Ask Dr. Saline: Lower Stress, Build Tolerance and Focus on Self-Care

Woman relaxing and self-careDear Dr. Saline, in some of your articles, you discuss ways to lower stress. Is there a way to build stress tolerance for people with ADHD besides doing less?  Most of my stress and anxiety come from missing clarity and new situations. ~ Jamison

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From Dr. Saline 

Dear Jamison,

This is a great question. Building stress tolerance relies on more than doing less. We must focus on improving self-care and nurturing resilience to improve our stress tolerance. Let’s start by defining stress.

What Is Stress?

How stress affects the bodyStress is an experience of worry and tension set off by a challenging situation. A natural human response, like anxiety, leads us to deal with something tough or avoid it. Chronic stress weakens our immune systems and negatively affects our health. Stress hits your weakest executive functioning skills first.

For people with ADHD, this means that if you already struggle with emotional regulation, you’re more likely to lose your temper or feel flooded by big feelings when you’re feeling tense and worried. Stress occurs in many forms: environmental, professional, relational, cultural, and societal pressures all contribute to feeling burdened by hardships. Plus, there are also the pressures we place on ourselves: doing too much, not doing enough, disorganization, tardiness, overwhelm, procrastination, perfectionism, etc.

How to Build Stress Tolerance

Brain lifting weights Living with ADHD means living with a stress baseline that neurotypical folks don’t have to deal with. It’s natural to miss things in conversations or meetings, to be uncertain before new events, to worry if people will like and accept you, and to wonder if you will follow through on things. Since people with ADHD live with the consistent inconsistency of their neurodivergent brains and the perpetual stress that’s often associated with that, developing tools for stress tolerance is not only helpful but also necessary.

Practicing Self-Care

Man sitting in egg chair reading a bookIt may sound corny, but stress tolerance develops from healthy living and well-being.  Self-care is critical for so many reasons: resilience, confidence, and rebalancing. You want to figure out what helps you regain your sense of calm and, if possible, assist your loved ones in doing the same. Practicing self-care means much more than just a bath and a nice candle (though those are always great!) The idea is to check in with yourself, step outside of routines that cause you to stress, re-center, and then enter back into your life with a new mindset and attitude.


4 Ways to Build Stress Tolerance

Follow these steps  to clarify what specific activities and actions you can take:

1. Discover what nurturing feels like

You can’t run on fumes. Our minds and bodies are intimately connected. Think about what soothes you or brings you joy. Meditation, exercise, yoga, music, cooking, gardening, reading–whatever makes you feel good. Make a playlist of music that makes you smile, or find some new podcasts. The point is to prioritize and practice what feeds you.

2. Pay as much or more attention to what’s going well as what is causing you difficulties

Keep a list of three good things about each day. These can be small or large: a nice dinner, a good conversation with a friend, completing a project, or wearing a favorite shirt. The point is noticing what’s gone well, not judging its value or significance. A positive mental attitude does wonders for boosting self-esteem and promoting well-being.

3. Focus on your resilience

Think about a tough time you’ve experienced in the past. How did you get through? What did you do or say to yourself? Write these words of encouragement down and, using Post-Its, put them up where you can see them. Visual cues are critical for triggering a different response in the ADHD brain. The negativity bias in our brains leads us to focus on what’s wrong and what needs fixing, increasing stress.

4. Schedule downtime

If you don’t put aside specific time for self-care, it won’t happen. Designate a special period for refueling each day (ideally) or each week. Set alerts on your phone to remind you. Step away from your computer, silence your phone, and change your environment. Get some fresh air. Even five minutes a day will help you feel refreshed.


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