It’s an old cliche that you can’t change what happens to you, only how you react. But like a lot of cliches, psychology researchers have found some evidence to back this one up.
Psychologists refer to the act of reframing how you view a stressful situation as positive reappraisal. Positive reappraisal is about taking a negative event in your life and finding a way to see it in a more positive way.
Research suggests that from a mental health standpoint, this is a valuable coping skill to have. For example, a study published last summer identified positive reappraisal as one of three coping strategies linked with higher wellbeing.
It’s probably not a huge surprise that being able to reframe challenging experiences in a positive way is psychologically beneficial. The tricky part, of course, is in finding how exactly to do that in your own life.
In the case of ADHD, I think there are several different areas in which people go through a process of reframing how they view the condition. Some of these are:
- Seeing symptoms in scientific, not moralistic, terms: As we learn more about what ADHD is, we tend to go from seeing ADHD-related behaviors as laziness, lack of willpower, moral shortcomings, etc. to recognizing that these are symptoms of a condition that has a scientific basis in reward processing, executive functioning, and so on. We go from seeing ADHD as a character flaw to seeing it more neutrally as a result of how the ADHD brain works.
- Understanding our own behaviors in terms of our symptoms: It takes time to build insight into how, concretely, ADHD affects our lives because this is a process of reframing how we interpret our own behaviors. Over time, we evolve from beating ourselves up over what we see as personal failings to recognizing how certain behaviors result from defined ADHD symptoms.
- Not comparing ourselves to people without ADHD: I think ADHD has made me more appreciative of the fact that different people have unique ways of interacting with the world, and developing this appreciation has in turn helped me realize that there’s no point comparing an ADHD brain and a non-ADHD brain because these brains just work differently. There are, of course, tasks where an ADHD brain generally won’t perform as well as a non-ADHD brain, but the reframing here is in realizing that these tasks don’t define a person with ADHD.
- Recognizing that ADHD can influence your goals: If you have ADHD, your goal isn’t just to “beat” the ADHD and have exactly the same life you’d have without ADHD. This goes with the previous point about comparing the ADHD and non-ADHD brain. Instead, you’ll likely find that ADHD has some influence over what environments you enjoy and what activities you excel at. The point isn’t to live as if you simply didn’t have ADHD, but to create a life that makes your ADHD brain happy.
- Leveraging ADHD for empathy: There’s actually a lot you can learn from having ADHD, whether you want to or not! For me, having ADHD has highlighted the diversity in how people’s brains work, and made me more aware of how people with conditions other than ADHD struggle to fit into a world that’s not designed for them. It’s also just made me more mental health literate. Having ADHD can be taken as a good opportunity to develop empathy as well as awareness of mental health.
- Finding positives in the ADHD brain: Having an ADHD brain brings many challenges, and ADHD has been linked to many types of negative life outcomes. But that doesn’t mean we can’t also find something inspiring in how our own brains work. For example, research has suggested a link between ADHD and creativity. Hyperfocus is a thing. Just because you have an ADHD brain doesn’t mean your brain isn’t capable of working in cool ways.
From where I’m standing, a big part of learning to live with ADHD is about self-acceptance – and, paradoxically, a big part of self-acceptance is about self-questioning. It’s about learning to look critically at the assumptions we were taught to make about our own behavior, and reframing our symptoms in a way that’s both more rational and more positive.