For me personally, there are a handful of things that quickly take my ADHD from a personality quirk to a major, destructive problem. They’re the things that lead me to depression, frustration with myself, lost days of productivity, anxiety, and reclusion. When I fall into one of these depressed states, I can usually trace it back to one or more of these triggers.
So how can you identify your own personal triggers, and how can you avoid or remove as many of them from your life as possible? By learning everything you can about yourself and about ADHD. Many of these triggers are fairly universal for people with ADHD, while some will be unique to each individual and require deep introspection. It’s crucial to understand the things that trigger your ADHD symptoms before you can really learn to manage the symptoms of ADHD.
ADHD is a disorder of EXTREMES. People with ADHD tend towards all or nothing thinking, can be obsessive about certain thoughts, and can have addictive personalities. When we build habits, good or bad, we often take them to their logical extremes. In that sense, it’s understandable why people with ADHD are more likely to deal with addiction problems. It also makes sense that lots of people with ADHD become addicted to positive habits like exercise. Both of these are coping mechanisms, one of them is just healthier than the other.
By identifying your ADHD triggers, you can start to mold your behavior and environment around the GOOD habits you want to build.
Being aware of your emotions and the external forces that are affecting your emotions is crucial when learning to manage your ADHD. It can be particularly difficult for people with ADHD to disconnect from emotional experiences, and to move on after frustrating situations. But knowing and understanding this in yourself can be the difference between a little bump in the road and a massive roadblock that eats at you for days.
Stress may be the most common trigger for adults with ADHD. And at times, it can feel like ADHD keeps you in a constant state of stress and anxiety. People with ADHD aren’t good at filtering out external stimuli or silencing their internal thoughts, both of which can cause stress. On top of that, anxiety caused by procrastination, missed or approaching deadlines, and an inability to focus, can all raise stress levels even more.
From time to time, everyone deals with difficult and emotional situations. Things like the end of a relationship, death of a loved one, and even something generally positive like moving to a new home are extremely tiring and emotional times for anyone. But for those with ADHD, these same experiences can send us spiraling out of control in other areas of our life as well, and lead to long periods of depression. This is because ADHDers suffer from something called Emotional Dysregulation.
For ADHDers, things like a heated argument, being criticized by a coworker, or a perceived insult, can be overwhelming and consume our thoughts for hours or even days. Understanding that you experience these emotions more intensely than neuro-typical people is an important first step to being able to manage these emotions.
Rejection (Perceived or Real)
One common problem for those with ADHD comes from something called Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria. Put simply, people with ADHD are more likely to feel rejected or criticized, and for it to affect them negatively for a long period of time. While it’s normal for rejection to hurt, the effects can be much more severe for someone with ADHD, and oftentimes it’s simply the perception of being rejected, and not actually reality. It’s important to understand the concept, so you can ask yourself whether the feeling is really warranted, or whether it’s mostly just “in your head.”
Since ADHDers struggle with emotional dysregulation, it’s easy for negative relationships to truly hurt us or weigh us down emotionally. Many people with ADHD have that one relationship in their lives that fills them with anxiety or frustration. Oftentimes the only option in this case is to limit or cut toxic relationships out of your life.
Some studies of ADHD have found that maintaining healthy habits like exercise, a healthy diet, and proper sleep habits are as important or more important than medication. For many people with ADHD, it’s so crucial to their mental health that they develop
Lack of Exercise
Exercise has been proven to be one of the most effective activities for improved mental health, and it’s no different for those with ADHD. In fact, it may be even more important for ADHDers to get their extra energy out and clear their heads with exercise.
If you commonly experience fatigue, trouble sleeping, and “brain fog”, a lack of exercise might be to blame. Increased exercise can improve memory, help you make better decisions, and make it easier to focus. You don’t have to go to the gym either, a 20 minute walk a few times a week is enough to offer major benefits. Strenuous exercise is even better, but the important thing is to steadily increase your physical activity, and stick with it as a lifestyle change.
When you add in the increased health and longevity, and the confidence boost it provides, regular exercise is a no-brainer for ADHDers.
Like exercise, your nutrition and diet directly affects your mental state and how you feel. If you eat nothing but junk food and sugary snacks, you will feel severe negative impacts on your mental state that will carry over to your mood, work, and relationships. Alternatively, improve your diet, and you’ll experience an improvement in your mental state and how you feel.
Timing of meals is also important, and can be difficult with ADHD. People with ADHD tend to get so focused sometimes that they forget to eat. Some people with ADHD also experience appetite problems due to stimulant medications, caffeine use, or anxiety. Other ADHDers are compulsive snackers or overeaters. These are all reasons that it’s important to keep to a schedule and not miss meals, and to have plenty of easily accessible, healthy foods available.
Alcohol has its place; it can be fun in social settings, and it can be used responsibly. But for some people with ADHD, alcohol is one of the biggest triggers for their negative symptoms, and can easily start a downward spiral both mentally and physically.
The problem comes when the negatives start to outweigh the positives, or when it becomes a compulsion. For people with ADHD, impulse control is already hard, and alcohol loosens inhibitions even further. This can easily lead to excess drinking, bad decisions, or just a morning of regret.
Alcohol throws you off your routine. It messes with your ability to sleep, even if you do manage to get home and in bed at a reasonable time. That means you’ll have less energy the next day, be more prone to brain fog, and will be less likely to stick with your good habits like exercising and eating well. You’ll be more likely to subsequently give in to bad habits like eating junk food or continuing to drink too much.
Additionally, alcohol hurts your fitness and nutrition goals. It dehydrates you and lowers your ability to recover from exercise and injury. In a very real way, you are undoing the hard work of exercise when you drink.
ADHD and sleep problems go hand in hand for a lot of people. Sometimes, the culprit is stimulant medication or caffeine use. For others it can be anxiety, depression, or a combination of many factors. Lack of sleep doesn’t just make you tired, it also exacerbates symptoms like focus problems, brain fog, and trouble making decisions.
If you are struggling with mental fatigue during the day, or struggling to get up in the morning, then you may want to look into improvements to your sleep schedule and morning routine.
There are many simple things you can do to start improving your quality of sleep, such as cutting out caffeine after noon, turning off bright lights and screens 30-60 minutes before bed, having a relaxing night time routine, and removing all phones and screens from your bedroom.
Getting sick or dealing with health problems will throw anyone off their routine. But for someone with ADHD, it can start a spiral of negative thinking, catastrophizing, and lead to a prolonged period of poor mental and physical health. Part of the reason for the emphasis on healthy nutrition, sleep, and exercise is to avoid getting sick or dealing with these issues in the first place.
ADHDers are especially susceptible to being distracted by external stimuli, such as noises, conversations, phone notifications, clutter and anything that can pull your attention away from what you should be doing. Things such as a messy home, desk clutter, and piles of unsorted papers can represent a major hurdle for those with ADHD.
How can you make your environment more conducive to focus and productivity? Embrace minimalism. Removing unnecessary clutter and stimuli that may distract you means you have less little decisions to make each day.
The ADHD brain is always on the move, and external overstimulation can make this worse. Those with ADHD can get overwhelmed in loud spaces, parties, crowded venues, rush hour traffic, and similar busy locations.
Days that are absolutely packed with activities can be especially overwhelming for ADHDers. When you find yourself dealing with those sorts of days, try to schedule in a few minutes for yourself throughout the day, to just be alone and unwind. A 5 minute walk in nature can do wonders in the middle of a busy day.
People with ADHD tend to have a shortage of working memory, so day to day schedules and organization can be hard. Additionally, we tend to let chores and tasks pile up, and things as simple as mail or laundry can end up becoming a major barrier.
- Piles of notes/loose papers
- Mail piling up
Too Much Screen Time
Computers, television shows, and video games can be dangerous ground for those with ADHD, because they hit a lot of the checkmarks we are looking for to stimulate our brains.When used responsibly or for work, these sorts of technologies are great. They help us work, learn, relax, and more. But as we’ve learned about ADHD, we are creatures of extremes, and moderating ourselves or limiting our time on something we enjoy can be a challenge.
The problem arises when screens become a sort of mindless habit for us. Every time we scroll to another social media post, or click “next episode” on Netflix, we are wasting a little bit of our decision-making energy on that mindless activity.
You have a finite supply of energy, and making these little mindless decisions quickly depletes that energy. If you want to free up your brain for more important tasks, cut out as much Mindless Surfing as you can, and use technology such as your phone and laptop more deliberately and carefully.
Weather – Seasonal Affect Disorder
Something as innocuous as the seasons changing, or poor weather patterns, can be one more little trigger that makes life harder. Millions of people suffer from Seasonal Affect Disorder, and it can come hand-in-hand with depression and anxiety. For someone with ADHD, they might not even notice that their good health habits are affected by this change in seasons.
For me personally, when winter rolls around it becomes MUCH harder for me to keep up my good exercise and sleep habits. I tend to sleep in later, and my motivation to get outside and get some exercise is suddenly shot.
Knowing this and paying attention to how it affects me means I can prepare and expect this little roadblock. It’s important to find alternative ways to get exercise and the positive effects of being outside daily. A few simple changes can make a huge difference:
- Vitamin B and D supplements (since you won’t be getting as much Vit D from the sun.
- A Happy Light can simulate sunshine and give you some positive mental effects while staying indoors.
- Finding alternative exercises that can be done in winter or inside.
- Taking up some winter hobbies like skiing or snowshoeing.
Everyone Has Personal Triggers Too
Pay attention the next time you’re feeling ADHD symptoms. Can you point to a root cause or trigger that is exacerbating the feelings? I recommend making an ongoing list of things that make your ADHD better and worse. Are there relationships, habits, or activities that you can point to that clearly improve or make your symptoms worse?
The Bottom Line
ADHD becomes much more manageable when you have a clear understanding of the things that trigger it. Life is going to happen, and being able to properly prepare and predict the things that throw you into chaos is crucial to managing ADHD symptoms.
So now that you have a better understanding of your ADHD triggers, what should you do with that information? Set some boundaries. Create a list of your Non-Negotiables.