ADDaptations: Improve Self-Esteem and Transform Negative Thinking with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Let's charge onward with our ADDaptations series! This collection of posts focuses on adapting our behaviors and lifestyles into order to thrive with ADHD.

I recently caught up with a childhood friend who, like me, was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) "late in life." (At least, what we describe as "late in life). For me, diagnosis came during junior year of high school. For Katherine*, she was diagnosed a year earlier, during sophomore year. While diagnosis at sixteen and seventeen years-old may seem young for adults just discovering their difference, she and I vividly remember those early teen and pre-teen years of disorganized thinking and poor grades.

After catching up about what we had been up to for the past sixth months, Katherine brought up Living, Learning, and Writing with ADHD and segued into a new type of ADHD therapy.

"Have you heard of CBT?" she asked. 

At the time, I hadn't, but now I couldn't be more grateful to Katherine for introducing me to CBT, short for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. As I scoured articles online, emailed my mother - Mary Jo Wilson PhD. - with questions, and Google-searched books on this form of therapy, I found myself absorbing new insights about mental health. And I began to understand how our thoughts directly affect our emotions.

CBT retrains our neuro pathways to help us respond better to situations and others.

ADHD'rs are reactive. We have a hard time controlling our impulses, outbursts, retorts, thoughts, and emotions. Add another layer to that...we also have a hard time processing our feelings and why we behave the way we do. This can lead to guilt, regret, and obsessional thinking.

As my family often points out, I don't take criticism well and often feel disappointed in myself if I don't excel to my full potential. With gained self-awareness, I've come to realize my responses to criticism and underachievement. These days I take a step back from such situations, acknowledge my reaction, and remind myself that - in a day or a week - I'll look back upon those moments and see value in another's criticism and strength in my perceived failure.

My initial chat with Katherine about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) reminded me that we can retrain our minds, and thus transform our negative emotions. After all, this is precisely what CBT aims to do!

In "How Cognitive Behavior Therapy Can Stop Negativity," Carl Sherman, Ph.D. explains, "With cognitive-behavioral therapy, the focus is on thinking, and the way transient thoughts and enduring beliefs about oneself and the world influence how one feels and acts. It's a tool for getting organized, staying focused, and improving one's ability to control anger and get along with others."

True to our ADHD natures, Katherine and I are playful, energetic, mischievous  and enthusiastic. But our upbringings also raised us to be rational thinkers. We often recall how seventh grade passed in an assembly line of outlines for English and History classes. So what Katherine said next about CBT really struck me: "It's logical. It just makes sense. My therapist has me recall a negative feeling or reaction and then asks, "Now what were you thinking immediately before that second?" Katherine snaps to show the instantaneous jump from her thought to her emotional response. This series of questions and answers have helped her to recognize her subconscious thoughts, and pin point the sources of her negative emotions

Of course, CBT encompasses more than this back and forth with a therapist. It also includes workbooks and exercises to help patients recognize and identify their emotions. Studies show that over time this literally "changes the brain" (Stephanie Starkis PhD, "Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Adult ADHD"). Through continued practice, neuro pathways are retrained and negative thoughts diverted. The result? Patients learn to interpret the feelings that lead to those honey badger outbursts, and improve their self-esteem and relationships with others.

The last aspect of CBT that we'll look at today is Distorted Thinking, which I find absolutely fascinating! As listed in Sherman's article on CBT, here are the types of negative or demoralizing thoughts that this type of therapy seeks to change. Do you recognize yourself in any of them? I certainly do!

"How Cognitive Behavior Therapy Can Stop Negativity," by Carl Sherman, Ph.D.

What are your initial thoughts about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)? Have you ever heard of this type of treatment before?

*Name changed to respect my friend's privacy.