Back to the present - exploring mindfulness for ADHD

I always loved Marti McFly’s adventures backward and forward in time and was fascinated that wherever he ended up - his engagement with his environment was total. Let’s face it, a film about a guy travelling in time only to zone out when he got there wouldn’t make a riveting tale.


That my childhood memories are more of the activity I was hyper-focused on - usually reading - makes me pine a little for ‘another go,’ this time around, fully present to my surroundings.

It was quite a revelation to later learn that our clearest memories are made up of times when we were most present in our feelings/mindful of our thoughts, and surroundings.

Maybe the film Back to the Future resonated pre-ADHD diagnosis because Marti’s way of engaging with the world so differed from my drifty, slippery experience. Memories of holidays, social events, shopping trips, or schooldays elude me and as I write, I wonder whether my fascination with time travel is more about returning to fill in the gaps!?

A few years ago, explaining to a therapist colleague about what I had come to call meditation, ‘It’s like floating,’ I told her, ‘thoughts and feelings free, and sometimes it happens without my even trying! Her question – ‘But isn’t meditation about being fully present in the moment?’ went completely over my head.

Bringing meditation into therapy sessions seemed like an obvious next move, and I booked, giving myself six months more to ‘practice,’ onto a week-long mindfulness teacher training course with the reputable provider Mindfulness Now

When a few days later my therapy journal landed on the doormat, its cover article about working with ADHD clients tweaked my interest. A few of my son’s schoolfriends had had this neurology, and I still associated it with ‘naughty little boys.’ Working with anyone too ‘difficult’ would be out of my depths as a private therapist - that was for settings (which I’d tried working in but, oddly, always became phased by keeping up with the paperwork side of things.)

But the article was about adult women with undiagnosed ADHD, not little boys, and when I sat down to read, the description of something called ‘traits’ felt almost intrusive. Who was this writer who knew me inside out?! Stunned, I continued my day as usual, doing half-tasks at speed, struggling to focus, then losing hours to reading or writing and moving in and out of my meditations. But there was no going back from learning about these ways of being that I recognised now were ‘traits’ and had names like zoning out, hyperfocus, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

Questioning my meditation ‘practice,’ I remembered my colleague's words, ‘But isn’t meditation about being present in the moment?’ 

Years of struggle with ‘ordinary life’ fell into place that week. What was I thinking of booking myself onto a mindfulness teacher training course?! The practice that gave me such peace wasn’t meditation at all. It was called zoning out and due to my neurology! Why, I questioned, in five years of therapy training along with its required hundred hours of personal psychotherapy, had ADHD never arisen as a possibility?! (Later, reading about masking answered that question). 

Over the next few weeks, I read a lot, found ADDitude, and got a diagnosis. Fellow ADHDers were a sharing, supportive community! I joined them and wrote my first blog. 

I went to cancel my mindfulness course because a week of sitting on a beanbag for hours in actual present-moment awareness would be excruciating, embarrassing even. I would fidget, and need a notebook or a podcast. 

Still in the early phase of understanding my neurology, I hadn’t begun to develop self-compassion for the shame I carried about my way of being.

It was a conversation with the empathic training provider that shifted my decision. After telling her I couldn’t possibly learn mindfulness, let alone teach it, she asked me if I would like to postpone. 

‘But I’ll still have ADHD next year!’ I wailed, following with a surprisingly concise explanation about ADHD traits. Anxious at that time, believing I was always ‘in a trait,’ I told her (in one breath), ‘I start a five-minute task only to move into hyperfocus for hours. Having to stop feels like coming out of the cinema after a good film – jarring, disorientating. Then I zone out (the ‘nothing mind’ which I’m too ashamed to tell her was the extent of my meditation). That’s it, round and round, I can't step outside of this!’ 

I still had lots to learn about harnessing my hyperfocus and accessing present-moment awareness – challenging, often momentary, but possible.

The lady on the other end of the call’s ‘I am so sorry’ was heartfelt. ‘I didn’t even know women could have it! I’ve just asked someone who has lost a leg to postpone their walking holiday until it grows back!’ She’d heard my struggle. ‘Thank you. I had no idea that the experience of living with ADHD was like that. Would you like a refund?’ But something inside me shifted then, and when I said, ‘No. Thank you,’ no one was more surprised than me.

Because shouldn’t more people be saying, ‘Ah, so that’s what life with ADHD can feel like.’ 

The course was challenging; I sat on my hands most of the time to stop them doing a ‘Kermit thing,’ but I didn’t hide my need to. As it turned out I wasn’t the only one! Built into the course was time to share our experiences of each meditation. By the end of the week, everyone’s awareness about adulthood ADHD was raised a little.  

Nowadays, my therapeutic work is with brave, insightful people who are questioning their neurology. I tailor mindfulness meditation exercises to my client’s unique needs; self-compassion is usually integral.

We don't have to 'stay mindful' to become more mindful. The practice of mindfulness is the ‘coming back to’ being mindful when we are not. This literally lights a new path in the brain through a process called neuroplasticity, so making being mindful more and more accessible. So, good news! One moment a day is enough to begin with, and in the spirit of self-kindness, that's really just as well!

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Royston, Hertfordshire, SG8
Written by K. Fraser, BSc Dip.Couns (MBACP), MBSR course provider
Royston, Hertfordshire, SG8

Katy Fraser is a Psychotherapeutic Counsellor (MBACP) journeying with neurodiverse clients towards finding self-compassion. Katy writes blogs for ADDitude and is the author of one novel Talking in Diamonds, a supernatural tale of neurodiversity, available on Amazon.

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