Opposites Attract: ADHD and Mindfulness

casey dixon

Casey Dixon, PCC, BCC, SCAC, M.S.Ed. | www.dixonlifecoaching.com

At first glance, ADHD and mindfulness appear to be opposites. But this research study shows that one ADHD characteristic might help opposites attract and make mindfulness easier for adults with ADHD.



Smalley, S. L., Loo, S. K., Hale, T. S., Shrestha, A., McGough, J., Flook, L., & Reise, S. (2009). Mindfulness and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 65(10), 1087–1098. http://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.20618



This study by Smalley and colleagues investigates what traits are involved in both ADHD and mindfulness. Mindfulness is defined as the ability to monitor attention in the present moment. ADHD often manifests itself as difficulty with attention in the moment. Smalley and her team hypothesize that “ADHD and mindfulness will be negatively correlated because of the [opposite] role of attention in each” (p. 1090).



Research participants in this study are 105 parents who were also participating in Dr. Smalley’s study on genetics and ADHD. Of the 105 participants, 51% meet the DSM-IV criteria for “a lifetime diagnosis of ADHD” (p. 1091); their average age is 43; 77% identify themselves as Caucasian, 5% as African American, 10% as Latino, 4% as Asian, and 4% as Other.


The authors analyze the responses of the participants on two assessments for ADHD (SAD-LAR and KSADS-PL) and two inventories to assess the participants’ mindfulness – the Kentucky Inventory of Mindfulness (KIMS) – and character – the Tridimensional Character Inventory (TCI).




Compared to the participants without ADHD, those with ADHD score lower on three of the four mindfulness subscales: describing, acting with awareness, and accepting without judgment. On the TCI scales, participants with ADHD score higher on novelty-seeking and self-transcendence than do non-ADHD participants, and significantly lower on the measure of self-directedness. When the authors test the relationship between ADHD and mindfulness (using hierarchical regression analysis), they find that ADHD has a strong negative correlation with mindfulness, meaning that ADHD is associated with low levels of mindfulness (p. 1093) and supporting the hypothesis that people with ADHD are less naturally mindful than are those without.


Additionally, Smalley and her co-authors describe one important type of attention called conflict attention. Conflict attention occurs when you have to decide where to direct your attention when two or more things are competing for it, as in when you have to read the word for a color but the word is printed in a different color: Blue, Yellow, Green.


The authors report that people with ADHD are found to have a decrease in conflict attention, and people who have received mindfulness training show an increase in conflict attention. This finding supports the negative correlation of ADHD and mindfulness.




Lower mindfulness in people with ADHD might not come as a surprise to you if you work with people with ADHD. One of my clients summed up her expectations of incorporating a mindfulness practice by listing all of her “impossibles” – sitting still, clearing her mind, doing something every day, remembering, making the time, and starting a new habit. However, in order to benefit from a mindfulness practice you do not have to sit still, clear your mind, or be good at any of those other ADHD impossibilities. Mindfulness can meet our clients where they are and work with them as they are.


As coaches working with clients having ADHD, I think it is both useful and empowering to know that mindfulness is an accessible option for ADHD care. The Smalley study, while clearly finding that ADHD and mindfulness traits are opposites, also finds one surprising result. It turns out that there is one mindfulness trait that people with ADHD seem to have more of than those without ADHD: self-transcendence. Self-transcendence is one of the character traits that help make up personality (as measured on the TCI), and is described by the authors in this way:

“Self-transcendence is a character trait associated with an experience of being part of something greater than oneself, a relationship of self to the universe at large” (p. 1095).


The study authors speculate that, “An elevated ST [self-transcendence] in ADHD might make adopting a meta-cognitive [mindfulness] stance easier (despite attentional difficulties) and that might foster greater success when compared with other forms of behavioral interventions” (p. 1095).


In other words, mindfulness might be a strong contender for relieving ADHD symptoms because people with ADHD could find it easier to do after all. Do opposites attract: ADHD and mindfulness? Looks like a good match.


Note: Dr. Susan Smalley, a founder of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA, will be a Keynote Speaker at this year’s CHADD Conference, speaking on “Genetics and Mindfulness Meditation on the Wellbeing of those with ADHD”.