Through my years of practice, I have learned that understanding and embracing one’s unique cognitive processing style is more beneficial in the long run, especially when addressing cognitive stress in ADHD. As a therapist with almost thirty years of experience, I have come to believe that the primary focus should not be on strategies that aim to simply “fix” individuals with ADHD. While creative strategies to accommodate oneself can be helpful as a last resort when attempting tasks that are not friendly for your brain, they should not be the first go-to intervention for self-improvement.
Cognitive stress and ADHD
Individuals with ADHD often experience cognitive stress due to challenges in processing information differently from neurotypical individuals or by being compelled to perform tasks the way neurotypical people do. This cognitive stress has been known to contribute to emotional overwhelm and dysregulation. By addressing cognitive stressors, we can also tackle emotional dysregulation, effectively killing two birds with one stone.
Strategies for managing cognitive stress in ADHD
One of the best interventions for reducing cognitive stress in ADHD is to continuously adapt your environment and tasks to be more compatible with your brain’s unique processing style. Here are some examples of how cognitive stressors manifest in people with ADHD:
- Slow processing speed
- Difficulty with multitasking
- Inability to sustain attention or maintain focus on tasks or subjects that are not inherently interesting or stimulating
- Procrastination, which involves postponing tasks that are perceived as dull or unappealing, leading to increased stress as deadlines approach
- Memory issues, including problems with short-term or working memory, making it difficult to remember information or follow multi-step instructions
By acknowledging that cognitive stressors can exacerbate emotional dysregulation and other ADHD-related issues, individuals can work on developing strategies to address these challenges and reduce the stress they cause.
Simple solutions for addressing cognitive stress in ADHD
The simplest solution to manage cognitive stress in ADHD may involve:
- Becoming aware of your cognitive stressors
- Eliminating them when possible
- Accommodating them if they cannot be eliminated
- Practicing self-compassion when faced with challenging tasks at home or work that are difficult for your brain
- Educating loved ones and others about how and when tasks are not well-suited to your brain, if you feel safe doing so
Focusing on understanding and embracing one’s unique cognitive processing style, rather than trying to “fix” oneself, can lead to a more fulfilling and successful life for individuals with ADHD. By targeting cognitive stress, we can also make significant strides in improving emotional regulation, providing a comprehensive approach to living well with ADHD.
Example of how to use this idea
Sally, who has ADHD, knows that time management and prioritization can be a struggle for her, sometimes causing emotional ups and downs. Instead of feeling defeated, she decides to embrace her unique way of thinking and create a plan that celebrates her neurodiversity:
Awareness: Sally recognizes that time management and prioritization can be challenging for her, and that it sometimes leads to feeling overwhelmed or frustrated. But she also knows that her ADHD brings some unique strengths and perspectives to the table.
Elimination or accommodation: Sally takes a good look at her daily schedule and figures out which tasks can be eliminated or delegated, allowing her to focus on tasks where her neurodiverse strengths shine. For tasks that can’t be eliminated, especially those that are difficult but absolutely necessary, she comes up with some cool accommodations, recognizing that these tasks might not be friendly for her brain. This might involve breaking tasks into smaller steps or using handy tools like calendars, reminders, or timers to keep her on track.
Self-compassion: Sally reminds herself that it’s completely okay to have challenges with time management and prioritization due to her ADHD. She also celebrates her neurodiverse strengths and knows that she’s not a failure for needing extra support or accommodations.
Education and communication: Sally chats with her loved ones, friends, or coworkers about her ADHD-related time management and prioritization challenges, all while emphasizing her neurodiversity. She explains her creative strategies and accommodations and asks for understanding and support as she makes these changes.
Ongoing evaluation and adjustment: Sally regularly checks in on her progress, focusing on both her cognitive stressors and her neurodiverse strengths. She tweaks her strategies and accommodations as needed, always working to improve her overall well-being and functioning in a way that stays true to her unique way of thinking.
Instead of trying to change herself to fit the mold, she embraces a different approach: adapting her environment and tasks to accommodate her brain. By doing so, Sally empowers herself and takes control of her own well-being, creating a life that celebrates her unique strengths and experiences.