Helping Adults with ADHD Cultivate Conscious Enjoyment

Aisling Leonard-Curtin

14 March, 2024

Enjoyment needs to be taken more seriously – especially when it comes to supporting adult therapy clients with ADHD. To mark Neurodiversity Celebration Week 2024, ACT trainer and Senior Psychologist for ADHD Ireland Aisling Leonard-Curtin describes a common vicious cycle with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and suggests some exploratory questions that avoid problematising an individual’s need for stimulation and instead encourage a new and nourishing relationship with enjoyment.

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In the spirit of this blog post, I took a break half way through writing it and headed to the beach with my wife to take our puppy for a walk. Contrary to popular belief, the need for enjoyment is not something that we grow out of. We all need to connect with activities, people and places that bring enjoyment – perhaps even more so with the seemingly endless to-do lists and mounting responsibilities that can drain our energy tanks.

This is true of all adults. However, those of us who have ADHD have higher needs for stimulation and enjoyment.

Many of the ADHDers that I work with, including as Clinical Lead on the Understanding and Managing Adult ADHD Programme (UMAAP), can get caught up in a vicious cycle. We can overdo enjoyment to the point where it has a detrimental impact on other valued areas of life such as work or family, sometimes leading to exhaustion and burnout. And then, in turn, we can end up neglecting enjoyment altogether until everything on the to-do list is completed.

We run into challenges when we either overdo or underdo enjoyment. Making space for enjoyment in a conscious, deliberate and sustainable way does not come naturally to our ADHD brains and nervous systems.

What many of us don’t realise is that, when we neglect enjoyment, we are far more likely to seek it out unconsciously, engaging in actions that bring us further away from our values. We might do this through overworking, overindulging in sugary and stodgy foods, becoming dependent on alcohol and/or cannabis, or staying up so late streaming stuff on TV that we get insufficient sleep. We know, for instance, that there are higher rates of addiction and gambling in adult ADHDers.

Unfortunately, these are all activities that can exacerbate our unfavourable ADHD-related executive functioning differences, such as increased emotional dysregulation, impulsivity, and experiencing more challenges around our working memory and capacity to organise and focus. And at the same time, these activities can make it harder for us to access our more favourable ADHD-related executive functioning differences – those related to creativity and compassion. 

So how can we help our clients (or ourselves) come into a relationship with enjoyment that is more conscious, more deliberate, and more aligned with our values?

I would recommend exploring the following questions, which are informed by the Brown Model of Executive Function Impairments in ADHD (although, as a neuroaffirmative practitioner, I use the terminology of ‘executive functioning differences’ rather than impairments). This maps executive functioning across six domains. Not all ADHDers experience difference across all six areas, so the focus may be slightly different with each client:

  1. Does engaging in enjoyable activities have an impact on your executive functioning (organisation, focus, working memory, energy, emotion regulation and impulsivity)? 
  2. Does neglecting enjoyment have an impact on your executive functioning?
  3. What are enjoyable activities that support you to feel optimally stimulated and also bring you closer towards the kind of person that you want to be? E.g. yoga, walks in nature, listening to music, cold water exposure.
  4. What are enjoyable activities that lead to you feeling overstimulated and also bring you further away from the kind of person that you want to be? E.g. having a late night at a pub or club, overdoing it with alcohol or other mood-altering substances, staying up really late streaming shows?
  5. Is there something enjoyable that you’ve wanted to do for a really long time or an enjoyable activity that you’ve neglected that you’d be open to exploring again?

When it comes to enjoyment and ADHD, the bottom line to remember is that ADHD brains generally seek and need higher levels of enjoyment than non-ADHD brains. If we do not consciously seek out enjoyment and stimulation in ways that are aligned with our values and support our health and wellbeing, we will unfortunately seek it in ways that bring us further away from our values and may be detrimental.

So rather than pathologising or even demonising this completely natural and understandable need, let’s make time in therapy (and take time for ourselves) to find the kind of enjoyment that nurtures and nourishes us – not only in the moment, but in the longterm.

Aisling Leonard-Curtin
Aisling Leonard-Curtin is a multi-neurodivergent (dyspraxic dysgraphic ADHDer) Chartered Counselling Psychologist with the Psychological Society of Ireland, peer-reviewed Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) trainer, bestselling co-author of The Power of Small, and co-editor of Mindfulness and Acceptance for Gender and Sexual Minorities. She is also the Senior Psychologist for ADHD Ireland and Clinical Lead on the Understanding and Managing Adult ADHD Programme (UMAAP), which has helped over 1200 Adult ADHDers improve their levels of psychological flexibility, compassion, understanding of ADHD and quality of life.  Aisling lives with her wife Trish, their Samoyed puppy Everest and four Maine Coons Leia, Luna, Hazel and Willow in rural county Wexford. In March 2024 Aisling and Trish will be leading a seven-session course on Navigating Neurodivergent Relationships Compassionately and Effectively. Since her late identification as an ADHDer in her 30s, Aisling’s key aim is to help as many neurodivergent people as possible to better understand and support themselves. 

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