Why An ADHD Morning Routine is Essential and How to Create One That Really Works (Part 1)

women welcoming the day

In this article, we explore why an ADHD morning routine is essential for adults and children with ADHD. And I will also show you how to create one that is enjoyable and effective.

In part 1, we will explore this topic and also give pointers to what needs to be included in an effective ADHD morning routine. In part 2, we will explore in more depth how to practically construct your own personal morning routine.

Please note that this article is written primarily for adult readers, but the principles and strategies are transferable to children. In a later article I will write something specific to children.

child yawning

Why You Struggle In the Morning When You Have ADHD

There are many reasons why we struggle in the morning when we have ADHD, and hence why an ADHD morning routine is key to “kick starting” our brains and bodies into action.

image of dopamine molecule

We Struggle To Release Dopamine When Motivated

There is a biological difference between neurotypicals (those without ADHD) and those with; neurotypicals can still release dopamine (the motivating brain molecule) when bored or uninterested in a necessary task, but those with ADHD will simply fail to release dopamine and “fall asleep at the wheel”.[1]

The answer? Those of us with ADHD live in the now and tend to put off the future, but we can build motivation and release more dopamine to “get the job done” (such as wake up in the morning and get on with our day) by consciously asking why we want to do something, even if we think we don't want to!

What this does is activate our Left Prefrontal Cortex (LPFC, or Inner Organiser) at the front of our brain because it responds to specificity and order. This is the same part of our brain said to be lagging behind in ADHD, which is responsible for our Executive Functions.

Having an enjoyable ADHD morning routine will not only switch the LPFC on, but give us something to look forward to, the comfort of predictability, a sense of order and purposefulness, and lower our symptoms of ADHD.

Having a satisfying morning routine that you look forward to could be the positive motivator you need to get up and get going!

women with insomnia

We Are Night Owls By Nature, Not Larks

Research backs up our direct experience; when we have ADHD we struggle getting up and ready in the morning simply because we are genetically predisposed to be late riser chronotypes or “night owls.” We seem to take forever to wake up, and then once we finally are we can't get to sleep!

However, here's the good news: despite our tendencies the part of our brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SN) which is like the control centre of our “biological clock” can be reprogrammed.

Part of that reprogramming can be achieved by developing a satisfying morning routine that motivates you to get up earlier and enjoy your day ahead. A properly thought out ADHD morning routine, is key to kick starting your night owl brain and becoming less of a vampire!

For further information on how to do so you may want to check out my other articles on waking up 7 Tips to Help You Wake Up In The Morning When You Have ADHD

women stretching

When You Have ADHD You Need More Movement 

Research shows that exercise may be the number one natural therapy for ADHD after medication, it helps all of our symptoms, and some people have even avoided a diagnosis of ADHD and/or not needed medication by relying on exercise alone.

Did you know that CDC data shows that in states where there is less sunshine, there are more diagnoses of ADHD? In fact, up to 34-41% of the variance of the diagnoses of ADHD was found to correlate with sunshine intensity.[2]

At first sight, that sounds like lack of sunshine “causes” ADHD. But if we think about this in more depth, it's much more complicated. Firstly, as Emily Deans MD points out in her Psychology Today article "Sunshine and ADHD", one of the key considerations is that people with ADHD have poor circadian rhythms which can be ameliorated by more morning sunshine. 

Secondly, it is also clear that when there is more precipitation and lack of sunlight, people are more likely to stay indoors. The result of this is that you end up sitting in front of some kind of screen and hence getting less exercise and daylight, and when this happens it can be enough to significantly increase the chances that you or your child could end up diagnosed with ADHD. 

The research also shows that those with ADHD respond more to exercise than those without. Out of all the brain “disorders”, in fact, ADHD seems to be the top responder. This is likely connected to the observation that people with ADHD may have a natural need for more exercise than most.

How does this tie in with morning routine? Essentially, if you want to wake up more easily, have a steadier circadian rhythm (biological clock), be more stimulated throughout the day and improve most if not all of your symptoms of ADHD, then some form of exercise along with morning light exposure is a key component of any treatment strategy.

If you make this a habit, this is literally the most powerful and effective way to turn your brain from vampire into morning person!

We Fail To Wake Up In The Morning Because It's All Our Brain Understands (Up Until Now) 

One of the reasons why people like you and me who have ADHD struggle in the mornings is not just because of being a “night owl,” having “low dopamine” and needing more exercise but not getting it. It is also simply a force of habit. You've probably never known it to be any different.

In other words, when we are not aware of what it means to have ADHD, and what factors are driving our tendencies and behaviours, we lack consciousness and just get pushed along by these forces. We struggle to get up and get going and don't know “why”.

And even when we find out why it may only explain why we have “always been this way,” which is interesting but doesn't necessarily solve anything. To quote Dr. Jon Ratey:

ADHD is a good explanation, but not an excuse!”

There's also something important to understand about the brain and human evolution: to save energy it prefers things to remain the same, even if change of habit would confer positive benefits! If we keep struggling to get out of bed and get going, that becomes our “normal”. And over time it gets worse and worse as the circadian rhythm (biological clock) gets more blunted and out of synch.

But just because we have “always been that way,” doesn't mean it can't be different. Yes we may not be natural morning people, but if we struggle to wake up, hit snooze, lay in bed, struggle to get out, drag ourselves to get a coffee and sit down whilst merely staring at our phone every morning, we are literally – through our slowed down behaviours – reinforcing and exaggerating the natural programming of our biological clock to be tired in the morning.

Of course, until we realise that we are doing this and know how to stop doing it, we have been “doing” this unconsciously – so it's not our fault, as it's outside of our awareness and hence outside of our control. But now that you're reading this blog, you know otherwise... 😉

So before we take a look at powerful ways to create an effective ADHD morning routine in Part 2, let's first check out the biological clock a little more to find out if it can give us some clues on how to create the best ADHD morning routine... After all, as this is the biological clock inside our brain that determines whether we will be awake and active versus sleepy and sloth-like, it would make sense to consult it for advice...

biological clock

Clues to The Ideal Morning Routine Based on Your Brain's Biological Clock

Essentially, to have a stable circadian rhythm, you need to create a clear distinction in your life between when it's time for activity (i.e. during daylight hours), and when it's time for relaxation (on the evening). If you have a slow morning, the circadian rhythm becomes blunted, and you end up with low energy and motivation and resulting brain fog. Ouch...

 

Morning Circadian Triggers That Switch On Your Biological Clock for "On Mode"

To switch on your biological clock nice and early, these are the triggers you need to use:

  1. Light. The circadian rhythm will be triggered in the AM by plenty of daylight. That's right; artifical lighting is okay, the brighter the better, but daylight is superior. Make sure you open the curtains and don't sit in the dark! If possible get outdoors within 30 minutes of waking up for maximum activation of your morning circadian rhythm. If that's not possible, you could use morning light therapy such as a SAD lamp (although you may want to consult a health professional on how to use this optimally). The more you build this into your morning routine, the more of a morning person you'll become, and you'll set yourself up for a great day ahead. The light exposure will let your biological clock know it's time to be awake, not sleepy headed, and as a bonus the extra serotonin your body will make from daylight exposure will lead to a better sleep at night,

  2. Sound. Our circadian rhythm is shown by research to be strongly tied in to the sound of bird song, as we have co-evolved with birds and they sing when the sun rises. Hence bird song makes a great alarm clock, or how about getting yourself some light (step 1) by going for a walk and listening to the birds. You could also choose a favourite piece of music for your alarm. Something that energises you and wakes you up. In the past I have made part of my morning routine to include a playlist of motivating tracks that make me feel good and I would end up singing and dancing. Enjoyment and physical activity signals your circadian rhythm that it's time to get moving and signals that you enjoy waking up in the morning (even if you're naturally more of a night owl!)

  3. Temperature. Colder temperature helps us sleep, but warmth helps us wake up. If it's warm outside then get out and soak up some sun. If not, make sure your bedroom or house warms up at the appropriate time when you want to be active and awake. Think of temperature as being like an alarm clock. We might also find a hot warm drink as part of our morning routine is another way to trigger the circadian rhythm through heat.

  4. Activity. Remember what we said earlier about exercise and ADHD, and how exercise is the number one natural therapy? Well, I'd say the number one factor for an effective, and in some cases even life changing ADHD morning routine, is to include exercise. That could be a walk, sprinting, jogging, push ups, or yoga. All exercise is good, preferably performed outdoors to also complete Step 1 – light exposure – but just do your best. The best exercise should get your heart pumping and make you pant, but any exercise is better than none. Use exercise to tell your biological clock that morning time is when you get active, versus a time to “chill”. By doing this you will feel more awake and in future your biological clock will remember this, expect morning activity, and also cause you to feel more awake in the mornings!

  5. Food. How many of us with ADHD skip breakfast or eat at haphazard times? I know we lose track of time, but conversely, by simply aiming to eat at regular times will improve your circadian rhythm (biological clock) which in turn will improve your sense of time and other challenges associated with ADHD. Food also signals your biological clock that it's time for activity, assuming you don't over eat and feel sleepy!  Avoid sugary breakfast, but go for a higher cholesterol breakfast, more saturated fat, which is good in the morning, and also plenty of protein, as research shows that high protein breakfast lowers symptoms of ADHD.[3]

 

putting theory into action

Conclusion: Turning Theory Into Practice

So there you have it. Why an ADHD morning routine is essential, and five key areas to consider when you want to create an effective morning routine to kick start your brain into gear and prepare yourself for a great day ahead.

Remember to think “less is more”, and if you let the routine slip, relax a little. The key to success when it comes to routine, is to think that it's better to have a few good days or weeks than none at all. Do not expect perfection and beat yourself up for it.

Another good “less is more” strategy is to think of the commitment as a “rolling contract” rather than something permanent. In other words, aim to do your morning routine not “for ever” but just for one week, which will seem less daunting. And when that first week comes around and you've done okay, it's a case of thinking, “Oh doing a week wasn't so bad. Let's do another week...”

Ultimately, whatever happens, remember that there will be setbacks. But not hitting the target 100% is not what makes someone a loser; giving up and throwing the towel in does! “Slip up but don't give up.” You can always start again.

So make sure to come back for Part 2 in which we explore in more detail powerful activities, strategies, and tools, that you can include in your morning routine, to make sure you get off to a good start. And ultimately find a way to create an ADHD morning routine which is not only effective, but super enjoyable, and hence easier to stick to long term simply because you love it...

 

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References

[1] Attention Deficit Disorder and Reward Deficiency Syndrome, Kenneth Blum et. al., Neurpsychiatric Disease Treatment, 2008 Oct; 4(5): 893–918, NCBI. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2626918/

[2] Sunlight And ADHD: Evidence that sunlight can ameliorate symptoms of ADHD, Emily Deans MD, Psychology Today, Apr 12 2013 https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/evolutionary-psychiatry/201304/sunlight-and-adhd

[3] Pay Attention Longer With Breakfast, CHADD, https://chadd.org/adhd-weekly/pay-attention-longer-with-breakfast/

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