DBT for ADHD: How Mindfulness-Based Therapy Can Help with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder

Katy Kandaris-Weiner, LPC
7/2/2024

Many people think attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can only be treated through medication. The truth is, the right kind of counseling can be extraordinarily effective. 

Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) is a mindfulness-based talk therapy in which clients learn to recollect their thoughts and feelings. DBT helps you regulate your emotions and allows you to think more clearly.

DBT was created to help those with bipolar disorder, but has been proven to treat a number of mental health and behavioral disorders. One such disorder is ADHD. 

In this blog, we’ll explain why DBT can be such an effective tool for treating ADHD.

Related Article: Bipolar Disorder

What Is DBT?

Behavioral therapy is a form of talk therapy which helps clients assess maladaptive behaviors, understand how they developed, and learn to control them.

The most common form of behavioral therapy is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). It connects behaviors to thoughts and emotions. DBT takes this connection, and adds an element of mindfulness to it.

Related Article: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

The Origins of DBT

DBT was created by Marsha Linehan in the 1970s. Its focus is to help clients regulate their emotions when their feelings and thoughts feel out of control.

Related Article: Window of Tolerance 

DBT involves mindfulness and Zen practices incorporated into talk therapy. The four main elements of DBT are:

  • Mindfulness
  • Interpersonal effectiveness
  • Emotional regulation
  • Distress tolerance

While DBT was created to help those with bipolar disorder, these elements allow it to be an effective measure against other mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, substance use disorders, and disordered eating.

Related Articles: Depression, Anxiety, Addiction

How Does DBT Work?

Like many talk therapies, DBT happens in stages. Overcoming uncomfortable thoughts and feelings is more easily done step-by-step.

  1. Stabilize and control behavior
  2. Experience emotions rather than suffer from them
  3. Engage in the full emotional experience and define future goals
  4. Explore spirituality and deeper meaning.

The fourth step is only done if the client still struggles with mindfulness and feels unfulfilled after moving through the first three stages. Each stage teaches clients not how to feel, but how to react. The mindfulness aspect helps with grounding and understanding one’s self. 

Related Article: Can DBT Be Done in a Group?

What Is ADHD?

ADHD is a behavioral disorder that affects attention span, focus, and memory. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 7 million children were diagnosed with ADHD. As for adults, some estimates say about 8 million. 

Read our full overview of ADHD here.

ADHD Symptoms

Most people think of children with ADHD talking out of turn or not being able to sit still. However, adults with ADHD do experience some of those symptoms as well as a few unique ones. What sets adult ADHD apart is how much it affects distress tolerance and emotional regulation. The most common symptoms connected to ADHD in adults are:

  • Inability to focus on one task
  • Impaired memory
  • Impulsivity
  • Anxiety
  • Inability to regulate emotions
  • Disorganized lifestyle and behaviors

These symptoms can contribute to difficulties at work and in your social life. Those with mild ADHD might not really notice, but someone with severe ADHD might find themselves in true hardships.

No matter how much or how little ADHD affects your life, you can still work on feeling more in control. Learn more about DBT and other individual counseling options. Reach out today to request a consultation.

Treating ADHD with DBT

ADHD coaching and CBT are usually the go-to therapy options for ADHD. The counselor will help the client analyze the patient's lifestyle and habits, and then work to create better habits that can improve symptoms.

Because adult ADHD affects emotions and can contribute to anxiety, DBT can also be a valuable treatment.

How Does DBT Help ADHD?

The four stages of DBT help manage the reactive and impulsive side of ADHD symptoms. Mindfulness allows a person to gather their thoughts and emotions in order to proceed intentionally and logically.

Let’s revisit the four stages of DBT.

Stage 1—Emotional Management

The first stage involves emotional stabilization. ADHD makes people more impulsive, more easily frustrated, and they may experience mood swings. This stage helps clients acknowledge intrusive thoughts and emotions, and then manage them.

Related Article: How To Deal With Your Intrusive Thoughts

Stage 2—Emotional Experience

Step two can be challenging. It helps the client learn to experience an emotion in a healthy way. Rather than blocking feelings, the client learns to fully accept them—good and bad. 

This is where the counselor will talk to the client about trauma and past experiences. A lot of emotional dysregulation stems from traumatic experiences when a person doesn’t fully process those emotions and memories. This step will work through that processing.

Related Article: Complex Trauma

Stage 3—Life Application

This is where you will learn how to apply and accept your emotions into your everyday life. For those with ADHD, you’ll likely talk to your counselor about how to make plans, handle frustrating situations, and organization strategies that will make life easier.

Stage 4—Deeper Fulfillment 

For many, those first three stages are enough for treatment. Others may still feel that life is too chaotic. The final stage is meant to help you find even deeper meaning to your life. This stage will help you find meaning and purpose in a more spiritual manner.

Why Should I Do DBT for ADHD?

Each of the four elements of DBT—mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotional regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness—play a part in treating ADHD. 

Incorporating mindfulness can relieve stress, and help you recollect your thoughts. 

Interpersonal effectiveness helps you talk to others and express your feelings without hurting others.

Emotional regulation helps you experience your emotions in the healthiest, and most controlled way possible. You learn to accept strong emotions, but not let them control your behavior.

Distress tolerance is the practice of keeping composure and recovering quickly when things aren’t ok. 

Related Articles: Emotional Regulation, Distress Tolerance, Interpersonal Effectiveness

Get Started with Inner Balance Counseling. 

Finding the right treatment can be difficult—from knowing what it is that you need to finding the remedy to your problems. DBT has been proven to be effective in treating ADHD among many other mental health disorders.

The team at Inner Balance specializes in a variety of therapy methods, including DBT. Located in Mesa AZ, we’ll help you find the right treatment for your unique needs. Call us at 602-497-2912 or click here to request a consultation. The first step to feeling better is simply reaching out.

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Katy Kandaris-Weiner, LPC
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