Contrary to popular belief, ADHD doesn’t resolve on its own during adulthood. Once you have ADHD, it will always be present. That’s true even if you have learned strategies to cope with it very effectively. ADHD symptoms often change over time and a range of lifestyle factors and situations can trigger or worsen ADHD symptoms.
Common ADHD Triggers
There are a variety of ADHD triggers. Below are some of the most common that researchers have identified.
- Stressful – Stress affects the prefrontal cortex, which is the same area of the brain affected by ADHD. Sustained anxiety decreases working memory performance, making it harder to retain new information and pay attention.Anxiety, which can stem from approaching deadlines, procrastination, and the inability to focus on the work at hand, can raise stress levels even more.
- Poor sleep – Sleep problems often accompany ADHD. For some, the cause is a stimulant medication. For others, anxiety, depression, and other conditions that co-occur with ADHD are the cause. Lack of sleep doesn’t just make you tired. It can also worsen symptoms like lack of focus and problems with motor skills.
- Poor nutrition and foods additives – Foods and food additives that may worsen ADHD symptoms include: sugary foods, salty foods, simple carbohydrates, saturated fat, caffeine, food preservatives like sodium benzoate and MSG and certain food dyes. I
- Lack of exercise – ADHD brains are typically deficient in the production of dopamine. Physical activity can stimulate the production of dopamine and improve your memory and focus. It can also help you make decisions, learn, and pay attention.
- Medical conditions – Many different medical conditions, such as thyroid disease, hypoglycemia, sleep apnea (and other sleep disorders), seizure disorders, and untreated diabetes can cause symptoms that mimic or worsen ADHD. As such, it’s important to ask your doctor for a complete physical exam before you attribute mood or cognitive changes solely to ADHD.
- Over-stimulation – Individuals with ADHD can experience sensory overload. This occurs when one or more of your senses become overstimulated, such as: Bright, harsh, or flashing lights; strong or bothersome scents or odors; loud sounds like fireworks or multiple conversations at once; certain flavors, temperatures, or textures; or any touch that’s too light, firm, or scratchy. Over-stimulation makes it difficult for the brain to process what’s going on.
- Medication side effects – Along with their positive effects, many medications produce unwanted side effects. These can include changes in mood, memory, and cognition. This is true for both mental health medications (e.g., certain atypical antidepressants and antipsychotics) and medications intended to treat physical ailments, including corticosteroids, cholesterol-lowering drugs, beta-blockers, anticholinergics, and sleep aids, among others. These can contribute to a worsening of ADHD symptoms.
- Technology – Constant stimulation from electronic devices such as computers, cell phones, television, and the Internet may also aggravate ADHD symptoms. Excessive screen time harms the attention span directly, by encouraging us to cycle between multiple distractions rather than focusing on a single task, and indirectly, by reducing sleep quality and quantity.
- Clutter – A messy home or office area could make some ADHD symptoms worse. Piles of papers, books, or laundry serve to remind you of all the stuff you need to do and it can be too much.
Managing Your ADHD Triggers
There are many self-help strategies you can use to manage your ADHD triggers, reduce your symptoms and regain your mental balance. Some of these include:
Learning what your particular ADHD triggers are is an important step to managing them. Note those situations that seem to make your ADHD symptoms worse. Also take an inventory of your daily routines – e.g., sleep, nutrition, technology use and exercise – to see if these could be making things worse. Also note whether you have had any medication changes which might be triggering your ADHD and consult your physician.
Establish good sleep habits
In addition to setting aside at least eight hours for sleep, experts recommend turning off backlit devices two hours before bedtime to promote adequate melatonin release. Try to go to bed around the same time every night, even on weekends, and limit daytime naps to half an hour or less.
Use screens sensibly
As a general rule, you should limit yourself to less than two hours of screen time per day (outside of working hours). Likewise, when you use an electronic device, try to avoid multitasking: Use one app at a time, without switching between them, and don’t flip between multiple tabs on your web browser.
Eat a nutritious, balanced diet
Eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein boosts cognitive function by preventing nutrient deficiencies and regulating blood sugar levels. This way of eating provides consistent energy throughout the day, which is crucial to sustaining focus.
Studies show that physical activity improves cognitive performance both in individuals with ADHD and those without the condition. Furthermore, exercise helps alleviate anxiety and depression by lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol and increasing the production of dopamine and serotonin.
Manage screen time
Make a point to monitor computer and television time and limit viewing to set time segments. It is especially important to limit screen time before bed.
Mindfulness involves continually bringing one’s attention back to the present moment in order to recognize and process emotions. Proactively managing thoughts and feelings in this way trains the brain to filter out distractions and control unhelpful impulses, thereby creating a significant improvement in ADHD symptoms.
Seek help when you feel overwhelmed
Whether you want to discuss a potential ADHD diagnosis, manage a flare-up of symptoms, or get help dealing with anxiety or depression, therapy can be an incredibly valuable resource. A therapist or coach can help you navigate stressful events and life transitions, form more supportive relationships, and better understand your cognitive profile and emotional makeup. Working with a therapist or coach can help you become more resilient, grounded, and connected with those around you.