(originally published April 19, 2017, updated November 11, 2021)
Making the decision to take ADHD medication can be challenging for ADHD adults. Some may struggle to make this decision because of the uncertainty of whether to take medication at all. Others are fine taking medication but are concerned about the effects and unclear about the benefits. You may also have these concerns.
And the decision can be even more difficult because there is so much, sometimes conflicting, information out there. My hope is, whether you decide to take medication to treat your ADHD or not, you can feel confident you are making an informed decision based on accurate information.
Let’s get on with helping you do that.
The Role of Medication in Treating Your ADHD
First, while the medication is active in your system it can help minimize the impact of your ADHD symptoms, even though the symptoms remain. That is, medication can help you:
- more consistently use the skills and strategies you know help you operate effectively.
- make choices in the moment more often that are in sync with your values and goa
- focus, attend and follow through on what you decide will help you reach goals in alignment with your values
As Dr. Thomas Brown, author of Attention Deficit Disorder: The Unfocused Mind in Children and Adults, explains about stimulant medication, which is the most common form of ADHD medication:
…increased dopamine in the synapse can act almost as a kind of ‘Viagra’ to encourage the brain’s response to the task. Thus [stimulants] may counter the chronic problem with motivating oneself to do necessary, but not intrinsically interesting tasks.
That is, medication to treat ADHD serves to correct a biochemical condition in your brain that interferes with attention and impulse control. If you decide to use medication to treat your ADHD, it can level the playing field. Contrary to what some people may believe, it will not give you an unfair advantage!
When initially considering taking medication it is not uncommon for ADHD adults to think or at least hope it will radically alter their life and ability to function. Yes, the right medication and dosage will be helpful, for sure. But it is important to understand treating your ADHD with only medication will not get you the results you envision.
Yes, medication to treat ADHD can form the cornerstone of a holistic treatment plan. It is only one piece. In fact, it may not be effective, if it is the only intervention. It is definitely not the whole enchilada! For ADHD medication to be most effective you will also need to consider other forms of treatment.
Below are options to consider…
Therapy and Coaching Along with Medication to Treat Your ADHD
Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just take a pill to fully manage your ADHD? But, as you probably already know and as I’ve pointed out above, medication alone won’t be enough. J. Russell Ramsey, Ph.D., co-director of the University of Pennsylvania’s adult ADHD treatment and research program says that:
… with the ADHD medication as a foundation, it’s the psychosocial treatments that come in and finish the job.
An ADHD coach can help you upgrade your executive functioning skills that are underdeveloped because of your ADHD. This can include the strategies, tools and people that can help you better start, focus, follow-through, organize, plan, regulate emotions, etc.
A therapist can help you in a different way to heal past hurts and address negative thinking patterns and beliefs, unhelpful behaviors, and that are getting in the way. Then you will be in a better place to effectively take the necessary actions to reach your goals.
It is not uncommon for ADHD adults to work with both the therapist and a coach.
Holistic Ways to Treat and Manage Your ADHD Symptoms
Practicing good self-care, such as getting enough sleep, proper nutrition, and exercise, should be high on your list as a way to manage your ADHD symptoms. Because, without these, you will further compromise your ability to use your executive functioning skills. For example, how well do you focus and attend when you’re tired?
It may surprise you, but healthy connections will help you manage your ADHD. Think about it. When you feel connected, you are generally happier and more content, and in a better place to progress towards your goals. And this is the reason “making sure you keep up regular contact with a few good friends” is on Dr. Hallowell’s list of habits of highly effective adults with ADHD.
In addition, preliminary research shows that meditation may lead to structural changes in the brain, resulting in a reduction of ADHD symptoms, such as inattention and impulsivity. Check out MindfullyADD for more info.
And last, but certainly not least, one of the best ways to treat your ADHD is to be aware of and use your strengths — talents that come naturally and easily to you. As Drs Edward M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey, authors of Driven to Distraction point out:
The best way to change a life of frustration into a life of mastery is by developing talents and strengths not just shoring up weaknesses.
Because, when you are operating from your strengths, rather than in areas that are challenging for you, you are more in flow and life is just easier.
While there is certainly more you could include in your treatment plan, in addition to medication, the above will give you a good place to start.
Best Resource for ADHD Medication Prescription and Information
When you decide to take medication, hopefully in addition to practicing good self-care, the first step is finding a prescriber who is an expert in ADHD medication. I know this is not always easy. So, you may be tempted to consult with your primary care doctor, as the process can seem easier and quicker.
But, because they do not have the necessary specialized knowledge to prescribe mental health medication, you may not be taking the most effective medication or dosage. As a result, you may not receive the optimal benefits necessary to treat your ADHD.
To avoid this, it is best to see a psychiatrist or psychiatric nurse practitioner. Sure, the process may still be lengthy, as it will likely still entail trial and error. But you can be confident you are making decisions based on accurate information. Because you will be collaborating with a prescriber who has expertise in mental health medication.
How to Best Partner with Your Prescriber When Taking ADHD Medication
Yes, even with a psychiatrist or psychiatric nurse practitioner, there are no assurances you will land on the right prescription and dosage the first time. And how you respond to the medication may also change over time. So, you and your prescriber will need to have a plan for checking in to assess the both efficacy of the medication and the side effects.
To do this, you’ll want to agree on the interval of your appointments and how you will track the effects of the medication. You can use this medication log, created by Laurie Dupar, an ADHD Coach and former practicing registered nurse, if your prescriber does not give you one.
To effectively collaborate, it is critically important you use one, as you can’t rely on your memory of how you felt. Right? You need to have the hard data, especially in the beginning when you and your prescriber are deciding whether the initial medication, dosage, and timing works.
When Medication Does Not Work to Treat Your ADHD
If you decide to take medication, you will likely be prescribed a stimulant, at least to start. Makes sense. Because, while stimulant medication is not the only type of medication used to treat ADHD, it is, as Dr. Russell Barkley notes:
… among the treatments that result in the greatest degree of improvement in the symptoms of the disorder, research overwhelmingly supports the use of the stimulant medications for this disorder.
While stimulant medication is the most common medication to treat ADHD, it is still only effective for 70% – 80% of ADHD adults. Obviously, this means it is not effective for the other 20% – 30%. Maybe this is true for you? There are non-stimulant medications for ADHD you can try.
And this is one of the reasons why it’s so important to work with a psychiatrist or psychiatric nurse practitioner. As they will be up to date on the various ADHD medications and be able to work with you, hopefully, to find one that works.
But it’s possible, you will not be able to find a medication that will work for you to treat your ADHD. If that’s the case, I hope you will not despair. Because, while not meant to replace medication, there are other ways to manage your ADHD, some of which I’ve noted above.
Do You Need More Information About ADHD Medication?
While the above information gave you a taste of some of the issues you may encounter as you make your decision regarding medication, you likely will want more information.
In addition to your doctor, the resources below are great places to get started:
- Attitude Mag – ADHD Medication & Treatment Information
- National Resource Center on ADHD (A Program of CHADD) – Medication Management
But please try to avoid getting your information from Reddit or your Aunt Tillie who saw something on Facebook. 😉
Cliff Notes Version
You made it to the end. So, here’s the important stuff to know.
- Medication can be an important cornerstone of a treatment plan for ADHD when it works.
- It may not be effective if it’s the only form of treatment.
- Therapy and coaching can be useful when you need to upgrade your skills.
- Whether medication works or not there are many other important pieces of a holistic ADHD treatment plan.
But please don’t try to do it all at once, though. Really. If you decide to take medication, you might choose to work on getting that right before you look at other parts of your treatment plan