Conditions

5 Ways to Calm ADHD Stimming Behaviors

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a condition affecting millions worldwide. Symptoms often include hyperactivity, impulsivity, and difficulty paying attention. Another common symptom of ADHD is stimming. Stimming is a self-stimulatory behavior that individuals with ADHD exhibit when under stress. These behaviors can be disruptive, socially isolating, and misunderstood by those around them. If you are wondering […]

therapist sean abraham By Sean Abraham, LCSW

Updated on Jan 12, 2024

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Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a condition affecting millions worldwide. Symptoms often include hyperactivity, impulsivity, and difficulty paying attention. Another common symptom of ADHD is stimming.

Stimming is a self-stimulatory behavior that individuals with ADHD exhibit when under stress. These behaviors can be disruptive, socially isolating, and misunderstood by those around them. If you are wondering how stimming fits into the puzzle of ADHD, you’re not alone.

In this article, we’ll discuss five ways to calm ADHD stimming behaviors and provide a comprehensive guide to understanding and managing them. We’ll cover trigger identification, differences between similar symptoms in autism stimming, and best practices for treatment and management.

What’s ADHD Stimming?

Stimming is derived from the term “self-stimulatory behavior.” ADHD stimming is often an unconscious expression that serves various purposes.

Stimming typically refers to repetitive movements or sounds that are used to self-soothe. It may be a way to cope with feeling bored, having difficulty sitting still, regulating emotions, or trying to release energy,” says Julia Preamplume, a licensed clinical social worker with Grow Therapy who specializes in ADHD.  

Stimming typically refers to repetitive movements or sounds that are used to self-soothe.

- Julia Preamplume, LCSW

Everyone stims to some degree. Think about the times you’ve tapped your foot absentmindedly, twirled your hair, or clicked a pen repeatedly. In individuals with ADHD, however, these stimming behaviors tend to be more frequent and pronounced, primarily due to their brain’s unique wiring and how they process sensory information.

Common Stimming Behaviors 

Understanding the variety of stimming behaviors can shed light on the experiences of those with ADHD. Here are the five main types of stimming behaviors:

Visual Stimming: This involves staring at lights and objects in motion or engaging in activities like blinking rapidly. For an individual with ADHD, this can be a distraction or an avenue to focus their wandering attention.

Auditory Stimming: Some individuals with ADHD are attracted to specific sounds or even produce them. This could manifest as auditory stims with tapping on objects or constantly clicking a pen. 

Vocal Stimming: Similar to auditory stimming, vocal stimming involves speaking repetitively, making strange noises, clearing the throat, or excessive giggling. Another example is a child reciting their favorite movie line repeatedly.

Vestibular Stimming: This involves behaviors related to balance and spatial orientation. Rocking back and forth, spinning, or swaying side to side are all examples. Such movements can provide comfort and help an ADHD individual feel grounded.

Tactile Stimming: These behaviors involve the sense of touch. Examples include body movements such as skin scratching, hair twirling, or constantly feeling certain textures. Individuals with ADHD might find tactile sensations grounding, helping them navigate negative emotions or unpleasant environments.

Self-Stimulation: This broader category includes behaviors that may not fit neatly into the above categories, such as biting nails, grinding teeth, or repetitive touching of one’s face or body parts.

Why Do People With ADHD Engage in Stimming?

Dopamine, a mood, motivation, and reward neurotransmitter, is closely linked to ADHD. An imbalance in dopamine levels and brain differences affects focus, information processing, and responsiveness to stimuli. Genetic factors also contribute heavily to ADHD, influencing the dopaminergic system. ADHD stimming habits serve as self-soothing and regulatory actions to manage sensory overload. Other reasons for stimming include boredom and the need to release excess energy.

Role of Stimming in Self-Soothe and Regulation

Picture yourself in a room with multiple radios blaring different stations at full volume. Now imagine experiencing this sensory overload every day with an ADHD brain. Stimming, in such situations, works like a dial to turn down the noise volume. Stimming behaviors, such as rocking, tapping, or humming, serve as a focal point, helping the brain recalibrate, find balance, and manage the overwhelming sensory input.

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Connection Between Stimming and Executive Function Deficits

Executive function deficits play a significant role in ADHD stimming behaviors. Individuals with ADHD often struggle with impulsivity, distractibility, and forgetfulness. These problems often manifest as time management, organization, and planning difficulties. Stimming behaviors can increase focus and attention.

The Benefits of ADHD Stimming

Stimming is often misunderstood. While some see it as a negative aspect of ADHD, it’s necessary to acknowledge the benefits of stimming.

How Stimming Can Help Individuals With ADHD Cope

Stimming in people with ADHD is more than just behavior — it’s a lifeline. It serves as an emotional anchor during intense emotions or overwhelming situations, helping manage mood swings and anxiety. 

Importance of Not Pathologizing Stimming

Many people view stim behaviors as negative symptoms or disabilities associated with ADHD. However, stimming is a natural coping mechanism and a normal aspect of human behavior. Pathologizing stimming creates a stigma around the behavior and individuals with ADHD. Instead, it’s important to recognize stimming as a valid and effective self-regulation strategy.

Stimulating the Brain to Improve Focus and Attention

Beyond emotional regulation, evidence suggests that stimming might play a role in enhancing cognitive functions. Certain repetitive behaviors, such as doodling and gum chewing, may be a cognitive stimulant. When given a rhythmic task, the brain can release dopamine and norepinephrine, improving cognitive function and motivation.

Identifying ADHD Stimming Triggers

Neural networks in individuals with ADHD heighten sensitivity to surroundings. Emotional dysregulation can trigger stimming behaviors. Other common stimming triggers include bright lights and loud noises. Unexpected changes in routines or surroundings also act as catalysts for stimming. 

The Importance of Identifying Individual Stimming Triggers

ADHD triggers differ from person to person. Once identified, you can break these into two categories: triggers you can and can’t avoid. For those you can avoid, you can make a plan to have as little interaction with these triggers as possible (when realistic). For those you can’t avoid, it can be helpful to make a list of ways to cope with and manage them when you experience them. Understanding the triggers is also vital for caregivers, educators, and peers so that they may offer support during moments of heightened stimming.

How to Distinguish ADHD Stimming From Other Repetitive Behaviors

ADHD stimming, similar to other repetitive behaviors, has distinct characteristics. One difference is its functional aspect. Individuals with ADHD use stimming to cope with specific triggers.

In contrast, repetitive behaviors in conditions like OCD may be ritualistic and tied to specific thoughts or fears, whereas tics in Tourette’s syndrome are also sudden, involuntary, and repetitive. 

Autism, where stimming is common, may exhibit more sensory-driven behaviors. To understand the difference, consider the context, function, and triggers of the behavior while also considering other symptoms and characteristics of the individual. 

Role of Medication in Managing Stimming

It’s important to note that stimming isn’t a bad thing, and it isn’t necessarily something you need to actively try to quit. “Stimming only needs to stop if it becomes disruptive to your life, work, or school,” Preamplume says. In this case, it’s likely that other ADHD symptoms might be disrupting your life, too, and you may consider medication.

The human brain consists of intricate networks, with neurotransmitters playing an important role in relaying information. In ADHD, there’s an imbalance in certain neurotransmitters, particularly dopamine and norepinephrine. ADHD treatment medications aim to restore this balance, improving attention, reducing impulsivity, and managing hyperactivity. Behaviors like stimming become more manageable when these core symptoms are controlled.

Common Types of ADHD Medication

There are five approved medications for treating ADHD: Methylphenidate, lisdexamfetamine, dexamfetamine, atomoxetine, and guanfacine. While they aren’t a permanent cure, these medications can improve focus, reduce impulsivity, promote ease, and develop new skills in individuals with ADHD.

Methylphenidate-based medications (e.g., Ritalin, Concerta, and Daytrana) are among the most common. It is a stimulant and works to increase dopamine levels in the brain.

Amphetamines are another class of stimulants and the most commonly prescribed medication for ADHD. It includes medications like Dexedrine and Adderall, which increase dopamine levels in the brain to improve focus and reduce impulsivity.

For those who don’t respond well to stimulant medications or experience side effects, non-stimulant medications like Atomoxetine (Strattera) and Guanfacine (Intuniv) can effectively manage ADHD symptoms and associated behaviors.

Benefits and Potential Side Effects of Medication

ADHD medications can make a significant difference. Many people notice better performance at school or work, stronger relationships, and a better quality of life.

However, like any medication, there may be side effects. Stimulant meds can cause trouble sleeping, decreased appetite, weight loss, or cardiovascular complications and can sometimes lead to misuse. Non-stimulant meds have their own potential side effects, including fatigue, dry mouth, and dizziness.

Non-Medication Interventions for Stim Management in ADHD

While medications are a well-documented approach for managing ADHD symptoms, it’s important to remember that they’re not the only tools at our disposal. Non-medication interventions can be incredibly valuable for neurodivergent disorders, offering holistic avenues to manage or redirect stimming behaviors. Here are five popular non-medication strategies you may find helpful in your journey.

Mindfulness Techniques

Mindfulness is a powerful technique involving non-judgmental attention to the present moment. It offers benefits for individuals with ADHD, such as increased focus, reduced stress, and improved well-being.

Managing ADHD stim can be challenging, but mindfulness meditation techniques like deep breathing and body scan meditation can make a difference. Deep breathing relaxation techniques involve slow, deliberate breaths to calm the mind and alleviate stress. Body scan meditation enhances body awareness and induces relaxation. Square breathing (also called box breathing) can be a helpful technique. Boxed breathing involves inhaling for four seconds, holding for four seconds, exhaling for four seconds, and holding for four seconds before starting again. The focus on counting and the physical sensations during this exercise can help to shift focus off of triggers and onto the experience of your breathing.

Exercise and Movement

Regular exercise is crucial for maintaining physical and mental health, especially for individuals with ADHD. Studies show consistent physical activity can improve focus, attention, and cognitive function, making it invaluable for managing stimming behaviors. Activities like yoga, dancing, or hiking can reduce stress and improve mood.

Starting an exercise routine can be challenging for individuals with ADHD. To establish a sustainable habit, find enjoyable daily activities, set realistic goals, and seek support from a reliable network. Prioritizing exercise benefits your well-being and empowers you to navigate ADHD challenges with confidence.

Sensory Tools and Toys

Sensory tools and toys help manage stimming behaviors by providing appropriate and rewarding sensory stimulation. Examples include fidget toys, weighted blankets, and noise-canceling headphones for individuals with ADHD.

When selecting sensory tools, consider your unique triggers and preferences. Some people prefer tactile stimulation, while others prefer movement, visual, or auditory stimulation. Listening to music or podcasts can be a great way to provide calming input for those sensitive to sounds.

Sleep Hygiene

Getting enough sleep can profoundly affect ADHD symptoms, including stimming behaviors. Establishing and maintaining healthy sleep habits like reducing caffeine consumption, avoiding screens before bed, and adhering to a consistent sleep schedule is important. 

Journaling and Self-Reflection

Journaling and self-reflection can be incredibly helpful in managing stimming behaviors and maintaining mental wellness. They increase self-awareness and promote emotional regulation. At the same time, it allows ADHD individuals to understand their triggers better and develop strategies for managing their behaviors.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) effectively transforms negative thoughts and behaviors, making a real difference in managing ADHD symptoms, including stimming behaviors. CBT involves recognizing and challenging negative thoughts, developing coping strategies for stress, and embracing mindfulness. 

Finding a Therapist Who Specializes in ADHD

Managing ADHD stimming behaviors is about patience, understanding, and finding the right help. The strategies we’ve discussed are here to help you manage stimming behaviors while recognizing the benefits they bring. With the proper treatment and support, people with ADHD can lead happy and successful lives.

If you’re considering getting expert support for managing ADHD, Grow Therapy will make your search a much easier and more tailored process. We understand that everybody’s situation is unique, so we work hard to connect you with the right therapist for your needs.

Whether you’re looking for a therapist to help manage your ADHD stim or guide you on navigating daily life with ADHD, Grow Therapy is here to help. 

FAQs

  • Yes, stimming can be beneficial in many ways for individuals with ADHD. It can help to relieve stress, manage emotions, and increase focus. However, if stimming becomes disruptive to everyday life or social functioning, seeking advice from a mental health professional may be helpful.

  • Stimming serves a purpose and should not be completely eliminated. Instead, finding less disruptive forms of stimming or redirecting stimming behavior can be helpful.

  • While stimming behaviors can be similar in children and adults with ADHD, the frequency and intensity may vary. Adults often develop more socially acceptable forms of stimming, such as foot tapping, doodling, or chewing gum.

About the author
therapist sean abraham Sean Abraham, LCSW

Sean Abraham is a licensed clinical social worker who works with those who have struggled with substance use, depression, anxiety, loss, communication problems, student life, as well as other mental health concerns.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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