Balancing Self-Care & Self-Discipline With ADHD

Living with ADHD means additional daily challenges that take a toll on your mental, physical and emotional health. Although practicing self-care can help reduce stress and improve symptoms of ADHD — it can be extremely difficult to implement and maintain for a neurodivergent mind. 

People with ADHD often spend the majority of their time in the planning and research phase of self-care, which can lead to ADHD paralysis, or feeling stuck. As a result, it’s common to carry heavy feelings of shame and guilt which tend to make it even harder to engage in the self-care you need and deserve. 

In this article, we’ll cover what effective self-care for ADHD looks like and some expert-vetted hacks you can implement to keep you unstuck. Take what resonates with you and bookmark the article so you can revisit it again! 

Published: February 26, 2024

Table of contents

    What is self-care?

    Self-care refers to the actions and habits you adopt that help maintain and improve your quality of life. Not all acts of self-care are necessarily equal. For instance, if you don’t meet your basic needs for water and food, you might not get the results you desire from your 30-day yoga challenge. 

    It’s not just you, it’s your brain

    One of the most common issues people with ADHD face is the struggle to stick with routines. This struggle isn’t due to any character flaw. In fact, people with ADHD have differences in brain areas such as the basal ganglia that are key in routine and planning. These brain differences mean that you need to develop a unique and individualized approach to your self-care plan and give yourself ample room for trial and error when trying out any new routines. 

    Wait, so, no negative self-talk if I “fail”? That’s right! Your brain has differences which are unique to ADHD and unique to you. By attempting to collaborate with your own mind rather than ordering it into action, you give yourself the freedom and space to explore different paths to self-care. 

    Working with the ADHD brain to build self-care routines

    A collaborative approach to self-care routines with ADHD means identifying your roadblocks and strengths. Here are some expert tips for building a self-care routine especially for the neurodivergent mind:

    • Pretend you’re a video game character: This one may sound funny, but it works. Instead of overcomplicating your path to longevity and success, take a step back and imagine there’s a video game controller in your hand. You are playing a game and the main character is you. Your aim is to help your character stay healthy and even thrive. Where do you start? Sitting your character on their bed to do 5 hours of research into biohacking? Probably not. You’d likely start with some nutrition, water, a walk in the park — the simple stuff. This video game approach helps you organize logical steps of self-care and focus on the essential things. Plus, it’s easier to think about the outcome of a videogame character than it is your actual self in this busy complicated world.  

      • As a quick tip, whenever you feel stuck, ask yourself “If I was a video game character, what move should be made next?”

    • Double your dopamine: Due to differences in dopamine regulation, people with ADHD are on a forever hunt for a little reward boost. Engaging in activities that have long-term good consequences but are deprived of instant gratification can feel impossible, exhausting, AWFUL! You can combat this by doubling the dopamine. If you are doing an activity that has long-term dopamine (i.e. brushing your teeth), try combining it with an activity that has instant dopamine (watching Tik Tok videos). Some other commonly used combos may include:

      • Exercise + arts and crafts

      • Folding laundry + music

      • Bathing/showering + Delicious gourmet bath products

      • Taking supplements + sticker chart 

      • Writing in a journal + permission to be unhinged 

      • Meditation + post-meditation treat

    • Separate planning from doing: Executive dysfunction makes it more likely for people with ADHD to get stuck in the planning phase of things. This stage often includes research, lists, shopping, and general rabbit holes. The problem is that when all of the energy goes into planning, you may often feel stuck and overwhelmed. It’s strategic and often quite advantageous to separate planning from doing. You may separate them by a few hours or even a day or two. This separation takes some of the pressure off and makes it more fun to dive into the list of things “planning you” left for “action you.”

    • Find your pressure: Pressure can help create action when it’s given in the right doses. Some common types of pressure include hard deadlines, scheduled appointments, fees, and accountability buddies (also known as body doubling). If you sink some sort of cost into the activity, whether emotional or monetary, you’ll feel more pressure to get it done!

    • Pick your default JUST DO SOMETHING plan: Sometimes we just feel stuck. No matter how good your intentions are, you end up melted to the couch or bed and you just cannot move. This is the perfect time to implement your emergency JUST DO SOMETHING (JDS) plan. When making a JDS plan, be VERY specific so you don’t give your mind time to overcomplicate things and leave you stuck. Here are some great JDS plans you can adopt as your default get unstuck strategies:

      • Take a shower: It’s a great way to reset momentum and if nothing else, you come out cleaner. 

      • Take a walk: Walks are really good for readjusting moods and giving yourself time to process your thoughts and feelings.

      • Call a person: Whether it’s a parent, old friend, or a current buddy, making a call is a great way to snap out of the funk. 

    • Make it easy for yourself: Removing as many obstacles as possible from whatever it is you’re trying to do is an excellent strategy. Self-care can be complicated, but sometimes you gotta give yourself permission to take the easier route just to keep things going. 

    Some “make it easier” tips include:

    • Easy meals: It’s ok to grab a protein shake or PB&J for a meal, just try and get some nutrition. 

    • Hire help: If possible, get some extra help with things like cleaning, grooming, organizing, and fitness. Self-care is easier to implement when you have people helping you out. 

    • Scale down the goal: Don’t aim for perfection, instead just focus on the major issues. For instance, if your sleep is not great, cut out your phone 30 mins before bed to start and if that’s too hard, go to 15 and so on. 

    • Make it visible: If there’s a self-care task you regularly procrastinate on, make it easier by organizing your space around it. For instance, if drinking water is tough, leave out your giant water bottle and water flavoring where it’s glaringly obvious on the counter. If showering is tough, make sure your fun shower supplies are visible to help entice yourself. 

    Discipline vs indulgence

    Knowing the difference between positive self-care and indulgence all comes down to discipline. What you define as self-care may indeed include lounging, buying treats, and engaging in behaviors that keep you further from your immediate goals. And that’s ok! Self-care can feel like a tiny detour which may or may not create some inner turmoil. The important thing is to remain honest with yourself about whether the behavior in fact recharges you and nourishes your body, mind, and/or soul. 

    You can try asking yourself:

    • What do I gain from engaging in this action? What do I lose?

    • Will I feel better after I’ve done this? 

    • How does this action recharge me?

    • Would this improve my video game character’s long-term performance?

    This can help you decide between binging on an entire chocolate cake and taking a soothing bath as self-care activities. 

    Be nice to yourself

    The final tip is to be kind to yourself. Life is more about the law of averages than making sure each day is perfect. Give yourself grace and compassion as you try to implement healthier strategies and remind yourself that the overall goal is self-love and self-care. If positive self-talk doesn’t feel natural, try repeating a mantra like:

    • I am doing my best with the tools I have

    • No time is wasted if I am growing and learning

    • I deserve kindness 

    Can ADHD treatment help?

    People with ADHD are used to being told that working harder and being more organized will fix their problems. But, the reality of ADHD is that its symptoms challenge your ability to make choices that serve your long-term benefit. Important self-care tasks that come easily to neurotypical people can forever feel a bit daunting for someone with ADHD.

    ADHD treatment — which can include, but does not always include, medication — is proven to be effective at reducing symptoms of ADHD, improving feelings of self-worth, and making it easier to make decisions and take actions in your benefit.

    Finding effective treatment for ADHD can be difficult, time-consuming, and expensive — which is why we created Frida. Frida provides virtual ADHD diagnostic and treatment services to thousands of Canadians, with significantly lower wait times and costs compared to other options in the Canadian healthcare system.

    If you're wondering if you have ADHD, or know you have ADHD and are interested in fast and effective treatment, take Frida's 2-minute ADHD symptoms survey to learn more about how Frida can help.

    Lisa Batten, PhD, CPT, PN1

    Lisa Batten is a clinical scientist, therapist, and writer specializing in neuroscience and clinical pharmacology. She has a master’s degree in clinical psychology and a Ph.D. in developmental psychology.