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There are many ways to treat ADHD without medication — or in addition to medication. Learn about a wide range of ADHD treatments, from therapy to free apps and tools. 

Host Dr. Roberto Olivardia also talks about social and workplace supports. Listen as he answers common questions, like whether diet or supplements can help with ADHD.

  • Can ADHD be treated without medication? [00:51] 

  • What is cognitive behavior therapy? [01:54] 

  • What are some common coping mechanisms for treating ADHD? [04:19] 

  • How can social supports help with ADHD? [05:53] 

  • How can assistive technology help with ADHD? [07:53] 

  • Should I change my diet or take supplements to help with ADHD? [08:43] 

  • What about workplace accommodations for ADHD? [09:41] 

  • Key takeaways, next episode, and credits [10:31] 

Related resources

Episode transcript

You’re listening to Season 2 of Understood Explains: ADHD Diagnosis in Adults.

Today’s episode answers the question “How can I treat ADHD without medication?”

My name is Dr. Roberto Olivardia, and I’m a clinical psychologist with more than 20 years of experience evaluating people for things like ADHD. I’m also one of the millions of people who have been diagnosed with ADHD as an adult. I’ll be your host.

My goal here is to answer the most common questions about ADHD diagnosis. Along the way, you’ll learn a lot about ADHD in general. 

We’re going to do this quickly — in the next 10 or so minutes. So, let’s get to it.

Can ADHD be treated without medication? [00:51] 

The answer to this first question is…ABSOLUTELY! While it’s true that many people benefit from ADHD meds, it’s very common for people to learn to manage their symptoms without medication. 

It’s also not unusual for someone newly diagnosed with ADHD to start out taking medication and eventually stop using it once they’ve got other helpful supports in place.

There’s an incredible range of non-medication supports, and this includes everything from working with a therapist to setting calendar reminders on your phone. 

But for today’s episode, I’m going to group non-medication supports into four big categories:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT

  • Coping mechanisms

  • Social supports, and

  • Assistive technology

Now, these are all pretty fancy-sounding terms for what are actually fairly simple ideas. I’m going to spend the next few minutes telling you a bit about each one and how they can help you thrive — with or without ADHD medication.

What is cognitive behavioral therapy? [01:54]

CBT’s a common form of talk therapy:

  • It gets you to look at your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

  • It shows you how to replace negative thoughts with more realistic, positive ones.

  • And it helps you change behaviors that are causing problems in everyday life.

As a psychologist, I spend a lot of time doing CBT.

Here’s a recent example: One of my patients, who is a college student, said to me, “There is no way I can write a 40-page thesis, so why try?” 

He was doing what psychologists call catastrophizing. This is a common kind of thinking trap — or cognitive distortion — where people assume the worst will happen. 

Unfortunately, this kind of thinking is especially common among folks like me who have ADHD.

But the good news is that CBT can help us catch ourselves having these kinds of distorted thoughts and reframe the way we’re thinking or responding.

So in the case of this college student, I helped him stop and think about the accuracy of what he was saying. Instead of “There’s no way I can write this super-long paper,” he realized what he was actually thinking was “I am overwhelmed at the thought of writing this paper,” which is totally valid. 

Reframing his thinking helped him start taking steps to get parts of the project done, like outlining the paper, scheduling time to write each section, getting support from his professor. And you know what? He ended up writing a great 40-page paper!

I use CBT all the time to help my patients. I also use it to help myself. In fact, this past weekend I ran a 5K, my first since the pandemic started. 

I was a bit out of practice, and right around the first mile-marker, I was having a lot of negative, unhelpful thoughts, like “You used to run 5K’s with ease. You ran a half-marathon. But now you’re totally sucking wind and you’re barely a full mile in.” Not helpful. 

But I noticed those thoughts and replaced them with more positive ones, like “I’ve done this before and I can do it again. I’m grateful that I’m healthy enough to even try to run a 5K.” 

So these are just a couple examples of how CBT can be such an incredibly powerful tool for treating ADHD — because it helps reframe thinking in ways that can positively impact our behavior. 

And, just so you know, I did indeed finish that 5K last weekend. I was a hot, sweaty mess, but I was a hot, sweaty mess who made it to the finish line!

What are some common coping mechanisms for treating ADHD? [04:18] 

There are so many strategies or mechanisms that can help you cope with ADHD. It’s really a matter of finding the ones that work best for you. 

  • Many people find that exercising daily helps “burn off” the excess energy that often comes with ADHD.

  • Making to-do lists is another common coping mechanism, although you have to watch out and make sure your list doesn’t get too long. Using color-coding can also help you prioritize what’s on the list.

  • And when you’re working on something, it’s often helpful to take short breaks every hour or so. Even if it’s just a minute or two of breathing exercises, that can help clear your mind so you can focus on whatever needs to get done.

The key is to develop coping strategies that are healthy and effective. 

For example, you may think that drinking a few beers every night helps you relax so you can fall asleep. But the alcohol may be affecting the quality of your sleep in ways that make you feel even more tired the next day. And drinking too much can be harmful to your health in other ways too.

A more effective strategy to help you unwind at night might be to avoid caffeine late in the day, do some light stretching before bed, and then maybe listen to a boring podcast — although hopefully not this one. 😄

  • When it comes to developing coping strategies, I always tell my patients: As long as it doesn’t hurt you or anyone else, go with it. 

  • Also, keep track of the strategies you’re trying. Sometimes it can take multiple tries before something sticks — or before you decide you need to move on to a different strategy.

How can social supports help with ADHD? [05:53] 

Social supports can come in many different forms. 

  • At home, it can be telling your spouse or roommate how ADHD affects your brain — not as an excuse, but to help them understand what’s challenging for you. 

  • At work, a social support might be asking a co-worker for help getting started on a new or confusing task.

My social skills have always been a big asset for me, especially when I was growing up with undiagnosed ADHD. Connecting to other people was a powerful source of stimulation for me. Building relationships with my classmates and teachers helped me be more present, which helped me pay attention. 

But after I was diagnosed with ADHD, and I understood some of my behaviors better, I was able to explain to family and friends why I struggled with certain things — like procrastinating in school or hyperfocusing on things I like.

I wasn’t using ADHD to make excuses. I was enlisting the support of others to help me figure out what I needed to succeed. 

One big point I want to emphasize here is that leaning on social supports doesn’t mean you have to tell everyone you have ADHD. It just means you’re reaching out, engaging with the world, and asking for help if needed — instead of isolating yourself and letting your problems snowball. 

When it comes to social supports, I often tell my patients two things…

First, there is no shame in having ADHD. Never let shame keep you from asking for what you need and using any supports that are available to you.

Second, don’t apologize for having ADHD. There are a lot of myths and misconceptions out there, so you may need to educate people when you’re enlisting their support. 

  • No, ADHD isn’t about being lazy or unmotivated. 

  • No, it’s not something kids grow out of as they get older.

  • And if you want help debunking these and other common ADHD myths, check out the Understood.org resources we link to in the show notes for this episode.

How can assistive technology help with ADHD? [07:52] 

There are lots and lots of apps and other tools that can help people with ADHD get organized. Some of this technology may come built into your phone. For example:

  • Use a timer to help you focus on a task for a set time period like, say, 30 minutes, and then take a one- or two-minute break. 

  • Set up auto-pay for expenses you know you have the funds to cover every month.

  • Use a “brown noise” app or a “pink noise” app to help you concentrate. These apps play sounds that can drown out distractions and keep you focused.

Once you have the right technology supports in place, they can be super helpful. But be patient and keep reminding yourself that technology gets easier once you learn how to use it. 

Should I change my diet or take supplements to help with ADHD? [08:43]

There are definitely some changes you can make to your diet to help with ADHD, like avoiding caffeine late in the day so you don’t make it harder to wind down at night. 

There’s also some pretty good research that suggests consuming more omega-3’s — like the kind found in salmon and sardines — can also help manage some ADHD symptoms. 

But there’s not as much research to support taking supplements like zinc or ginkgo biloba or St. John’s wort. 

The big cautionary note here is to talk with your doctor before you start taking any supplements. I’m urging this for two reasons:

  • First, because supplements could affect any prescription medications you might be taking.

  • Second, I want to mention, just in general, that too much of anything — even if it’s a good thing — could have unintended effects.

So be sure to talk with your health care provider.

What about workplace accommodations for ADHD? [09:40]

So this is a huge topic that we could do an entire podcast on, but I want to at least mention here that you can ask your boss for workplace supports to help with your ADHD. 

One example might be wearing noise-canceling headphones at work. Or asking to have important meetings earlier in the day rather than late in the afternoon when it might be harder for you to focus. 

There are laws that protect people with disabilities from discrimination in the workplace, and there are a lot of free or low-cost things that can help improve your productivity with ADHD. 

So think about talking with your manager. And be sure to check out the show notes for this episode, where we’ll include resources on how to ask for workplace accommodations.

Key takeaway, next episode, and credit [10:30]

OK, listeners, that’s it for Episode 6. The key takeaway I’m hoping sticks with you from this episode is that there are lots of non-medication treatments and strategies for ADHD that can help make your life easier. Be your biggest supporter, and don’t be afraid to advocate for what you need to succeed.

Thanks for listening. I hope you’ll join me for Episode 7, which explains how to prepare emotionally for an ADHD diagnosis.

You’ve been listening to Season 2 of Understood Explains from the Understood Podcast Network. If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources, as well as links to anything we’ve mentioned in the episode. 

One important note: I don’t prescribe ADHD medication and I don’t have any affiliation with pharmaceutical companies — and neither does Understood. This podcast is intended solely for informational purposes and is not a substitute for a professional diagnosis or for medical advice or treatment. Talk with your health care provider before making any medical decisions.

Understood Explains is produced by Julie Rawe and Cody Nelson, who also edited the show. Briana Berry is our production director. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show.

For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. 

Understood is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at understood.org/mission.

Host

  • Roberto Olivardia, PhD

    is an expert in the treatment of ADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and body dysmorphic disorder. He also focuses on issues facing students with learning disabilities.

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