How to Manage ADHD as an Adult Without Medication
Updated: Feb 25
Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (aka ADHD) can be challenging to treat, either with or without medication. Many ADHD sufferers are adults who seek ways to cope that don’t always involve medication. Some people have medical reasons keeping them from using ADHD medications, while others simply prefer to avoid them. Either way, there is good news: there are a number of ways you can manage the disorder even if medication does not work for you.
What is ADHD?
ADHD is a common neurodevelopmental disorder that begins in childhood and lasts for a person's lifetime. The exact causes of ADHD are unknown, but some theories suggest that maternal substance use or high stress, brain injury, or premature birth may contribute to the disorder. ADHD causes changes to the brain which impacts a person's executive functioning skills that are important for things like decision-making, organization, time management, and problem-solving.
Signs and Symptoms of ADHD
Disorganization and difficulty setting priorities
Difficulty paying attention and listening in conversation
Getting frustrated easily
Poor time management
Difficulty coping with stress
Not everyone who is diagnosed with ADHD show the same symptoms. There are 3 different types of ADHD that are determined based on the predominant symptoms: Inattentive type, Hyperactive-Impulsive type, and a combined type. You can learn more about the different types here.
Medication for ADHD: Is it for me?
If you have the symptoms of ADHD, it is wise to go to a doctor or psychologist to discuss your symptoms and treatment options. Doctors often prescribe various amphetamines, such as Adderall, Ritalin, Vyvanse, or Concerta, to treat ADHD. These medications work by stimulating the central nervous system and increasing levels of two brain chemicals, dopamine and norepinephrine, which can improve your focus.
Medication isn’t for everyone, however. For example, those with heart conditions and high blood pressure aren’t advised to take such ADHD medications. ADHD medications can also pose a risk for addiction, especially in those with a history of substance abuse. This is because these medications stimulate the release of dopamine. This feel-good neurotransmitter can cause those who take them to feel a euphoric high, increasing the risk for addiction.
Side effects of ADHD medication:
As you can see, ADHD medications can cause some unpleasant side effects. Accordingly, some people opt to manage their disorder through behavioural and lifestyle changes instead. The following tips to help you manage your ADHD can be handy if you don’t want to go the medication route, but they can also help even if you are taking medication for the condition.
Tips for managing ADHD without medication
Try cognitive behavioural therapy
According to Harvard Health, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be a powerful tool when it comes to managing ADHD in adults. CBT is a type of talk therapy that helps you change negative patterns of thinking. Counselling teaches you coping skills to turn to when you face difficulties. Although having ADHD can be a frustrating experience that leads to setbacks in work performance, CBT can help you build the confidence to overcome those setbacks.
Get a planner
For most people with ADHD, keeping a planner is not an easy task. But once you get in the routine of maintaining a planner, it can really help with organization and productivity, and reduce your stress level. ADHD can cause forgetfulness, but if you learn to regularly write down upcoming appointments and deadlines in your planner, you’re less likely to become overwhelmed. In a planner you can keep track of tasks and social events, which helps to prevent procrastination and last-minute panic.
The practice of mindfulness has been shown to improve focus in adults who have ADHD. Mindfulness involves attending particularly to the present moment. It also involves developing a nonjudgmental approach to life and an attitude of openness. Mindfulness can also help with the regulation of emotions. When you practice mindfulness meditation, you may still experience some initial distraction, but you will learn the skill of bringing your attention back to your breath, which is useful for maintaining focus. Not sure where to start? Meditation apps such as Insight Timer or Calm can guide you and teach you helpful mindfulness practices or check out our blog on 7 practical ways to practice mindfulness.
Put your phone away
Scrolling through social media can be one of the biggest distractions preventing us from getting things done. If you are worried about being unavailable for a while, let people know ahead of time that you will have your phone turned off or put away. Putting your phone away can help you stay on task. It’s good for us, both children and adults, to put away our devices every now and then for other reasons too. Research shows that excessive cellphone use has been linked to insomnia, anxiety, deterioration in well-being, and decreased physical activity. Many studies have linked addiction and ADHD, and that applies to cell phone addiction too.
Set reasonable goals
Adults with ADHD may find they avoid setting goals because they fear their constant struggle with distraction will make their goals unattainable. Don’t fall into this trap. Start by setting yourself certain small daily goals that you know are easily achievable and build from there. A good guideline for setting goals is the SMART goals framework. This guideline suggests that you first ask yourself the following: Is this goal specific? How about measurable? Achievable? Relevant? And Time-based?
When you reach one of your goals, feel free to reward yourself. That will help you develop a more positive association between your goal-setting and the end result. A reward does not have to be something you spend money on. It can be as simple as going for a walk outside nature, taking a relaxing bath, or watching your favourite TV show.
Exercise can also help clear your head and settle racing thoughts. Exercise stimulates the natural production of neurotransmitters that improve focus. These include dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin. A research study on adults with ADHD found that aerobic exercise was associated with improved attention, motivation, and reduced impulsivity. Research has also found that adults with ADHD who engaged in frequent aerobic activity reported significantly less impulsivity and fewer worrisome and intrusive thoughts.
Get some sleep
Adults suffering from ADHD are known to have increased sleep issues, including insomnia and chronic sleep deprivation. Not getting enough sleep or high-quality sleep can worsen attention, procrastination, and impulsivity. Try to stay off screens at least one hour before bed; you will be more likely to get to sleep sooner because you won’t get distracted scrolling on social media or binge-watching a show on Netflix. And the less blue light you are exposed to at bedtime, the better, as it suppresses the sleep hormone melatonin.
Read our blog on how to improve your sleep here.
The bottom line:
ADHD is a lifelong condition that affects all areas of life, including work performance, moods, relationships, academic performance, and day-to-day productivity. Although effective medications address the symptoms, ADHD medication is not always an option for everyone. This is why lifestyle changes are crucial for the management of ADHD.
Our team of online and in-person Barrie counsellors provide quality and effective counselling services in Barrie and virtually across Ontario to individuals (6+), couples and families. We also offer an Affordable Therapy Program that provides counselling services in Barrie to individuals (12+) who are facing financial challenges that need mental health support.