How to Quiet Symptoms of Adult ADHD

If you have ADHD, you know how hard it is to give your relationships the attention they deserve. Try these simple expert tips to stay focused on the folks you care about…

As a child, Kim Kensington didn’t notice her attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (or ADHD). But once she reached adulthood, she was “distracted by everything,” she says. She couldn’t even dine out with a friend because the restaurant hubbub was too distracting.

“I had the wandering-eye thing that drives everyone crazy,” says Kensington, now a psychologist and ADHD lifestyle coach.

More than 4 million women in the U.S. have symptoms of adult ADHD. Often described as impatience or an inability to sit still, it’s a real medical problem that affects attention span.

Adults with ADHD have lower levels of the brain chemical dopamine, which is partially responsible for attention.

If you have it, you may be unfairly pegged as callous, clueless or self-absorbed. Close relationships may suffer because the other person – often a spouse or family member – feels unheard or minimized. But it’s not your fault, says Tony Rostain, M.D., director of the Adult ADHD Treatment and Research Program at the University of Pennsylvania. “In our society, women are supposed to be great listeners; they’re supposed to be empathetic.”

To quiet your mind, first see a doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment, which may include therapy and medication. After that, try these 14 tips to show others you’re all ears.

Listening Tip #1:

In social settings, choose the right seat. Never mind all that hype about the best seat in a restaurant being the one facing out.

“It pulls your attention away from the person you’re supposed to be focusing on and you’ll miss important information and cues,” Rostain explains.

If, like Kensington, you’re easily distracted by people passing by, waiters hefting trays and conversation at other tables, ask for a table with a view of the wall to minimize distractions. And don’t be tempted to sit side by side.

To cut down on background noise, select quieter meeting places or schedule meals at slower times (after 2 p.m. for lunch, or 4-5:30 p.m. for dinner).

You can even ask for distracting music to be turned down or off. Most managers will accommodate those requests during slower shifts.

Listening Tip #2:

Ask questions. One symptom of adult ADHD is the tendency to ramble on and then become deadly bored and disinterested in other people’s stories.

Instead of spewing long blocks of speech, force yourself to ask a lot of questions. “Blah, blah, blah, blah,” should sound more like: “Blah, blah… What do you think about that?” “Blah, blah… Have you had a similar experience?”

“This keeps you stimulated and listening because it’s a more active process,” Barkley says. “It also shows others you care about them, which is often a problem when ADHD is uncontrolled.”

Listening Tip #3:

Use your mental brakes. Most people can control their emotions, including strong negative reactions, says Barkley. But with ADHD, your filter may be off-kilter.

That’s why you may blurt out thoughts and feelings, interrupt others, or have emotional outbursts. Some people with ADHD also like to argue, because it stimulates their brains.
Stop yourself.
“People without ADHD put their hands over their mouths in their minds; you must do it literally,” Barkley says. So, periodically, hit the brakes and give the other person a chance to speak. That also gives you a chance to cool down – and reconsider whether that point you want to make is really worth an argument. It also structures your speech and keeps your emotions in check.

Listening Tip #4:

Watch out for “feeling” words. Because you’re easily distracted, keep an ear out for emotionally tagged words such as sad, angry, lonely, hopeless, depressed, anxious and happy in conversation.

“I would say to my husband, ‘I’m very lonely,’ or ‘I’m completely miserable,'” says Melissa Orlov, who blogs about how his undiagnosed and misunderstood ADHD nearly destroyed their family. If you get nothing else from a conversation except an understanding of how someone feels, you’ll be a good listener, says Orlov.

Listening Tip #5:

Schedule important conversations. No one should have a serious conversation while checking emails or sending tweets. But for someone with ADHD, it’s even more critical.

Not only could you send out public blunders, but you’re so distracted, your partner may be easily frustrated or offended. Instead, schedule time to just talk and listen. Silence your phone, shut down your email and hold a regular, distraction-free meeting with your spouse.
Schedule this time to talk when you’re both fully awake and functioning – not immediately before bed, when you’re sleepy. The half hour before or after dinner usually works best, Barkley recommends.

Listening Tip #6:

Listen, reflect and repeat. Get in the habit of paraphrasing what someone has said before you respond.

Just summarizing what they said shows you heard them. Doing this also helps you remember the conversation and shows you care. Plus, if you haven’t caught everything, it gives the other person a chance to correct you.

Listening Tip #7:

Always carry a notebook. Ever leave a conversation with a vague sense you were supposed to do something important, but can’t remember what that was? Always carry a notebook and pen. Jot down anything that anyone wants you to do – no matter how certain you are that you’ll remember.

“We remember different things than many other people do, and we don’t remember to-do lists very well,” Kensington explains.

For example, write down: 10 a.m. dentist appointment, teacher conference at 2 p.m., pick up kids at daycare at 5 p.m., check mailbox, deposit paycheck and meet so-and-so at yoga class. Of course, you also have to remember to check your list periodically.

Listening Tip #8:

Ask to change the subject. Bored with a conversation and unable to follow along?
If you’re talking to a friend and your mind’s getting foggy, you can say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m having trouble following you right now. Can we talk about something else?’ Rostain suggests.

If you ask sincerely – particularly if you’re with someone who cares about you and knows the symptoms of adult ADHD – it may be less rude than spacing out.

Listening Tip #9:

Embrace fidgeting. Physical movement calms you down, says Orlov. If someone wants to have an important conversation, offer to take a walk together.
Moving your body also gets you away from the computer, chores and other distractions. In meetings or phone conversations, playing with a paperclip or doodling are less-obvious forms of fidgeting. Both occupy your hands so your mind can concentrate.

Listening Tip #10:

Change your breathing. People with ADHD can also suffer from social anxiety and may find it impossible to truly listen in social settings.

If you grew up with undiagnosed ADHD and social anxiety, you’ve probably encountered many problems at parties or work functions. A simple stress technique, such as breathing slowly through your nose, may ease anxious feelings.

“Just be in the moment instead of focusing on catching everything everyone says,” Rostain says.

Gradually, with less fear and anxiety, you’ll be better able to participate and become a good listener.


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