Racing thoughts and rumination, the total absence of calm is what rules many an ADHD mind. Keeping your cool can be challenging. Sometimes it feels impossible to relax for even a second. But there are a lot of activities that can help calm down the ever-occupied ADHD mind.
Read on to learn about relaxation techniques for different needs: We’ll cover emergency exercises for short-term relief, but also lifestyle changes and reframing techniques that can help you calm down and regulate anxiety in the long term. And why do we ADHD minds struggle to relax in the first place? Glad you asked…
Too long; didn’t read
- The ADHD mind is always on the go; calming and slowing it down can be quite challenging.
- Several exercises can help you calm down your ADHD mind, including breathing techniques, engaging your senses, and moving your body. (More below!)
- Getting enough sleep and a balanced diet play a key role in calming the mind.
Calming activities for ADHD adults: How to relax in any given situation
Breathing exercises, physical activities, mindfulness, strong routines, and better coping skills are just a few ways of helping the typical ADHD brain wind down.
Quick calm downs
Use these techniques for immediate relief to calm down anywhere and anytime.
Breathing exercises for relaxation
For calming the mind, taking a (literal) breather can be invaluable. Slow breathing induces tranquility because the speed of your breath affects the brain region tasked with processing emotions (the amygdala) and slow, deep breaths can downregulate your nervous system after experiencing stress.1,2,3
A few techniques to slow down your mind when you are stressed or overwhelmed are:
- Breathe through your belly: Inhale as deeply as possible, and “push out” the air with your stomach until it’s all gone.
- Count your breaths: Paying close attention to your individual breaths furthers your body awareness and can increase your attention.
- 4-7-8 breathing technique: Breathe in through your nose to the count of 4. Hold your breath while counting to 7. Now exhale through your mouth to the count of 8. Repeat three more times.
- Box breathing: If the 4-7-8 technique seems too difficult in an anxious moment, this one is easier to maintain but can also help to calm down your nervous system.
Imagine drawing a square (or box) for each step while you breathe: Inhale while slowly counting to 4. Hold your breath for 4. Exhale for 4. Hold your breath for 4. Repeat three more times or as needed.
🌬️ Helpful tools: Try out apps like One Deep Breath or Breathwrk for visualizations and guided breathing exercises. Breathing stickers are a great analog reminder for a breathing pattern; if they’re sensory stickers, you can trace the pattern with your fingers which may provide an extra source of calm.
Physical activities to calm down
Walk, pace, jump, fidget! Especially for people with hyperactive ADHD traits, excess energy can be damning. Relieve it at every chance you have!
- Schedule regular walks: A walk a day keeps anxiety away. Trust me, I have a dog, and it helps. If you're worried about wasting time on a walk, run simple errands, but focus on moving your body.
- Give yourself a (hand) massage: Massaging your hands can reduce anxiety,4 and it has the added benefit that your hands have something to do.
- Give yourself tasks: Find simple things to do with your hands, like folding a paper airplane, pre-cutting vegetables for dinner, or hanging up laundry. Just remember to get back to the original task when you are done!
Build up your coping skills
Well-developed coping strategies are a must for every ADHD mind that has trouble calming down when stressed. Unfortunately, our (amazing) neurodivergent brains don’t come with pre-installed coping skills. So we need to actively build them up over time by practicing calming techniques regularly.
Mindfulness and meditation techniques
Typical meditation can be really hard for racing minds. But there are other ways to practice mindfulness.
- Make lists: List things you can perceive with your senses, memories that make you happy, or things you have achieved. No to-do lists are allowed here! Set yourself a timer and stay inside the timeframe.
- Speaking of engaging your senses: The 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique provides a great framework for this and doubles as an instant relief tool in your emergency kit.
- Try the R.A.I.N. method for mindfulness.
- Do yoga (or something similar): It’s not about doing yoga for exercise. It’s about moving your body and paying attention to your breath at the same time.
- Take breaks from trying to focus: Lay down and don’t focus. Let your mind wander, try to keep it positive, and give your mind permission to relax.
Cognitive restructuring and reframing techniques
Cognitive restructuring or reframing is a collection of techniques that are supposed to break negative thought patterns that don’t correspond with reality and give a negative impression of the self. Learning cognitive restructuring techniques can have long-lasting effects on fear and general quality of life.5
Disclaimer: These techniques are best learned with the help of a professional therapist.
Thought pattern awareness
Keep track of the patterns that lead you into destructive thought spirals. Often it’s similar situations that lead to distorted and unproductive thought patterns. Identifying these will help to avoid them in the future.
Question your assumptions
Ask yourself these questions when you find yourself in negative thought patterns:
- Are the assumptions my fears are based on correct?
- Is this always true?
- What evidence do I have for this?
- Is there a different way of looking at this?
Keep an eye out for the details
Are there specific circumstances, people, or situations in which negative thoughts come up? Make a note of them! Sometimes you may be able to avoid these situations, but if that isn’t possible, try to prepare for them in advance: Once the moment is over, take a mental step back and reflect on which thoughts came up. Then, follow the “Find alternatives” instructions below.
Find more realistic and productive thoughts you can replace your negative thoughts with.
Here are two examples:
- Your boss criticizes a detail in your work. Your first thought might be: “I can never get anything right. I’m awful at my job.”
🌱 Next time your boss criticizes something, you could tell yourself: “They criticize my work to improve it, not because it’s all awful. They hired me because I’m good at my job."
- You’re late for an appointment. Halfway down the stairs, you notice that you left an important document for it and have to turn back. Your automatic response might be: “Ugh, *#&^$, I’m so useless! How could I forget to pack the most important document for this?”
🌱 An alternative could be: “I forgot to pack them, but luckily I remembered in time for me to turn around and get them.”
Calm down your routine
Yes, I know. Routines and ADHD don’t often go together, but there are ways to establish routines and actually stick to them. Having a consistent routine itself can help with feeling calmer, but incorporating some of the techniques from this article into your daily life will help them become second nature.
Relaxation rituals before bed
Sleep deprivation worsens ADHD symptoms, so having a consistent sleep cycle and not falling into the revenge bedtime procrastination trap every night will help you achieve your goal of a calmer ADHD mind.
- The 10-3-2-1-0 sleep routine: Avoid caffeine 10 hours before bedtime; limit your food intake 3 hours before; stop working 2 hours before; stop staring at screens 1 hour before; and don’t hit snooze in the morning!
- Write down what weighs you down: Many times when I can’t sleep, it’s my worries keeping me awake. It helps me to write them down when I’m already lying in bed.
- Try using the low-dopamine morning routine: This routine is a strategy to help you be more productive during the day and be ready for bed at night.
Calming self-care activities
If you are experiencing deep emotional distress, taking a bubble bath might help, but it just as well might not. Through social media marketing, self-care has been increasingly associated with consuming products or services (á la “treat yourself to…”), but more often than not a restless ADHD brain needs something different to calm down.
To know what you need to calm down, you need to know yourself.
Think back to a moment when you felt relaxed or a time when you managed to quieten down your mind:
- Where were you?
- Were you alone or with someone else?
- What were you doing?
- Could you see, hear, or smell anything specific?
- How did your body feel?
🧘 Take some of these insights to help recreate a sense of calm and learn what kinds of activities help you the most in different situations.
Get off social media
Whether it’s just a break during the day or turning off all your notifications long-term, social media usually is not a place to practice self-care.
Many healthy activities can help you cultivate a sense of calm and provide a feeling of reward. Don’t get overwhelmed thinking it’s got to be a large chunk of time you spend on them. Even small amounts can be beneficial, especially when we’re already feeling stressed.
This could look like:
- 15 minutes of reading time or journaling with your morning coffee
- Sitting in the sunshine during your lunch break
- A 10-minute walk around the block to clear your head after work
- Cooking (or ordering) a healthy, delicious meal for yourself
Surround yourself with calm
A cluttered environment leads to a scattered mind, and a scattered mind… Well, you get the idea.
Calming environment ideas for sensory overload
Our sensual environment greatly affects our ability to focus and calm down. Irritating sensations should be kept to a minimum. Arranging a soothing environment reduces the risk of sensory overload.
- Clean up: My dad used to say that an organized desk organizes your mind. I never believed him… until I did.
- Listen to music (or white noise): Everyone has different music that helps them focus. Some people need absolute silence or white noise in the background to achieve the same goal.
- Engage your sense of smell: Light a scented candle or use a scent diffuser with a relaxing aroma. Lavender, peppermint, and chamomile are classics, but try out what works best for you.
- Wear comfortable clothes: An itchy tag won’t improve your relaxation, nor will a waistband that’s too tight, so wear what you feel most comfortable in (whenever possible).
- Keep a weighted blanket around: Many people find the pressure from weighted blankets calming, like a hug.
Seek social support
Sometimes all that’s needed is a good talk with a friend or a good time to just forget.
- Talk about your problems: Speak to a friend about your problems because “a sorrow shared is a sorrow halved” (multi-lingual proverb).
- Don’t talk about your problems: Forgetting your worries for some time might also be what you need. Spend time with friends, and just forget for a while.
- Build support networks: Sadly, mutual aid and support is not the foundation of most contemporary societies, but it can be within a circle of trusted friends.
“We won’t always handle our emotions perfectly, of course. That’s why one of the most important skills we can practice along the way is self-compassion.” –The Inflow app | Managing Emotions module, day 6
The first step to finding peace is getting to know yourself. Inflow can help! With learning modules on topics like managing emotions, anger management, and even ADHD meditations, Inflow can help you find zen. Get started today!
Why can’t I calm down my ADHD brain?
Having ADHD is like constantly flipping through TV channels, but someone else has the remote or any other of the 21 best ADHD analogies. Above, we basically talked about how to get the remote back; now we are going to explore why somebody else might have the remote in the first place.
Typically, ADHDers of all ages struggle with emotional regulation. Emotions feel more intense and can easily become overwhelming. “Getting a hold of them,” i.e., calming down, can be frustratingly hard.
Racing thoughts and anxiety
Our brains are constantly active; that’s why we are so creative. But that can get in the way. Especially while trying to fall asleep, racing thoughts, rumination, and anxiety become a huge obstacle.
Even in adults, sensory processing issues are a key feature of ADHD. This means that we often get either under or overstimulated from sensory inputs. Sensory hypersensitivity is believed to cause disproportionately strong “fight, flight, or freeze” responses. After such stressful experiences calming down the ADHD mind is difficult.6
Executive functions are a “mental skill set.” They are located in the brain’s frontal lobe (a typically ADHD-affected area) and are, among others, responsible for task management, working memory, attention, and self-control.7 Executive dysfunction is typical for ADHD brains and the reason for many of our daily struggles.
Certain ADHD medications
The stimulant medication often used to treat ADHD, such as Adderall or Ritalin, can worsen anxiety symptoms in some cases and reduce them in others. If your anxiety is aggravated by stimulant medication, it could be helpful to switch to a non-stimulant like atomoxetine (ATX).8 Atomoxetine (e.g., Strattera) has been shown to be more effective in treating anxiety in ADHD children and teenagers compared to stimulant medication containing methylphenidate (like Ritalin or Concerta).9 Non-stimulant medication may be a better choice for some ADHDers, such as pregnant people, people with heart issues, and some children.
Hyperactivity and restlessness
Obviously, hyperactivity is a problem for people with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (thanks, Sherlock). But both parts, the attention deficit and the hyperactivity, can cause restlessness, racing thoughts, and relaxation problems.
Many ADHDers have comorbid conditions, the most common ones being anxiety and depression.8 And way too often, ADHD gets misdiagnosed as either (or both) of them.
Lack of sleep and ADHD worsen each other. A sleep-deprived ADHD brain is even more disorganized and busy than a well-rested one.
Implementing these techniques can be hard at first, but once you start trying them out (and stopping again, of course), they can slowly become an integral part of everyday ADHD-overwhelmed life.
1 Journal of Neurophysiology | Breathing above the brain stem: Volitional control and attentional modulation in humans (2018)
2 Frontiers in Psychology | The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults (2017)
3 Frontiers in Human Neuroscience | How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review on Psycho-Physiological Correlates of Slow Breathing (2018)
4 Pain Management Nursing | Effect of Hand Massage on Pain, Anxiety, and Vital Signs in Patients Before Venipuncture Procedure: A Randomized Controlled Trial (2017)
5 Emotion | Durable Effects of Cognitive Restructuring on Conditioned Fear (2012)
6 Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience | Sensory Over-Responsivity as an Added Dimension in ADHD (2019)
7 Annual Review of Clinical Psychology | Executive Function and Psychopathology: A Neurodevelopmental Perspective (2020)
8 European Psychiatry | Updated European Consensus Statement on diagnosis and treatment of adult ADHD (2019)
9 Pediatrics international: official journal of the Japan Pediatric Society | Anxiety reduction on atomoxetine and methylphenidate medication in children with ADHD (2016)