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  • Writer's pictureKatie Paulus

How Music Can Regulate ADHD

Updated: Jan 15

A review of studies mixed in with my personal experience as an adult with ADHD.





As an adult who was diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) a little over a year ago, I am still constantly learning new things about how my brain works. That being said, even in that short period, I’m proud of the progress I’ve made in my mental health journey. I’ve lamented over not being diagnosed sooner, as being treated sooner could have done wonders in my adolescent years. Yet, I wonder if I would have progressed as fast in the treatment if I had been diagnosed as a child. Not only can adults observe and reflect on their own behaviors better than small children, but also the resources and community on the internet today simply would not have been available to me as a child. That’s why I feel it’s important to share my experiences with managing my own ADHD: to help other newly diagnosed adults and the parents of children with ADHD learn from my own trial and error of finding ways to manage ADHD symptoms.

ADHD has three main diagnostic criteria, which most people are familiar with: inattentiveness, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. However, it is lesser known that these are underscored by a more overarching issue: emotional dysregulation. “Emotional dysregulation” broadly refers to difficulty controlling emotions; the difference between this and other mood disorders is that the emotions are often “correct” or “justified” for the situation, and don’t last long (1). For example, many people would feel angry if someone cut in front of them in line at a coffee shop, but someone with the symptom of emotional dysregulation would perhaps feel this anger more intensely and have more trouble suppressing it. This is why ADHD is often co-diagnosed with, or even mistaken for depression and anxiety. This symptom is deeply interlinked with the main three symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

Regulating emotions is the key to regulating ADHD as a whole. Medication can help break the cycle of dysregulation and can help rebalance things on a chemical level, but it is just as important to build the right habits to maintain a regulated, healthy mind. However, maintaining emotional regulation ties into yet another common (yet uncommonly known) symptom of ADHD: sensory issues. For people with ADHD, emotional response is often directly tied to the sensory load they are currently feeling. Overstimulation can lead to tense emotional responses and hyperactivity, and understimulation can lead to low mood and low motivation. In both my personal experience and in the field of study about ADHD, music in all forms is a vital tool for managing symptoms, as it can regulate emotions and sensory issues in both directions: it can soothe overstimulation and tense emotions, and it can boost low energy, which helps with mood and motivation.

Integrating Music on a Daily Basis

Listening to music is one of the simplest ways to integrate music into ADHD care. Many studies have found that listening to music during academic activities improves focus and comprehension for people with ADHD, despite the common belief that silence is the best for concentration. In fact, silence was found to be more distressing and more distracting for people with ADHD than music (2,3). Listening to music can also boost one’s mood and soothe anxious or hyperactive symptoms. However, to experience the full range of possible benefits, it is still necessary to choose the right music for the situation (3). Because people with ADHD often have additional sensory processing issues, when choosing music to aid emotional regulation, it is important to consider what the person’s current mood is, and whether the chosen music would be stimulating, relaxing, or distressing for them.

It seems simple: choose stimulating (i.e. energizing, or uplifting) music when mood and/or motivation is low, and choose relaxing music when mood is anxious or tense, or the person is feeling hyperactive. Unfortunately, it is not this simple for someone with ADHD. As the analysis conducted by Martin-Moratinos et al states, “the rhythmic and intense beat of rock music stimulate greater brain arousal that overrides environmental distractions”(3). In other words, while it is as simple as choosing music to counteract the person’s current mood, the type of music that is best for the moment for someone with ADHD is often the opposite of what one would expect.

In both the study example and my own personal experience, sometimes louder, more intense music can be more relaxing, which in turn can make it easier to focus on the present task. For example, I find metal, techno, and dance music to be relaxing. My brain is constantly active, to the point I often overstimulate myself, internally. So, though it may seem counter-intuitive to use a highly stimulating, external source of noise to calm down, it works because it is able to out-compete the noise of my own brain. For the same reasons, the opposite applies when I am unmotivated and have low energy, or when I need to sit and do a task that requires a lot of thought (writing, arithmetic, research, etc.). I still focus better with background music than in silence, but in those instances I need music that won’t compete with my thought process. For me, this usually means music without lyrics. Typical examples of this would be orchestral music and the ever-popular “lofi hip hop radio - beats to relax/study to” radio livestream on YouTube, but there are plenty of options for more alternative tastes. If you’re a parent who doesn’t have ADHD with a child who does, these opposite tendencies may be why it is difficult to get your child to finish their homework or chores. Just remember that ADHD changes a lot more about how one’s brain works than just inattention— so you may need to consider strategies outside of what helps you concentrate. Though it may take some trial and error to figure out what kinds of music work best for you or your child’s individual sensory needs, the best part of using music is that there is no pressure to get it right straight away— it’s easy and fun to play around with until you figure it out.

Music as a Formal Treatment

While listening to music is an easy, at-home solution to ease ADHD symptoms, music therapy can help with long-term treatment, as it promotes emotional regulation on both a physiological and psychological level. One study on adolescents with ADHD found that participating in a music therapy program twice per week for six weeks led to an increase in serotonin secretion, and a decrease in cortisol, blood pressure, and heart rate (4). In many mental health conditions including ADHD, neurotransmitters such as serotonin and norepinephrine play a large role. Though the three main symptoms of ADHD are more associated with norepinephrine deficiency (5), boosting serotonin can help with the underlying cause of emotional dysregulation, and with comorbid diagnoses such as anxiety and depression. Because most mental health medications work by augmenting these neurotransmitters, the physical effects of music therapy can act as effective supplemental support to a medication regimen, or even serve as a viable alternative for those who may be ineligible for medication. During the same study, psychological assessments were conducted both before and after the music therapy trial. The final assessment showed that the participants not only scored lower than their own initial assessments for both stress and depression, but also scored lower than the control group that did not participate in music therapy (4). This study looked at both “passive music therapy,” or listening to music, and “active music therapy,” which includes active participation in musical activities. For well-rounded, robust mental health treatment, it’s important to focus on all aspects of wellbeing. Music therapy can integrate movement, motor skills, creativity, healthy emotional release, memory skills, and more.

Being such a complex task with a high cognitive load, one would think that practicing music skills may even be difficult for someone who has trouble focusing for long periods of time. However, Wilde & Welch (2022) found that ADHD symptoms have minimal effect on the ability to learn and participate in music activities. In fact, ADHD symptoms are often less prominent in music education settings, because it is an environment which is conducive with the way the ADHD brain works (6). Thus, perhaps the final way in which music helps ADHD is that it fights the stereotype that people with ADHD are simply lazy or undisciplined; our brains work differently, not incorrectly. There are many environments where the ADHD brain is a superpower, including creative ones. Unfortunately, many schools and workplaces are designed to function in a “one size fits all” manner. I’ve come to learn that finding ways to cope with my ADHD is not about making my brain less burdensome to participate in society with, it is about finding ways to make participating in society less burdensome for my brain.

While inattentiveness, hyperactivity, and impulsivity are the three criteria for diagnosis, ADHD is far more complex than that. These three parameters cover a wide range of symptoms, but it is important to remember that they still only represent the external expressions of deeper causes. There are significant neurological and psychological differences in how ADHD brains function. Therefore, effective ADHD treatment must include a holistic approach. For a disorder which has so many sensory considerations, music is a vital tool that covers several angles of mental and physical healthcare for ADHD, and provides an outlet that works with our brain diversity, not against it. Music treatment can start at home, simply listening to music and reflecting on how it makes you or your child feel, so that you can utilize the right types of music to give the boost needed in any given situation.

Blooming Bridge Music Therapy offers professional holistic health support for ADHD, and private music education for a creative outlet that encourages different ways of thinking. If you or your loved one are interested in music therapy or music lessons, you can find more information here.


References:
1. Barkley RA. What is the relationship between ADHD and emotional regulation? ADHD Awareness Month. 2020. Web. https://www.adhdawarenessmonth.org/wp-content/uploads/Barkley-emotional-regulation-v2.pdf
2. Madjar N, Gazoli R, Manor I, Shoval G. Contrasting effects of music on reading comprehension in preadolescents with and without ADHD. Psychiatry Research. 2020;291:113207–113207. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2020.113207
3. Martin-Moratinos M, Bella-Fernandez M, Blasco-Fontecilla H. Effects of music on attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and potential application in serious video games: systematic review. Journal of Medical Internet Research. 2023;25:e37742. doi: 10.2196/37742.
4. Park J, Lee I, Lee S, Kwon R, Choo E, Nam H, Lee J. Effects of music therapy as an alternative treatment on depression in children and adolescents with ADHD by activating serotonin and improving stress coping ability. BMC Complementary Medicine and Therapies. 2023;23(1): 73-73. doi: 10.1186/s12906-022-03832-6
5. Silver L. ADHD Neuroscience 101. ADDitude. 2022. Web. https://www.additudemag.com/adhd-neuroscience-101/
6. Wilde EM, Welch GF. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and musical behaviour: significance of context. Psychology of Music. 2022;50(6): 1942-1960. doi: 10.177/03057356221081163.


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