How Sahaja Meditation Helps Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder
Medication alone cannot fix all the problems associated with AD/HD
Historically, the treatment of choice for people with AD/HD has been psychostimulant medication; in fact, in Western countries, there has been a fourfold increase in prescription rates over the last decade. This startling escalation in the use of prescription drugs has caused growing concern, given the side effects and the fact that we simply don’t know the long-term effects of stimulants on brain development. There appears to be a growing body of evidence to suggest that the efficacy of medication over behavioral treatments wanes after several years, raising questions about whether people may become sensitized to stimulants over time (Jensen, et al., 2007).
For a person with AD/HD, treatments such as medication and herbal remedies may help improve the ability to concentrate, control impulses, plan ahead, and complete tasks.
But a pill can’t fix all the problems associated with AD/HD. Even when the medication is working, a child with AD/HD may still struggle with forgetfulness, emotional problems, and social awkwardness. An adult with AD/HD may struggle with disorganization, distractibility, and relationship difficulties.
Other treatment alternatives are needed, especially if a long-term maintenance strategy is required.
Children with AD/HD need guidance and understanding from their parents and teachers in order to realize their full potential. It’s important to identify the specific behaviors that need to be changed (e.g., completing tasks such as homework or chores; interrupting others while they’re speaking; improving the child’s sense of responsibility and accountability), as well as the goal behaviors. Such behavior modification and self-assessment strategies can be helpful in increasing desired behaviors (e.g., task completion) and/or decreasing behavior problems (e.g., impulsive blurting out answers during class).
Frustration, anger and blame can fester within the family of a child who has AD/HD, and often, both parents and kids need help to manage stress, overcome negative feelings and manage disruptive behaviors. Stress decreases productivity and increases AD/HD symptoms. Sahaja meditation is a powerful stress-management technique that can help parents increase their own capacity to deal with frustration, which can help them respond calmly and effectively to their child’s misbehavior.
Often, both children and parents need to develop new skills, attitudes, and ways of relating to each other. Practicing Sahaja meditation can help parents become more confident about their parenting skills and less prone to frustration. They’ll find it easier to relax, be flexible, and see the big picture. And how they manage stress will serve as a model for their kids.
How Sahaja Meditation can help with AD/HD Symptoms
Sahaja meditation increases self-awareness, intuition and introspection. The meditator’s internal process of self-realization increases his or her compassion for, and sensitivity to others. Sahaja strengthens interfamily communication (e.g., giving and receiving feedback) and relationship skills, which instills positive traits, such as forgiveness, empathy, compassion and sharing.
The family unit becomes a good place for the person with AD/HD to practice social skills (such as not interrupting others when they’re talking) and a way to obtain feedback on how the person with AD/HD responds to people. Sahaja teaches you to look inside yourself first, when solving problems. The practice of Sahaja makes a person peaceful from within and over time, helps eliminate negative emotions. In addition to having a calming influence, Sahaja helps people with AD/HD learn to manage anger, control impulses, and reduce the desire to receive immediate gratification.
People with AD/HD improve by paying attention to their social skills. This may involve, for example, practicing active listening: When someone else is talking, they learn to focus exclusively on what the person is saying instead of what they’re thinking of saying. If you have AD/HD, you may find it beneficial to summarize, in your mind, what someone just said to you before responding. If you have a tendency to blurt things that get you into trouble, pause before you speak and make sure the remark is appropriate. You may benefit from paying attention to the normal ebb and flow of conversation; you’ll learn to recognize when someone is finished speaking.
Meditation heightens our perceptual sensitivity, both to ourselves and to others. We become more adept at interpreting the signals, reading facial expressions. We’re better able to understand how others feel about our actions and even anticipate someone’s reactions to our own words and deeds. The end result is that we ultimately improve our social and interpersonal relationship skills.
Meditation provides a systematic way of improving self-esteem. It’s easy for a person with AD/HD to develop a negative self-image as a result of the negative feedback their behavior elicits from others and their frequent feelings of incompetence in academics, work tasks, or interpersonal relationships. Meditation can help people with AD/HD develop a positive identity and put away self-imposed labels, limitations and defenses that they’ve been using to protect their own vulnerabilities.
Sahaja meditation sharpens attention and focus and helps people with AD/HD take control of their lives. Attention is a flexible, trainable skill which the practice of meditation, by its very nature, can help train. Meditation can also help change the brain in ways that help increase close concentration, attention span and our ability to selectively focus on relevant information.
Evidence of Meditation’s Ability to Relieve AD/HD Symptoms
Sahaja meditation programs are offered to students in schools all across the USA with the goal of boosting physical health and mental resilience. Studies have suggested that around 70 percent of these students received significant, direct benefits, including enhanced attention and self-control.
A U.K. study conducted in conjunction with the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London showed that Sahaja meditation may result in significant improvements in AD/HD, especially when offered through a family treatment approach and in combination with existing medical treatment. Children with AD/HD between the ages of 4 and 12 participated in a 6-week Sahaja program as an adjunct to their usual treatment (e.g., some were receiving AD/HD medication). Compared to a control group that received no treatment, children who meditated experienced a significant reduction in attention problems, impulsiveness and hyperactivity (Harrison, Rubia, Manocha, 2004). Fifty percent of the treated children either stopped or reduced their medication, and their symptoms still improved.
Sahaja meditation may also be an effective management tool for families with children who have AD/HD. In an Australian study, published in Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, parents and children participated in a 6-week program of twice-weekly Sahaja clinic sessions and regular meditation at home. Results showed improvements in the childrens’ AD/HD behaviors, as well as their self-esteem and the quality of their relationships. Children reported sleeping better, lower anxiety, better concentration and experiencing less conflicts at home and school. Parents reported feeling happier, less stressed and better able to manage their child’s behavior.
Sahaja’s impact on brain activity has been repeatedly documented by researchers. In one study, the brain activity of Sahaja meditators was studied using quantitative electroencephelogram (QEEG), which produces two-dimensional maps of the electrical changes in the brain as the meditator enters into the state of thoughtless awareness (Harrison, Rubia, et al, 2004). Initially, widespread, intense “alpha wave” activity occurrs. Alpha wave activity, which has been observed in many different forms of meditation, is associated with beneficial relaxation.
But interestingly, as the meditators entered into the state of thoughtless awareness, theta waves emerged, focused specifically midline in the front and top of the brain. Precisely at the time that theta activity became prominent, the meditators reported that they experienced a state of complete mental silence and “oneness” with the present moment, a state that characterizes the Sahaja meditative experience. There was increased activation in the alpha power range over the same regions, which may reflect a reduction in brain activity in regions that mediate mental effort and external attention.
This reduction in “chaos” and inhibition of task-irrelevant processes holds promise for people with AD/HD.
Since the practice of Sahaja meditation helps fine-tune control over attention, people with AD/HD may find that meditation significantly improves their ability to concentrate. Few other meditation techniques have shown this kind of consistent change in theta activity, suggesting that Sahaja may have a unique effect on the brain.
Interestingly, the two areas of theta activity noted in this study corresponded to the two main chakras in the brain: the forehead chakra called Agnya or “third eye” and the Sahasrara chakra at the top of the head, which is traditionally associated with the brain’s limbic (emotional) system. The particular location of the theta activity suggested that structures deep within the brain, such as the limbic system, are being activated. The limbic system is responsible for many aspects of our subjective experiences such as emotion and mood, so it’s no surprise that meditation can have an impact on disorders such as depression and anxiety, which often co-occur in people who suffer from AD/HD.
Children with AD/HD are known to have reduced size and underactivation of fronto-parietal attention networks during tasks involving inhibitory control (e.g., impulse control) and attention (Rubia, et al., 1999, 2001, 2005, 2008, 2009; Smith, et al., 2006). Sahaja meditation has been shown to increase activation of — and have “up-regulating” effects on — fronto-parietal attention networks (Aftanas and Golocheikine, 2001, 2002a,b, 2003). Meditation’s ability to train attentional networks has been shown to improve cognitive functions, such as sustained attention, impulse control and self-monitoring (Brown et al., 1984; Jha, et al., 2007; Slagter, et al., 2007).
Sahaja meditation has also been shown to reduce symptoms of hyperactivity through the reduction of sympathetic nervous system activity (Rai et al., 1988; Manocha et al., 2002).
Several more recent neuroimaging studies of Sahaja meditation have demonstrated the impact of Sahaja practice on the brain’s attention networks.
A 2015 fMRI study found that during meditation, long-term Sahaja practitioners experienced activation in fronto-parieto-temporal regions involved in sustained attention, and in limbic regions involved in emotional control (Hernández et la, 2015). After passing through an initial intense neural self-control process necessary to silence the mind, Sahaja meditators experienced reduced brain activity commensurate with the deepening of mental silence (across the right inferior frontal cortex/insula), reflecting the effortless process of attentional contemplation associated with the state of thoughtless awareness.
A 2016 study using MRI and Voxel-Based Morphometry found that long-term Sahaja practitioners (compared with non-meditators) had significantly larger grey matter volume across their entire brains, as well as in regions associated with, in part, sustained attention and cognitive control, emotional control, self-awareness, interoceptive perception, and monitoring of autonomic functions (Hernández et al, 2016). Increased gray matter volume in these attention and emotional regulation regions suggests that regular practice of Sahaja may enhance the functions controlled by these regions; for example, by exerting top-down emotional regulation and flexible appraisal and control of our own emotional states, particularly negative emotional states (Reva et al, 2014). These results suggest that regular Sahaja practice may enhance attentional control, interoception and emotional awareness neuroplastically; that is, provide lasting changes across the practitioner’s lifetime.
These studies suggest that Sahaja meditation may be a promising non-pharmacological treatment option for ADHD. Because Sahaja meditation has little risk of adverse effects, it could become an important long-term core therapy for people who suffer from AD/HD — whether used as a primary therapy or as an adjunct to other treatments.
For more information on how meditation improves overall attention skills, see Attentional Equilibrium: Changing What We Pay Attention to.
Additional Strategies for AD/HD
For some people with AD/HD, organizing work tasks, or even the details of their daily lives, can be overwhelming. Many find that simple strategies can help improve attention and decrease impulsivity and hyperactivity, such as:
Breaking large tasks into small tasks.
Large tasks are more manageable when broken down into smaller steps that can be completed in shorter blocks of time. Small steps build momentum and completing each step provides a sense of accomplishment.
Making healthy choices.
That includes eating healthy, nourishing foods and limiting intake of sugar, caffeine, refined grains and alcohol and getting a good night’s sleep, every night. Thirty minutes of daily cardiovascular exercise is helpful, even if you have to break that thirty-minute block into 2-3 short sessions.
Winding down at night.
Many people with AD/HD who have trouble falling asleep at night find that it helps to have an established bedtime routine; for example, meditating, reading a book (or for children, having a book read to them), listening to peaceful music or white noise, such as a fan.
For some people with AD/HD — especially those with severe symptoms — psychotherapy may be necessary. It can enhance the effectiveness of meditation (as well as medication) and help create lasting changes that ultimately eliminate the need for interventions such as medications. Behavioral modification therapy, counseling, and practical support from family and friends can help people with AD/HD — as well as their families — cope with and manage everyday problems.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy can help a person learn to monitor their own behavior and examine the thought processes behind damaging behaviors; for example, thinking before acting, or resisting the urge to take unnecessary risks.
AD/HD is a chronic disorder for which no curative treatment may currently exist, which means that, for some, long-term therapies may be required. But studies suggest that Sahaja meditation may be a promising non-pharmacological treatment option for ADHD.
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