About 7 years ago, I realized that I have ADD. It took me until I was in my mid 30s to see it, and it stunned me. I remember reading Dr. Gabor Mate’s brilliant and beautiful book on ADD, Scattered, and feeling sore – this deep ache in my heart as I saw my life reflected back to me, as things that hadn’t made sense now made sense. I felt relieved and sad, all at once.
I’d always known about my high sensitivity and understood how this contributed to challenges with food. Seeing the impact of ADD brought even more clarity. I think that ADD, high sensitivity, overarousal, sensory integration, and challenges with regulation are unrecognized challenges that contribute to struggles with sugar and food.
We can easily misunderstand ADD – especially in women – because of our cultural assumptions of what ADD looks like. Many people are surprised when I tell them about my ADD.
ADD is not necessarily about being hyper or outward behavior. In fact, some people with ADD avoid stimulation or sensory stimulation. Much of ADD is internal, and can be hidden from the surface. ADD is about how you’re able to regulate – how you regulate sensations, stimulations and impulses – and how you attend – how you attend to what is important, eliminate what isn’t; how you determine what needs your attention, and what can be discarded.
Soothing an overstimulated nervous system
I missed my ADD for over 30 years for 4 reasons.
- First, I was also able to compensate for my ADD with my intellect, heart, and conscientiousness. We all find ways to compensate for our glitches, and my life was no exception.
- Second, I missed my ADD because most of my ADD is internal, in how I manage my interior life – my thoughts, emotions, and impulses. On the surface, I can appear pretty calm. But inside, I often feel overwhelmed, scattered and unable to attend. My thoughts are very impulsive!
- Third, I missed my ADD because on the surface of my life, I’m pretty organized. Some people with ADD seek out more stimulation; some seek out less. I seek less: I’m often trying to minimize mental stimulation. So this means I’m pretty organized, minimize clutter, and veer towards simplicity because these things help me feel less overwhelmed. (I somehow missed this notion completely when my husband and I decided to have a large family!)
- And I missed my ADD because I want less sensory stimulation. I feel soothed by minimizing sensation, not maximizing it.
Many of my habits are unconscious attempts to soothe. When I sleep, I sleep surrounded by my beloved and pillows, what puts my nervous system to rest. I love to pet my animals, practice yoga, make love with my husband, dance to music, rock in a rocking chair, swing gently on a swing, float in water, put on noise canceling headphones, listen to peaceful music, to walk in the dark (this is bliss for me.) All these things calm my nervous system, move energy and minimize the overwhelm of too much sensation.
(After watching a movie about Temple Grandin, a highly sensitive and autistic woman who pioneered changes in how we care for livestock, my husband said he was going to make me a squeeze machine like the one Temple creates for herself to soothe her nervous system. Can you relate?)
And of course, for much of my life, food and sugar were primary ways I’d put my nervous system to rest.
How many of your daily habits – especially ones with food – are attempts to soothe your nervous system?
Where I do see my drive for stimulation is my intellect – I am always learning, eagerly learning and seeking. I also can seek stimulation in escapist activities like reading. What reading and learning do for me is the same thing that soothing activities do: they calm and soothe my overactive mind, body and emotions.
The river and the riverbanks
I love to flow with life – to meander, to ride the waves, to ride where they carry me. I love to be the river, to be carried along. But where I struggle – and where my ADD rears its head – is with erecting the riverbanks – the day to day practicalities of shaping and flowing that river. Getting anywhere on time is a challenge for me. Systems and structures are like rocket science. They can literally bring me to tears.
I can get carried away in something – like writing – and forget that the rice is cooking on the stove – until I smell it burning! (Using timers transformed my kitchen life.)
I wonder if many artists, inventors and entrepreneurs over the ages are brilliant at flowing – perhaps it’s how they’re able to tap into something beyond themselves, to eros, to life, to inspiration, and then to bring that idea into reality, into form. Perhaps that’s why the systems and structures are not their forte, and why we have this caricature of the nutty professor.
Where challenges with food and ADD intersect
This challenge with impulse control, attending, and structures is one of the reasons why people struggle to heal their relationship with sugar. They have the desire and the yearning – but the day to day implementation can feel beyond them. When they’re hungry, they may feel overwhelmed, unable to know which cues and impulses to attend to – brownies! donuts! ice cream! – and which to discard.
They may feel lost without a super structured eating program. This is the reason why I think many people struggle with an intuitive eating approach. In their hearts, intuitive eating – to honor their inner wisdom about what or how to eat – feels right. But without a riverbank – any structure – their eating life feels all over the place, like a flood.
Learning that they can have an intuitive relationship with food and structure – a riverbank – that it doesn’t have to be either/or – brings such relief to their hearts, because it’s what they need, and what they know they need.
If this describes you, I hope this idea brings healing to your heart: that intuition and structure can coexist.
Creating a compassionate relationship with ADD
After learning about my ADD, I struggled. I grieved. I felt relief about why I struggled with my struggles, but often angry for having them in the first place. I wished I were different. I wished my early childhood experiences were different. I wished my genetic legacy was different. I wished my sensitivity was different.
Over time, I realized that I needed to find a way to compassionately relate to my sensitivity and ADD: to not label it wrong, fight against it, or look at is as a character or developmental flaw, but to embrace and accept it.
Part of this was recognizing that while ADD and sensitivity can bring challenge, they also bring beautiful gifts. In my own life, it’s where my heart and tenderness and writing comes from, because I’m able to take disparate ideas and weave them together and find the common threads.
Creating the riverbanks
And part of this compassionate relating is learning how to care for my ADD instead of railing against it. If I were to go outside right now and see that it was raining, rather than arguing with the weather, I would simply grab an umbrella. Similarly, if I look at my ADD from a neutral stance, I don’t get so caught in shame or frustration. I just grab the umbrella that I’m needing. You can look at “grabbing an umbrella” as creating your riverbanks – how to contain the flow of the river.
For me, the riverbanks look like this:
- Structures and supports that honor how I learn and function. I do best when being led, when someone shows me versus learning from a book, and when in a group.
- Modeling and borrowing the structures that work for others – using their examples as a form I can borrow.
- Letting others help me – particularly people who excel at systems and structures.
- Healing my resistance to needing to have a riverbank in the first place (This teaching is something I share in almost all my live classes.)
- Structures for my habits. In order to keep up good habits, I need structured support, a system, and someone leading me. That’s why I can exercise regularly when I go to yoga class, where someone is leading me, but when I try to practice yoga at home on my own, I flounder. Eventually, my yoga practice dribbles to nothing.
So I if recognize this about myself, I can structure my life accordingly. For example, I pay for a yoga studio membership – even though it’s a significant expense – because it’s the best way to support my intention to move my body. I know that without it, exercise falls by the way side.
Another example? I take classes with a group when I’m learning something. Trying to do it at home on my own doesn’t work. For example, I have two beautiful DVD sets from one of my mentors that have been sitting at home, unwatched, for several years. But when I signed up for a group class, I was able to complete an intense 20 week intensive – all because I was led and the structure was laid out for me.
How do you care for sensitivity or ADD?
Do you struggle with ADD? I think many, many people who struggle with sugar and food have challenges with sensory stimulation, ADD, or sensory integration. I think it’s a hidden factor that we often overlook. It’s a reason both why we can turn to food for comfort and why we can struggle in healing this pattern. What a relief to see what may be under the surface!
If you struggle with ADD or sensory overwhelm, I invite you to ask your heart: what are the riverbanks or supports that you’re needing in your life? How do you care for your sensitivity? I’d love to hear about your riverbanks, challenges and caring in the comments below.
And if one of those riverbanks is structured support with sugar, you may enjoy my audio course, Emerge: Create a New Habit. I created this course so you can rest in the river – so that you can be carried by the structure rather than feeling stressed or overwhelmed trying to implement it on your own. It offers a balance between a river – flowing – and the riverbanks – the structures that contain it. This is also a helpful page that offers an overview of healing a sugar addiction.
To learn more about ADD, I invite you to explore Dr. Gabor Mate’s book on ADD, Scattered and the work of Dr. Gordon Neufeld, Dr. Gabor Mate’s peer in understanding the developmental roots of ADD. Start with Dr. Neufeld’s DVD program, Making Sense of Attention Problems. It will open the door to an understanding that you probably haven’t heard before, and one that has hope and possibility in it.
Fire Child, Water Child by Dr. Peter Cowan is a book on helping children with ADD that I found insightful and helpful, drawing from Chinese medicine. However, its principles can also be applied to adults.
You may also want to explore attachment theory and the work of Dr. Dan Siegel as both explain how early relationships and our childhood environment shape our brain development – factors that contribute both to food addiction, struggles with food, and ADD. Dr. Neufeld’s work is also steeped in attachment theory and this understanding.