By Donae Cannon, OTR/L
Although I was diagnosed with ADHD and had a history of disordered eating, I never suspected that the two were related. As it turns out, they were; for me and for many others with ADHD.
The current research suggests that women with ADHD are almost four times more likely to have an eating disorder than their peers. Another study found that bulimia was present in 11 percent of women with ADHD (compared to just 1 percent of those without ADHD). The connection is clear, the reasons, less clear.
Why is this? If you focus on the ADHD traits that most people readily recognize (hyperactivity and attention regulation), it‘s hard to see the connection, but as I learned more about how ADHD showed up in my life, the impact of my brain on my relationship with food and my body was more obvious.
ADHD impacts how we experience our bodies.
My sister always said that I "burned bright". My emotions, whether joy or despair, showed up like a tidal wave. Like many with ADHD, I struggled with emotional regulation (the ability to manage my emotional states), so I often experienced my emotions so deeply/ intensely that they were overwhelming for me.
How do those with emotional regulation difficulties manage this overwhelm? It depends. If you're fortunate enough to have the right tools, you can use these to help calm and center yourself. If you lack those tools, (and most of us do) you may be at risk of turning to something else (like substances or behaviors) to manage your emotions.
ADHD increases the likelihood of addictions (which includes behavioral addictions, aka process addictions). Since ADHD is present in childhood (a time when most of us have a limited arsenal of self-regulating strategies), it makes sense that we may have learned to use what was readily available (food) to cope.
Modern life can make it hard for all of us to slow down and listen to our body’s signals, but when you have ADHD, there are extra obstacles. Challenges with sustained attention, impulse control, and regulation can make tuning in to information from our physical self-more difficult. As we rush along in our day, we may find ourselves in a state of disconnect from our bodies.
Dieting also undermines our body attunement. It may be socially sanctioned (or even celebrated), but the practice of dieting can weaken the trust we have in our body’s signals to the point that we don’t even register them.
Sensory Processing Issues
Sensory issues often accompany ADHD. Whether we're completely overwhelmed by everyday sensory information or under registering input, these can complicate our relationship with food.
Let's say you have a decreased registration of sensory input. That can mean experiencing less of the physical sensations of eating (chewing, swallowing, taste, and textures) which lessen your experiences of satisfaction and satiety.
Sensory defensiveness (over registering input) can make tolerating different textures, smells, and tastes unbearable for some. Defensiveness to auditory input is another frustration for many with ADHD. Misophonia (the strong dislike of routine sounds such as eating and breathing) can be a co-morbid condition of ADHD and have a devastating impact on the enjoyment of both food and social experiences that involve food.
Tip for more connection with your body:
Try mindfulness meditation. I know, there is something about this term that can turn us off! It sounds hard and it sounds …boring. I learned to practice mindfulness in ways that worked for my brain (and it didn't necessarily look my instructor's practice).
In doing this, I found that the method I chose when practicing mindfulness wasn’t what mattered. What mattered was that my mindfulness practice was building my skills of noticing and allowing. As I noticed things like my emotional states, exhaustion, thirst, hunger, or even what food textures felt like in my mouth, I began to have a much deeper connection to my body.
I learned to tolerate what was going on in my body without judging or jumping off of it. This eventually translated into more moments when I felt I had choices around food rather than being swept away in the current of my typical reactions.
This is part 1 of a 4 part series on ADHD and Eating. You can read parts 2-4 below:
Questions? Feel free to contact me on my website @TheADHDClarityCoach.com. If you are interested in working with me, you can schedule a free discovery call below:
*The information I’m providing in this blog series is based on my personal experiences and the strategies that helped me during my recovery. This is not meant to replace therapeutic interventions or substitute for work with a trained professional. Please get support if you're struggling with an eating disorder, you don't need to do this on your own.*