The holidays can undoubtedly be tough for people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). While many people welcome the excitement of the season, children and adults with ADHD may be overwhelmed not just by all the cooking, shopping, and socializing, but also by disruptions to their normal routines.
“Individuals with ADHD thrive with structure, predictability, and well-established routines, which during the holiday season can be easily disrupted. This can result in low tolerance, increased irritability, and frustration,” explains Barbara Nosal, PhD, a licensed family and marriage therapist, licensed alcohol and drug counselor, and chief clinical officer at Newport Healthcare, a mental health treatment center for teens and young adults.
Planning holiday meals or gatherings can add pressure, too, says Meghan Marcum, PsyD, the chief psychologist at a Mission for Michael Healthcare, an intensive mental health treatment center in San Juan Capistrano, California.
“There are groceries to purchase, recipes to follow, and organizing all the details to make the meal a smooth process can be overwhelming for even the most advanced home chef,” Dr. Marcum explains. “When you have difficulty with sustained attention or concentration, these details can be especially challenging.”
And when it comes to tasks like gift shopping, Marcum notes, people with ADHD may find it hard to keep track of details, such as which gifts they’ve already purchased, or which ones need to be mailed in time.
Plan Ahead, and You’ll Enjoy the Holidays More
If you or your child have ADHD, experts say one of ways to lessen stress to stick to a schedule.
“A predictable schedule, with realistic expectations, can make a big difference in managing daily functioning by focusing on one person or thing at a time,” Dr. Nosal says.
Here are five ways to maintain structure and consistency in your days, keep your expectations for the season in check, and still have time for relaxation:
1. Create a Calendar of Important Tasks and Events
To make keeping track of dates and times easier, especially when you’re having to juggle family obligations, get-togethers with friends, and work parties, jot them down in a pocket calendar, advises Mindy R. Perry, LICSW, ADHD program director at LifeStance Health in Salmon Creek, Washington.
“In an increasingly digital world, we sometimes don’t physically write things down as much, but keeping a physical calendar of events and times can really help to organize your thoughts and take the pressure off of trying to keep it all straight in your head,” Perry adds.
Alternatively, use the calendar app in your cell phone or another scheduling app, such as Do! or Productive.
2. Prioritize Your Needs and Honor Them
The holidays can ramp up the pressure to feel as if you have to say yes to everyone and everything. To avoid feeling flooded by obligations, people with ADHD should set limits for themselves, says Nosal. Try these:
- Ask yourself how much you can really do this holiday season without feeling overwhelmed.
- Be selective when making commitments.
- Recognize that your time, money, and energy are limited — and that’s true of everyone, so let go of the guilt of feeling as if you should be able to do more.
- Remember that even though it’s the season of giving, you can still say no to things for which you don’t have time.
And remember — if any kind of obligation makes you feel uneasy or stressed, it’s okay to politely say, “Thank you so much for thinking of me,” and decline, adds Perry.
3. Be Consistent With Your Sleep, Exercise, and Self-Care Routines
According to Perry, taking care to wake up and go to bed at consistent times, exercise regularly, and relax in other ways to stave off fatigue, bouts of anxiety and foggy thinking, can help you feel your best throughout the season — and make it easier to ease back into your everyday routine afterward.
Nosal agrees, adding that now is an important time to engage in activities like yoga and meditation to help keep you calm and increase your energy throughout the day. Other activities you might try:
- Enjoying the outdoors
- Keeping a gratitude journal
- Listening to soothing music
- Working on a craft
- Doing deep breathing exercises
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4. Simplify Each Day With Some Creative Shortcuts
Perry suggests that you create “shortcuts” to take the stress out of holiday traditions. For example, if you usually purchase a natural Christmas tree that requires a lot of maintenance and cleanup, consider setting up a low-maintenance artificial tree that you can reuse year after year instead. And if you usually spend hours cooking for a holiday meal or gathering, consider hosting a potluck instead or ordering the meal in advance, Perry advises.
5. Break Bigger Tasks into Easier, Smaller Chunks
People with ADHD should avoid setting too many goals for one sitting to avoid feeling disorganized and other symptoms. So, for example, rather than trying to complete all your holiday shopping in one weekend, Marum recommends spreading your shopping out over several weekends.
“The problem with trying to do everything at once when you also have ADHD is that you're much more likely to become distracted because there's an excessive amount of stimulation,” she explains.
“Overstimulation creates an increased risk of forgetting an item or not finishing all your tasks by the deadline,” Marcum says. “The best course of action is to outline specific and measurable goals, create a visual checklist to keep you on track, and don't forget to celebrate your small accomplishments throughout the week.”