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ADHD’s Impact on Mornings: Why You May Have Difficulty Waking Up

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Mornings are complicated for lots of people. The allure of a warm bed, the drowsiness that won’t shake off, and the feeling like you’re swimming upstream to start your day. If you live with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), waking up early or transitioning from sleep to wakefulness can seem like a magnified challenge. It’s not just about “not being a morning person.” ADHD and sleep problems are intertwined, often resulting in morning fatigue that feels like dragging a weight around. You’re not just being lazy or stubborn; there’s a neurological basis for these challenges.

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Understanding the Challenge

For the average person, getting out of bed after the alarm buzzes might be a matter of sheer willpower. With ADHD, it’s not just a matter of hitting the snooze button too many times but a culmination of factors that make the morning transition difficult.

1. Morning Fatigue

ADHD and morning fatigue often go hand in hand. Due to the sleep challenges, many with ADHD don’t get the deep, restorative sleep needed. You might wake up groggy and sluggish, and the low energy can persist through the day.

  • Difficulty in morning transition: ADHD brains function and process information differently. The shift from a sleep state to an awake state can be more jarring and take longer. This difficulty in morning transition isn’t about reluctance — it’s about the brain taking its time to gear up.
  • Sensory overload: Mornings are bustling. The sudden influx of light sounds and the need to make decisions (What to wear? What to eat?) can overwhelm the ADHD brain, making waking up early feel like a sensory bombardment.
  • Structural challenges: Structuring morning routines for ADHD can be a challenge. The typical linear approach might not work, and you might need a more customized morning routine that aligns with your unique neurological processing.
  • The ripple effect: Sometimes, it’s not just about the morning. ADHD sleep problems from the previous night (like staying up too late because of hyperfocus) can make waking up the following day even harder.

2. ADHD and Sleep Disorders

ADHD is often comorbid with several sleep disorders. Here are some of the more commonly associated ones:

  • Sleep apnea: A condition where breathing periodically stops during sleep. It can cause frequent awakenings throughout the night.
  • Restless leg syndrome (RLS): An uncomfortable sensation in the legs leading to an irresistible urge to move them, particularly at night.
  • Periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD): Involuntary limb movements that can disturb sleep.
  • Insomnia: Persistent difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep despite having an opportunity to do so.
  • Delayed sleep phase disorder (DSPD): A shifted sleep pattern where individuals naturally fall asleep and wake up much later than the conventional societal schedules.
  • Narcolepsy: A chronic sleep disorder characterized by overwhelming daytime drowsiness and sudden attacks of sleep.
  • Nightmares and night terrors: Especially common in children with ADHD, these can disrupt sleep patterns.
  • Circadian rhythm sleep disorders: Problems with the timing of sleep, leading to insomnia or excessive daytime sleepiness.
  • Hypersomnia: Excessive sleepiness during the day or extended periods of sleep at night.
  • Parasomnias: A category that includes abnormal movements, behaviors, emotions, perceptions, or dreams during sleep.

It’s essential to note that not everyone with ADHD will experience these sleep disorders, and the presence of a sleep disorder doesn’t necessarily indicate ADHD. However, if you are struggling with sleep, consult a sleep specialist.

3. The Biological Interplay Between ADHD and Sleep

The ADHD brain’s interaction with sleep involves several key factors:

  • Neurotransmitter imbalances: ADHD is linked to imbalances in neurotransmitters like dopamine, affecting attention and sleep patterns.
  • Delayed sleep phase disorder (DSPD): Some with ADHD naturally sleep and wake later, misaligning with societal norms and intensifying morning challenges.
  • Medication effects: ADHD stimulant medications can alter sleep quality and duration.
  • Restless legs syndrome: Evidence indicates a higher prevalence of RLS in ADHD individuals, disrupting sleep initiation.
  • Frontal lobe activity: Reduced activity in this area, crucial for executive functions, influences sleep regulation in ADHD.
  • Melatonin differences: Many with ADHD have altered melatonin release patterns, complicating sleep initiation.
  • Hyperarousal: A heightened state of alertness in ADHD can be both a creative boon and a sleep hindrance.

Neurochemical, structural, and physiological factors influence sleep and related ADHD challenges.

Actionable Morning Strategies for ADHD Individuals

These strategies can be a guide for easier mornings with ADHD.

  • Sleep routine: Maintain consistent bed and wake times daily.
  • Wind-down ritual: Spend 30-60 minutes on calming activities pre-bedtime.
  • Reduce screen time: Avoid electronics an hour before sleep to protect melatonin levels.
  • Alarm placement: Keep it across the room to ensure you get up.
  • Natural light: Expose yourself to morning sunlight to recalibrate your internal clock.
  • Nutrient-rich breakfast: Opt for proteins and complex carbs to fuel your day.
  • Morning activities: Incorporate brief physical exercises to energize.
  • Nightly prep: Plan outfits and breakfast to reduce decisions.
  • Mindful mornings: Start with meditation or mindfulness for centered focus.
  • Seek support: Discuss morning struggles with trusted individuals for insights and advice.

It’s essential to remember individual variability; what’s effective for one might not be for another. Adjust these strategies as needed.

Tailoring Morning Routines for ADHD

Everyone’s ADHD is unique. Identify what your morning hurdles are. Is it fatigue? Distractions? Start there. You can then combine the following tips to create a routine that suits your needs.

  • Prioritize your tasks: Decide what’s most important for your morning. Is it eating a good breakfast? Some quiet reading? Rank your tasks to focus your energy right.
  • Time block: Allocate specific times for each task. For instance, dedicate 7 a.m. to 7:15 a.m. for stretching.
  • Minimize distractions: Recognize what sidetracks you. Your phone? The TV? Work on reducing those interruptions for a smoother start.
  • Use visual aids: Sticky notes, boards, or charts can guide and remind you about the next steps in your routine.
  • Be flexible: Some mornings won’t go as planned, and that’s OK. Adapt and see if you can fit missed tasks later in the day.
  • Optimize your space: Create an environment that supports your routine. A designated reading corner or an organized kitchen can set the tone for your day.
  • Share your goals: Have an accountability partner. Involve them in your routine. They can motivate you, check in, or even join in for a shared activity.
  • Reevaluate often: Your needs can change. Regularly check what’s working in your routine and what isn’t. Adjust and adapt as you go.
  • Celebrate your wins: Every success, big or small, deserves recognition. Did you follow your routine for a whole week? That’s amazing! Recognizing these moments will keep you motivated.

It’s OK if you fail to keep up a routine. The trick is in trying anyway and recognizing small wins.

Helping Children With ADHD With Their Sleep Patterns

For children with ADHD, consistency in wake-up and bedtime routines is crucial. Consider using visual step-by-step morning charts to guide them.

Limit their choices to prevent overwhelming them — like offering two outfits or breakfast options — and prepare the next day’s needs the night before. Use timers to make tasks more engaging. You can also break tasks into manageable steps. Offer small incentives for timely task completion, and maintain a calm demeanor, even when mornings get chaotic.

Engage in open conversations about their challenges and adjust as needed. Celebrate the mornings that go smoothly to reinforce positive behavior and set a confident tone for the day ahead.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it normal for someone with ADHD to feel more fatigued in the mornings than others?

Many people with ADHD experience higher morning tiredness due to sleep disruptions, associated disorders, and the mental shift from sleep to alertness.

How does the adolescent brain with ADHD differ in morning routines from adults?

Teen circadian rhythms lean towards late nights and late mornings. This is intensified in ADHD teens, making early rising more challenging.

How can I create a morning routine if every day feels unpredictable due to my ADHD?

Start with one to two consistent tasks. Expand as you gain stability. Stay adaptable, understanding that every day can differ. Adjust strategies based on what works for you.

Getty image by Basak Gurbuz Derman

Originally published: October 31, 2023
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