How To Overcome Disorganization When Dealing with Trauma or ADHD

Many of the clients I’ve worked with over the years have mentioned that they struggle with Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). I have also witnessed these challenges in children when I was a teacher. What is interesting to me (and a bit of a passion of mine) is going beyond the diagnosis and connecting our challenges to our environment, past experiences, beliefs and traumas and how they create coping strategies that can make life harder.

I noticed that in students who struggled with ADHD 95% came from very stressful and challenging homes that also likely included traumatic experiences. I could see that there was more to  it than their brain operating differently and that there was a possibility to transform areas they wanted to change. Because not all “symptoms” of ADHD are inherently bad.In reality it’s a different way to operate. People who are extremely creative and who have brilliant minds often show traits that resemble a diagnosis of ADHD.

For me the label is less important. What’s more important is who you are, what you want and what’s making it hard for you to stay centered, focused, organized, grounded and connected to yourself and your life purpose. Diagnosis can be helpful in giving a framework and some direction of where to start. 

Fast forward to now. Becoming formally trained as a trauma coach I was relieved and saddened at the same time when I participated in one of the weekly lectures on the biological effects of trauma. Here it was noted that not only does trauma change the brain, but that often people get misdiagnosed with ADHD when  it’s Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD). Both are connected and make it challenging for people to function in a certain environment, both emotionally and on a practical level. This affects a person’s ability to “keep up” with life, relationships, work and personal aspirations. 

The Brain and How Trauma and ADHD Show Up

The main brain area that is affected by trauma, the frontal lobe,  is the part that deals with executive functioning and self regulation. The prefrontal lobe and frontal lobe are responsible for higher cognitive control functions:

  • Attention

  • Sense of Self

  • Impulse control

  • Inhibition

  • Prospective memory 

  • Cognitive flexibility

  • Reasoning

  • Judgement

  • Problem solving

  • Creativity

  • Emotional regulation

Both trauma and ADHD affect a person’s memory, emotional intelligence, and the ability to form healthy relationships. Both ADHD and trauma can be adaptations to stressful life experiences, and long term unsafe situations.

A person with ADHD typically struggles with:

  • Difficulty prioritizing tasks

  • Hard time focusing and easily distracted

  • Starting new tasks without finishing others

  • Extreme impatience

  • Losing + misplacing things

  • Forgetful and difficulty remembering

  • Mood swings, irritability and quick temper

  • Restlessness – hard time relaxing

  • Trouble listening – includes interrupting others

  • Disorganized environments

  • Poor time management – often late

If you are reading this and think “oh my, that’s me” and a rush of shame comes up. Please let it go. There is no shame in experiencing trauma, the after affects of it or ADHD. It’s not your fault that you are dealing with these challenges and there are many ways that you can overcome the aspects that make life challenging for you. And others are gifts that make you unique and really don’t need to be changed. At the end of the day, it’s up to you to decide what is working for you and what is hindering you from being your true self.

Many of these symptoms are similar to PTSD and CPTSD and it’s been noted through different associations like IAOTRC that CPTSD is often misdiagnosed as ADHD. Of course, both can exist at the same time. 

When doing research on ADHD and trauma the literature always paints trauma with a capital T – sexual abuse, violence, extreme loss and war. However, daily micro traumas have the same effect over a period of time. For example, being told you are stupid as a child repeatedly. Another one that is often looked over is neglect: a child’s basic needs of food and shelter are met but they are alone a lot and their emotional needs are dismissed or not met.  This topic is a book in itself and I will be going into more depth this year with each blog. 

How Getting Organized From a Trauma Informed Lens Can Make a Huge Difference in Treating ADHD

Like anything being organized is something that can be learned. How many people you know were explicitly taught how to be organized? Many areas that are challenging for people who struggle with ADHD and CPTSD is the combination of executive functioning skills (time management, physical organization) and emotional regulation (being able to know how you feel and respond instead of react).  Both of these areas can be transformed with the help of a coach, therapist and the commitment to change. 

This process means looking at what skills you need to develop as well as looking at past experiences and how they formed emotional reactions, feelings and stories that hold you back from being your true self. For example, if you were repeatedly yelled at to clean your room, while growing up in a hostile home, and never taught how to do it you may develop a negative association to the task. On one hand, no one ever taught you how to do it, and on the emotional level the shame and belief that came from that experience creates an energetic and behavioural block for you to move forward. You may end up telling yourself that you “can’t do it” and then once diagnosed say, “Oh, I can’t be organized because I have ADHD.” 

I encourage you to let go of the labels enough to dig deeper and see how maybe your past experience of living in chaos are so familiar and comfortable for you. Or maybe you grew up in a very rigid home that was so orderly you are now rebelling to reclaim yourself and live in chaos and a way to be different from your family.  Our experiences build on one another and this can help us or bring us down depending on what we do with those stories. It’s up to you to gather courage from within and be willing to look at patterns, past experiences and make the connections so you can truly change in the areas we want to. 

Being organized and on top of your life means a more regulated nervous system, better relationships and self care.It means living out your life purpose with focus, clarity and calm. Getting there is much more than storage solutions. It’s a process that takes time, commitment and a willingness to go places that will be uncomfortable. Despite a diagnosis of ADHD or CPTSD, you can move through them and celebrate being on the other side. In my work I help you focus on your present life that you are creating, rather than living in the past that drags you down. 

the handbook


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