Adults with ADHD have unique and specific challenges in their day-to-day lives. Often, an individual with ADHD will say they know precisely what to do in a situation, yet they still struggle to complete the steps - be it due to poor planning, forgetfulness, or because the task is just dull. And as common as these types of challenges are, they can rarely be solved with medication. Tackling such challenges requires a more hands-on approach, like talk therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can become an excellent tool in one’s arsenal, whether or not they’re on ADHD medication.
What is CBT?
Briefly, CBT is a goal-driven form of psychotherapy that gives adults with ADHD the mental tools they need to succeed and feel more at ease in day-to-day life.
Throughout life, one accumulates a set of specific patterns of thinking that influences their actions and emotions. And not all such patterns are wholesome and helpful; some can be quite malignant. CBT gives a person the tools to recognize their negative thought patterns and replace them with more helpful ones.
Moreover, CBT recognizes that many negative thoughts are irrational or distorted. For example, one might feel devastated after a successful work presentation, thinking, “One person didn’t listen to the presentation, so it means that everyone hated it.” Such irrational beliefs, called cognitive distortions in CBT, vary from person to person.
The underlying framework of CBT is as follows, although the individual steps a therapist takes may differ on a case-by-case basis. During the first CBT sessions, a therapist will typically identify a client’s cognitive distortions. Over time, the client will gain an understanding of how distortions affect their emotional health and day-to-day life. And finally, they will learn to build healthier thinking patterns.
The Benefits of CBT for adults with ADHD
Overall, CBT is a widely-accepted and effective treatment for ADHD. There are many reasons for an adult with ADHD to sign up for a CBT program. Outlined below are some of the primary considerations:
1. There are specialized CBT programs for ADHD
There are several CBT courses developed specifically for adults with ADHD. These can be held individually or in groups, in person – or online. Some courses target time management and organization issues, and others focus on impulse control and emotion management.
2. CBT builds coping methods that work
Ineffective coping strategies can be limiting, e.g., having ten clocks in every room may help you be more mindful of time, but it won’t prepare you for life outside of the home. CBT intends to establish coping methods you can apply in many life scenarios.
3. CBT complements medication
CBT is the perfect companion to medication. “Whereas medication helps to control the core symptoms of distractibility, short attention span, and impulsivity, CBT is more effective at increasing the habits and skills needed for executive self-management,” states the official CHADD* website. A review study supports this claim, suggesting that a combination of CBT and medication is more effective than ADHD drugs alone at reducing symptoms.
4. CBT programs improve emotional regulation
Addressing lifelong challenges can lead to a slew of negative thoughts and emotions. Furthermore, studies suggest that individuals with ADHD may also struggle with emotional regulation and develop anxiety and depression. CBT can improve one’s ability to control emotions.
5. CBT has no adverse side effects
CBT is entirely safe for people of all ages. A large meta-analysis of 14 studies of over 700 participants supports the claim. “None of the studies reported severe adverse events, but five people reported some type of adverse event such as distress and anxiety,” NIHR** described the results of the study.
When Will I See Progress?
Unlike many other types of therapy, CBT is generally a short program. The ADHD review quoted above lists a treatment duration of 8 to 15 weeks. The client meets with the psychotherapist for one hour every week. Patients generally report a beneficial effect after 12-15 meetings, but many choose to continue the treatment for a bit longer to reinforce the newly-developed habits.
Most importantly, CBT meetings can be conducted digitally without compromising the effectiveness or the duration of the program. In some areas, finding a qualified CBT therapist or coach may be challenging. Meeting with a CBT coach online offers the flexibility that may be the defining factor for many individuals with ADHD.
*Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD)
**National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR)
Lopez PL, Torrente FM, Ciapponi A, et al. Cognitive-behavioural interventions for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in adults. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2018;3:CD010840.