone IS there, who also knows what you are 'supposed' to be doing, it can feel a little bit like an audience, in a helpful way, because that presence can help you feel more centered and help you to stay on task, should you become bored or distracted. 

You can use a body double in any way that serves you and for any type of task, but here are some that lend themselves especially well to this strategy: 

- Cleaning or organizing projects
- Filing
- Paying bills
- Homework
- Writing
- Reading

Depending on what you hope to accomplish, and on other issues such as pet allergies, noise or proximity of small distracting beings, choose a place that best serves the task and your style.  For example, I used to meet someone regularly at the library for a fixed period of time when I wanted to get some reading done.  I would bring only the material I wanted to read, paper, and sometimes my computer.  The woman with whom I met had challenges which were similar to mine, so she would also bring something she needed to tackle as well.  Design the relationship so it serves you best. Earlier, I said not to choose a person who would nag or instruct; however, IF it serves you to have the person comment if you do something such as get on your computer, or fold the laundry, or water the flowers, or anything that is NOT what you intend to work on, set that up ahead of time.  I have been known to say to people, " If you see me doing anything other than sitting at this desk or taking a quick bathroom break, please call me on it!" ;-) There are NO hard and fast rules- design it so it works for you.