We’re sure you’ve heard it before – you’ve been diagnosed with a medical condition, and the only solution is chemical relief. For many of us, we’d like to avoid prescription drugs at all costs. Unfortunately, in some cases, we’re told it’s the only option to cure our ailment. While it may be the best option in some cases, it’s important to explore all avenues before jumping in and putting chemicals in your body. 

One such condition, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), is commonly treated with potentially dangerous and addictive stimulant drugs. Although they have therapeutic benefits and can drastically change a person’s life who is struggling with the disorder, developing a chemical dependency or substance use disorder (SUD) will only make matters worse. Even if you follow your doctor’s instructions and take the minimum dose, your body can still develop a tolerance and become addicted. 

As treatment for addiction and mental health disorders has improved due to scientific advances, using drugs to combat symptoms doesn’t need to be the first option anymore. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which was developed in the 1960s by a psychiatrist named Aaron T. Beck, has become an extremely useful means of treating various disorders. With that said, how does cognitive behavioral therapy help a person with ADHD?

Well, first, it’s important to note the prevalence of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in the United States. It’s an extremely common condition that first appears in childhood. In some cases, the child will be labeled as a problem child or one who doesn’t pay attention. However, it’s not their fault because they haven’t been diagnosed or treated. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 6.1 million children have ADHD. 

The figure listed above includes 388,000 children between the ages of two and five, 2.4 million children aged six through 11, and 3.3 million children between 12 and 17. These are just the children that have received a diagnosis, and the numbers could be much higher than reported. The report also notes that boys are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than girls at a rate of 12.9 percent to 5.6 percent. Research suggests that ADHD affects more girls than traditionally reported. ADHD is often missed in girls because they exhibit symptoms much different than boys, leading to a general bias in the diagnostic process.

While the methods of treating ADHD continue to improve, doctors have found that cognitive behavioral therapy is an excellent means of treating the disorder. Let’s take a more in-depth look below and see if it’s right for your child.

What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)?

As was mentioned above, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder is commonly misdiagnosed, especially in women. Growing up without help or understanding why you are or how you are can lead to mishaps and mistakes that lead to low self-esteem and negative thoughts about yourself. Fortunately, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a short-term, goal-oriented form of psychotherapy geared toward changing these negative patterns of thought and how you feel about yourself. The website ADDitude refers to it as brain training for ADHD

Cognitive behavioral therapy was initially developed to treat mood disorders. The treatment is based on cognitive restructuring or the recognition that cognitions lead to emotional challenges. Thoughts you have automatically are interpretations of the events, and these impressions can easily be distorted. It can lead to unfounded assumptions about you or someone else, a situation, or the future. Unhealthy internal dialogues like this can hinder your ability to work toward a goal, develop new productive habits, or take any kind of risk.  

The objective of cognitive behavioral therapy is to change irrational thought patterns which prevent you from staying on task and getting stuff done. A person with ADHD might think something has to be perfect, or it’s not good, or that they never do anything right. CBT works to challenge the truth of these cognitions. Altering these distorted thoughts will change their behavioral patterns, which effectively treats emotional problems like anxiety. 

Can CBT Help Individuals With ADHD?

cbt adhd

ADHD affects some people worse than others. It’s a chronic condition that has a persistent delay of self-regulation skills, including executive functioning skills. A delay in executive functioning skills leads to disorganization, procrastination, emotional dysregulation, poor time management, inconsistent motivation, and impulsivity. Despite these issues not being included in the diagnostic criteria for the disorder, it’s common for adults with ADHD to experience them, leading to challenges in regulating their behaviors and emotions. 

Those who grew up with ADHD, especially when it’s gone undiagnosed, will endure more frequent and frustrating setbacks in their lives regarding social interaction, work, and routine organization. Due to these setbacks, adults with the disorder are more self-critical and pessimistic, which causes them to develop cognitive distortions, negative emotions, and unhealthy self-beliefs. It’s also common for a person with ADHD to think something is their fault when a situation doesn’t turn out well. In most cases, it’s not their fault, but their pessimism leads them to feel this way. They also believe tomorrow will go bad as well. 

These demoralizing thoughts and beliefs will keep them from doing what they love because they can’t accept logic. Cognitive behavioral therapy reveals these thought processes are distorted in specific characteristic ways, including:

    • All-or-nothing thinking: You view things as either good or bad. If you can’t achieve perfection, you’ve failed.
  • Overgeneralization: If you forget to pay your bill once, you believe that you always forget to pay the bills.
  • Fortune telling: You believe everything is going to turn out poorly.
  • Mind reading: You think you know what people think about you – and it’s bad.
  • Magnification and minimization: You exaggerate minor problems and trivialize your accomplishments.
  • “Should” statements: You focus on how something should be, causing self-criticism or resentment. 

These are some examples – but learning to recognize these distorted thoughts allows you to replace them with a more realistic way of thinking. When you understand how you think, it’s an effective start to make permanent and lasting changes in your life. When you change these thoughts, it’ll lead to behavioral changes. When you broaden your view of something, it allows you to expand the ways you deal with it, which is what CBT aims to change. 

There is a lot of research that’s studied the impact of CBT on ADHD in adults. It’s focused on individual and group formats. Most of these studies have been released in the past decade, and it supports the assertion that CBT helps adults address their challenges caused by ADHD. A neuroimaging study of adults with the disorder after completing a 12-session CBT course showed dramatic improvements in ADHD symptom ratings and beneficial changes in the brain regions monitored in studies that implement medications.

How Does CBT Improve ADHD in Adults?

Cognitive behavioral therapy helps people manage everyday challenges. It interventions to improve common life struggles, including time management, procrastination, and other common challenges we all face, but are more difficult for those with ADHD. CBT does not treat the core symptoms of hyperactivity, inattention, and impulsivity. 

A CBT session will focus on identifying situations where disorganization, poor planning, and poor time and task management lead to challenges in the individual’s life. These sessions are geared toward helping the person deal with obligations we may not even think about, such as completing work on time, paying bills, and encouraging things like exercise, sleep, and hobbies. Most adults with ADHD admit they know what needs to be done; they just can’t do it, so CBT focuses on adopting coping strategies, unwinding behavioral patterns that interfere with the strategies, and managing negative expectations and emotions. 

The goal and session agendas of cognitive behavioral therapy focus on challenges and scenarios the individual encounters regularly or what they expect to encounter. The therapist will use reminders like follow-up check-ins and other means of applying these coping skills, so they’re used outside of the consulting office. The way an individual with ADHD functions in their daily life is the best measure of whether or not the therapy is effective. 

If you’ve been diagnosed with ADHD and you’re seeking alternative options that don’t require medication, CBT might help. While prescription stimulants have been known to help, they won’t have the same lasting effects therapy will have in your life. Reach out to your doctor today to see if CBT is right for you.

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