MINI-SERIES: SELF-CARE FOR ADHD BRAINS
This article comes with an audio-companion podcast episode, for those who prefer to listen instead of reading. You can find all the resources and links mentioned in the podcast below.
The holidays mean different things to everyone, but whether you're facing complex family dynamics, loneliness, tiring travel itineraries or mayhem with the kids home for the holidays, self-care is definitely something on our minds, and often feels juuuust out of reach.
As promised, I've put together a Christmas holiday self-care guide, with special consideration for the unique challenges neurodivergents face when it comes to prioritising ourselves and taking action. I've pondered, researched and collected these ideas in no particular order — so browse, skim (or deep dive) and see what resonates for you.
Maybe you've come across some of these concepts before, and others could be new. Either way, there's something for every nervous system here.
1. Shift your perception of self-care to something that you feel more motivated and inspired by
I strongly believe that words play a crucial part in shifting the way we see self-care, which can help us 'reclaim it' as a new belief or value that's important to us. Self-care is a term that's become overused and can lose its meaning, so I find it helpful to put it aside and start to explore other words that may resonate better and inspire us.
One I've already mentioned is nervous system nourishment. It's a favourite of mine.
Some other words I've come up with for self-care are:
- self attunement
- self nurturing
- self holding
- self soothing
- self replenishment
- self listening
- self giving
Which words resonate for you?
2. Try this calming exercise the next time you eat (it really works!)
For years I struggled to meditate because I thought I had to empty my mind (and when does that everrrr happen when you've got ADHD?). At the same time, I knew I had to find a way to quiet the white noise, and I stumbled across a bunch of teaching on meditation that made it more accessible and waaaay less daunting. I learned that meditation is actually awareness, which I interpret for the intensity-loving, ADHD brain as heightened, targeted, laser focus. Laser focus I can do! Instead of sitting on a cushion meditating, I began harnessing my ADHD hyperfocus power and attaching it to simple tasks like eating. This is especially effective for neurodivergent brains, because I was pairing focused awareness with a stimming activity, and that was an incredibly helpful 'soft entry point' to settle me into meditation, so that I wasn't going from 100 to zero.
As we consider how to nourish our nervous system, bringing more conscious awareness to how we eat can be a really transformative way to boost our interoceptive abilities (our internal sense of how we feel inside), as we practice noticing the tiny details in a mundane, unconscious task.
Wondering how on earth to do this? I've got you covered! Play this 4 minute Mindful Eating Meditation as you're eating your next snack or meal. All you've gotta do is eat and listen, and use that beautiful brain of yours to focus on each bite and micro-movement.
3. Create a sensory cocoon for yourself
If you haven't discovered sensory cocooning yet, you're in for a treat. Sensory cocooning has been the number one most consistently helpful strategy to nourish my nervous system and hit reset when I'm feeling worked up, antsy or anxious.
People with ADHD often report that they have hypersensitivity or highly sensitive nervous systems - with moderate or extreme sensitivity to touch, light, sound and smell, as well as easily experiencing overstimulation in conversation, and claustrophobia in crowds or energetic environments.
So, really, at the basis of all self care needs to be the core self care act of tending to our nervous system, particularly when we've been around groups of people or high-energy/intensity environments a lot, and are over-stimulated. I call this core level of self care nervous system nourishment.
I created a full guide on sensory cocooning for you here, as part of my Self-Care for ADHD Holiday series. So be sure to check that out!
4. Sore jaw & muscle tension? Try this incredibly simple exercise
One sure sign that I'm in desperate need of self-care is having a sore face and tense jaw... and like many ADHDers, I'm a serial jaw clencher and overnight grinder. When I discovered this simple exercise to release jaw tension within minutes - called the Masseter Release Exercise - it was a game changer. Now it's one of my go-to strategies when I'm feeling tired and tense. Watch below, and if you want to bookmark it, here's the direct link.
5. Release shame & guilt by learning about your nervous system blocks
So much of the time, we focus on the guilty feeling that we can't seem to find the time to do self-care, instead of asking ourselves why we're finding it so difficult to self-give in that moment (or many moments)? Often it's because our nervous systems are so depleted and burnt out, we can't even grasp the concept of where or how to begin with self-care. And in that moment, we need self-compassion. If you're so severe on yourself that self-compassion feels impossible (believe me, I've been there!), learning that it's not your fault, and there's a physiological reason you're blocked with self-care is can really help.
I packaged the science of nervous systems into a nifty little explainer video (below) to demonstrate how these physiological blocks prevent us from being body-aware, and stop us from doing what we know will help... doing the things that will nourish our nervous systems and return to baseline. Sometimes just understanding why we function the way we do can reduce shame and give us the emotional capacity to practice a little self compassion and find a way forward. If you want to do a deep dive on why self-replenishment is hard for ADHD folks, I wrote an explainer here.
6. Create a second brain to give your actual brain a rest
It may sound incredibly obvious, but reducing the amount of white noise in our brains by writing down all our to-do's is a self-care task that is possibly underestimated (or at least we need a reminder about).
You can use the many templates in our ADHD planner to do this, such as the Weekend or Weekday Get Sh*t Done lists, the Brain Dump pages, or the Hyperfocus list for that topic... you know the one that means you have a million divergent rabbit trails shooting off in your brain.
7. Try sound bathing with this free app (it's not as weird as it sounds!)
Sound bathing is incredibly nourishing for the neurodivergent nervous system, and is an excellent free and low-time commitment way to find more peace and internal calm this holidays, particular if the weather outside is frightful. If you want to try right now, go and download the Insight Timer app from your app store (no affiliation, I'm just a big fan!) and read my article on Sound Bathing for all the info you'll need to begin. I can't wait to hear what you think!
8. Listen to podcasts that feed your brain while you walk or do chores
Sometimes we're so exhausted and burnt out, we just can't take in any more info. (If this is you, skip this recommendation and try sensory cocooning instead). But for ADHD brains that are tired but not completely depleted, learning about new things can actually energise us.
I know that feeding my brain with intellectual fodder and/or whimsical nonsense is a self-care strategy, so my favourite go-to podcasts in those moments are:
- Ologies, with Alie Ward (it's won Webby awards for a reason)
- Ideas podcast (this episode on neurodivergence from an evolutionary standpoint is fascinating)
- Office Ladies, for any fans of the Steve Carrell version of The Office
- We Can Do Hard Things, with Glennon Doyle - for when you want fascinating podcast guests every time
- On Being's Poetry Unbound, for if you need to escape to a more abstract world of feeling and sensitivity
- And you can subscribe to my podcast, Future ADHD, launching January 2023. 😉
9. See holiday invitations as an opportunity to check in with yourself & set boundaries
The world gets crazy when December hits, and the invites to parties, end of year events and drinks with friends start flooding our inboxes. Instead of feeling like your RSVP has to be a default yes, try out starting with a default no, and consider each invite in terms of what you need, not what's expected. You could try seeing each invitation as a chance to check in with your body and nervous system, and decide on whether your body says 'yes' or 'no'. We really can't be everything to everyone, and the holidays are a perfect time to start setting boundaries, especially if you've struggled to say no before. It's a soft landing for the people pleasers in the lead up to Christmas (you're looking at a recovering people-pleaser here!), because when you politely decline, people get how busy we all are.
10. Go on a screen time fast
The time void between Christmas and New Year is the perfect time to try a one-day (or more) screen time fast. I have a friend with ADHD who went on a reality TV show deep in the jungle, where his phone (and all other modern conveniences) were taken from him for a whole month. When he emerged from the 30-day survival challenge, he said that the mental impact from going cold turkey on screens had a major impact on calming his nervous system and internal intensity. My friend said, even though he was using his phone again back in the 'real world', he was using it far less, feeling a ton better, and wouldn't never look at his phone (or other addictive technology) in the same way ever again.
If you can do 2-3 days, I'd recommend that - because often we spend the first day reaching on autopilot for our phone, but as time goes on we become used to it, and start to enjoy it and reap the true benefits.
11. Focus on your long term 'self-care settings'
Once you've had some time to decompress and recharge during the holidays, you may want to focus on setting up some long term self-care supports to transition you into the new year. 'Self-care settings' are my way of thinking about more long term, invisible, background supports that contribute to self-care.
Some ideas are:
- getting an app that turns your phone screen grey, so you use your phone less
- switching off push notifications for social media
- using a free inbox cleaner like Unroll.me to manage your email subscriptions
- using the digital declutter or home declutter checklist in our ADHD planner
- scheduling annual dentist appointments and skin care checks
12. Intentionally decide to have a sleep in
The holidays mean many of us take time off work, which is the perfect excuse to slow down and shift our circadian rhythms a little. This one may sound obvious, since ADHDers are notoriously not morning people, but the key here is that it's not an accidental sleep in we might feel guilty for, but an intentional sleep in that we plan the night before. Take an extra hour in bed pre-breakfast with a book, or simply pop on an eye mask and drown out the world a little longer. If you have young kids, ask your partner if you can trade mornings, and give each other time to sleep in.
You can also have an afternoon siesta or commit to an (actual) early night. The key is to plan it early in the day so you can look forward to it all day, as a yummy act of self-care.
So, those are my 12 top self-care tips for you this holiday season! Which one do you think you'll try first? Feel free to reach out on Instagram @future.adhd and let me know which ones felt best for your nervous system.