Complicating these issues is the fact that the typical tips for managing stress might not be as effective if your main challenge right now is a mental health condition. Of course it’s good to try stress reduction strategies like meditating, exercising, eating right, and spending time with friends. But if these things don’t seem to make much of an impact, it’s probably not because you’re failing to try “hard enough.” Instead, it’s just that stress is harder to overcome when you’re preoccupied with a mental health issue.

If this sounds familiar to you, you’re not alone. ADHD is closely associated with mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. Additionally, ADHD symptoms can be pretty stressful to deal with at times. The following guide features stress relief tips that go beyond the usual methods to include recommendations specifically for people who are struggling with their mental health.

1. Recognize the Signs of Stress vs. Anxiety

The first thing you should do to manage your stress more effectively is to make sure it’s stress in the first place. That may sound odd, because most people rightly assume they can recognize when they’re feeling stressed. However, there are some circumstances which are often confused for stress when it’s really anxiety at play. Though both are unpleasant to experience, anxiety is generally treated in a specific way that differs from general stress relief.

Think about when you feel stressed. Is it a response to an external event, like having an argument with a loved one or missing an important meeting? If so, that’s probably just regular stress. Anxiety, on the other hand, is usually a more persistent feeling that doesn’t go away — even when there’s no immediate concern to worry about. If that’s what you’re experiencing, you should talk to a healthcare provider who can help determine whether you have an anxiety disorder.  

2. Learn Your Triggers

Figuring out what causes you stress can be an impactful way to reduce it. Try tracking when you feel stressed, and note what happened just before you began to feel that way. Was it a specific interaction or event? Do you tend to feel more stressed at certain times of the day (morning, evening, etc.)?

Noting your triggers is the first step in becoming more aware of the full sensory experience that goes on when you’re stressed. You might begin to notice the physical symptoms of stress, like headaches, chest tightness, or sweaty palms. Some people make the connection that stress causes their ADHD symptoms to become more difficult to deal with. Recognizing ripple effects can help you to avoid stress triggers and gain more control over your life.

3. Get Organized

If you feel overwhelmed, you’re more likely to experience stress. When you’re able to effectively prioritize tasks and manage your time, you may be able to minimize stress in your life. But there’s a catch — these tasks can often be more challenging when you’re dealing with ADHD or struggling with your mental health.

Instead of trying to overhaul your schedule, start small. Here are a few simple strategies you can try to get more organized with the intent to relieve stress:

  • Set achievable targets by breaking large tasks up into smaller goals.
  • Try to plan chores and other activities for the time of day when you have the most energy.
  • Vary your activities so you don’t get bogged down by a particularly tedious task.
  • Plan for short breaks to revive your energy, and make time to relax and unwind after busy days.
  • Practice setting boundaries and saying “no” when you can’t take on more responsibilities.

4. Avoid Alcohol and Drugs

Some people turn to alcohol or drugs in an effort to escape from stress. However, these substances tend to worsen stress rather than relieve it. Even if you experience temporary relief, the long-term effects will ultimately increase your stress load.

It’s especially important for people with ADHD and mental health conditions to be cautious about drugs and alcohol. For those with ADHD, the risk of developing a substance use disorder is more than 2.5 times higher than for those without the condition. In addition, nearly 50% of people with a serious psychiatric illness have a co-occurring substance use disorder.

It’s important to be aware of these risks when you’re dealing with stress. While some people may be able to drink or use drugs casually, the same level of consumption may pose a greater risk for you due to ADHD or a mental health condition. Don’t rely on these substances for relieving your stress. Instead, turn to healthier, proven methods of stress relief that won’t threaten your physical health or worsen the mental health struggles you’re dealing with.

5. Work with a Professional

Everyone experiences stress at times. But while things like mindfulness or exercise may be enough to manage their stress effectively, you may need a little extra help in that department if you’re also experiencing a mental health issue or ADHD. One option is to talk to your primary care provider to get a referral for a mental health professional, such as a social worker, psychologist, or psychiatrist. Your insurance company can help you determine which providers are covered. If you’re a student, your college or university likely has mental health resources you can access. Employees can ask their human resources department about an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which is usually a free service. 

There should be no shame in reaching out for help from a professional, but unfortunately, many people struggle to overcome the stigma associated with mental health. Don’t let this stop you from getting the assistance you need. Ask trusted loved ones for support if you need help finding a therapist or traveling to appointments. Telehealth services can also be a great way to maintain your privacy and get help from the comfort of home if you have any apprehension about working with a professional for mental health treatment and stress management.