Many adults develop ADHD coping strategies to help them navigate life.
Some of these strategies are helpful, while others actually produce long-term consequences.
Picture yourself with a looming deadline for work. It’s Friday and your report is due on Monday.
You took the day off so you could work from home to complete this project.
You slept in and when you get up you decide you will put off starting the report until after you eat breakfast and work out. After your workout you have to shower and start some laundry.
You notice that you need groceries, so you run out in the middle of the day to pick up a few things. Around 3pm you decide you will enjoy the rest of today and work on the report over the weekend.
On Saturday morning a friend texts and asks you to meet up for drinks and food. When you arrive at home you feel a little too tipsy to do work stuff so you decide to wait until you are fresh Sunday morning.
Sunday morning you feel hungover so you decide to rest and hydrate before you do anything else.
Upon waking up on the couch at 4pm you are suddenly panic stricken about the report that is due in 16 hours. You are freaked out but motivated so you make a huge pot of coffee and get to work.
You hyperfocus and stay up all night working on the project, eating cheetohs and drinking coffee, until you feel it is perfect.
Your head aches and your eyes are red but you show up to work and hand in the report at exactly 8am. Promising yourself it will never happen again.
But it worked…so maybe it was worth it?
ADHD Coping Strategies
This is a dramatic example, but you get my point.
Procrastinating in order to create panic and motivate yourself is a maladaptive coping strategy. It works in the moment, but the long-term consequences are not good.
I sat down with Rick Webster to talk about how some of the strategies that worked for us as children, can become a huge problem in the adult world.
Oppositional behavior was the first topic to come up.
I’ve written about ODD in children.
Adults with ADHD have a whole other flavor of oppositional behavior.
We are the butter pecan of adults. Either you love the flavor, or it leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
Oppositional behavior can range from overt aggression to covert rebellion. Some of us will even rebel against our own self-imposed rules and expectations.
I’ve seen rants in Facebook groups with people declaring they will never treat their ADHD because they perceive treatment as bending to the will of society.
If that’s not oppositional I don’t know what is.
My gut tells me that kind of anger is rooted in shame and feeling like there is something wrong with you. Oppositional behavior in adults is rooted in pain.
And like small children these people are throwing temper tantrums because anger is an easier emotion to access than shame.
Almost everyone with ADHD struggles with emotional regulation. Life has a way of throwing experiences at us that we interpret through our ADHD filter, and it results is a sh-t ton of anxiety, depression, and sometimes anger.
Which leads me to another maladaptive coping mechanism
Black and white thinking
The human brain loves absolutes. That is a bird, and this is a chair.
You might have experienced some failures in your life. I know I have.
When I enter a new situation where I’m not certain I understand all the angles and expectations, I start to spiral.
The negative thought spiral seems to come along for the ride with ADHD.
Our brain reacts to feeling uncomfortable immediately.
Uncomfortable emotions feel dangerous.
And if we’re being honest, we see what we want to see.
This is called cognitive bias. It happens to all humans, but seems to be more common in ADHDers.
If we believe ADHD is a limiting, shameful condition, we will feel out of control and all of our experiences will reinforce that.
If we look at ADHD as just a part of who we are, we are much more likely to see ourselves as capable of growth and change.
People who see ADHD as a gift or a superpower are also using black and white thinking.
Either way, we struggle to find the middle ground. And it kinda sucks.
Another thing that sucks is stress. And we with ADHD have a way of producing more stress than is necessary for ourselves.
Every ADHD adult I talk to has resorted to adrenaline at some point to get things done.
We all have an optimal zone of stimulation.
If we are understimulated we get bored and unmotivated. Overstimulation results in anger and impulsive behaviors.
Adrenaline and cortisol are pumped into your bloodstream when you are overstimulated. This is not a good thing in the long term, as high levels of these hormones contribute to a range of chronic health issues.
Procrastination to the point of panic does give us a quick boost in motivation. But it doesn’t leave much room for unexpected roadblocks like your wifi going down in the middle of a pandemic, leaving you unable to turn in your work on time.
With ADHD we cannot recall our prior learning experiences and apply them, so each time we have a deadline or a major project it’s like groundhog day.
Inertia in ADHD is another issue. My friend Jaclyn wrote an article about it.
Getting started on anything, even stuff we like, can be a challenge.
Using artificial deadlines as Rick describes in the podcast, is one way to get around this common challenge.
For example, you could set an artificial deadline of 10am to start the laundry and then reward yourself at 10am with a trip to Starbucks. If the laundry isn’t started at 10am, no Starbucks.
Procrastination can also be driven by fear of failure or not doing things perfectly.
According to some research, perfectionism is the most common maladaptive coping mechanism in adults with ADHD.
In his book Rethinking Adult ADHD, Dr. J Russell Ramsay talks about what he calls front-end perfectionism and back-end perfectionism. (affiliate link. See my full disclosure)
Back-end perfectionism involves rigid standards for quality, details and performance that lead to difficulties completing projects because they don’t feel good enough or perfect enough. While front-end perfectionism involves rigid standards and preconditions that must be met for engaging in a task in the first place.
Coincidentally, front-end is seen more often with ADHD.
We have trouble getting started and we have trouble switching tasks.
Some people call this inability to task switch hyperfocus.
Hyperfocus is not a gift, and shouldn’t be held up as such. Therapists call it, “perseveration” and it’s often driven by pressure. (see above)
Perseveration is the inability to stop one activity and switch and reengage in a different activity. If you have ADHD you know this impacts us at home, work, and in our relationships.
The flip side of perfectionism is often disengagement, when we become so wrapped up in failure and shame we stop trying.
Automatic negative thoughts are a huge issue for ADHDers. We interpret events based on our beliefs about ourselves and our experiences. It’s not until we work with a therapist that we can develop strategies for dealing with these thoughts.
You can’t fail if you don’t try. So it might feel safer to disengage and avoid more failure.
When the thoughts and emotions become too intense we might look for ways to sooth ourselves and feel calm. Calm doesn’t come easy for us.
We all know that sometimes the world gets to be too much. We need something to take the edge off so we reach for some wine, or chocolate cake, or we start scrolling.
The problem is that sometimes our go-to soothing mechanism is bad for our mental or physical health.
Rick and I discussed ways to develop more awareness of when we are engaging in behaviors that aren’t good for us.
Taking a pause is powerful, but it takes a lot of practice. And you can’t quit every time you fail and fall back on your food or your wine.
You have to be willing to notice yourself slipping, acknowledge how you are feeling, and then keep going.
Rick calls this a pattern interrupt. I call it self-awareness.
Call it whatever you want, just give yourself the gift of noticing how you respond to different emotional states.
You can try:
Talking to a therapist/friend
Recording voice memos
Checking in with yourself every day, or several times per day
Asking your future self
The bottom line on ADHD coping strategies
Life with ADHD is hard and frustrating and stressful. It just is.
Our ADHD coping strategies are going to fail us sometimes.
The human experience is full of, “ugh” moments.
My grandmother just died and believe me, it’s tempting to drink wine every night and forget. But I won’t.
First because Elsie wouldn’t approve. But also because I know that I can do better.
I can be gentle with myself, forgive myself for my mistakes. But I can also learn and grow and change.
So can YOU.
Wanna see what I mean?
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