CBT For ADHD: How Well Does It Work?
Oct 12, 2023, 8 min read
Whether or not you have ADHD, you may have come across a type of therapy called CBT or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy in the past. It is a popular approach to managing mental health that can be applied to a number of conditions, including ADHD.
Here, we are taking a closer look at what CBT is, how it could benefit people who live with ADHD, whether or not it works with medication, and much more. We’ll even dive into what a typical CBT session might consist of to demystify what real-life therapy could look like for you.
At Augmentive, we aim to provide holistic, tailored mental health support to everyone so they can live their life to the fullest, so if you have questions about ADHD treatments, we’re here to help.
What is ADHD?
In adults, symptoms might include trouble focusing, impulsiveness and inattention, while children with ADHD may struggle to play quietly, take instructions without becoming distracted, and can be hyperactive. ADHD can present differently in girls than in boys, and girls often present less features of hyperactivity and more of inattentiveness.
Some of the external symptoms of ADHD include things like regularly making careless mistakes, losing important items, forgetting important appointments, extreme restlessness, fidgeting, excessive talking and interrupting, and more. Some of the internal symptoms of ADHD include things like having trouble paying close attention to details, maintaining attention during long tasks, staying organised, managing time and more.
You can read more about the underlying symptoms of ADHD in our article: What Is The ADHD Iceberg & Why Is It Important?
What is CBT?
CBT stands for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which is a type of talking therapy commonly used in the treatment of mental health conditions. It teaches coping skills and focuses on how your thoughts, beliefs and attitudes affect your feelings and behaviours.
The underlying concept of CBT is that how you think about situations affects the way you feel about them, and subsequently the way you behave. It combines two existing types of therapy; Cognitive Therapy (which looks at the way you think) and Behaviour Therapy (which looks at the actions you take), and has been used in the treatment of everything from anxiety to bipolar disorder to drug or alcohol problems to schizophrenia and much more.
How could CBT benefit people with ADHD?
While CBT cannot cure or treat the cause of ADHD, it is designed to address some of the symptoms by providing tools to help manage them and your feelings around them.
For people who live every day with ADHD and struggle with things like remembering appointments, planning or focusing on studying for university, medications can help to improve the quality of their life. However, many people continue to struggle with the symptoms of ADHD regardless of their medication, and although they may learn helpful tools to manage their symptoms, it can be difficult to put them into practice in day-to-day life.
CBT for ADHD focuses on a mix of psychoeducation, organisation and planning, learning to navigate distractions, developing adaptive thinking skills, and more. It can help individuals to manage their daily life, their emotions, and any instances of depression, anxiety or substance use that arise as a result of ADHD.
Seemingly simple solutions like daily planning, managing deadlines and breaking large tasks down into smaller ones can be difficult to implement when you have ADHD, so CBT can help to make this easier. It can also help you to manage any negative thoughts that might be triggered by ongoing feelings of ‘failure’ when you are unable to follow through on plans.
CBT may also be useful for a small number of people who cannot take ADHD medication due to medical reasons or side effects, or who choose not to take it. In these cases, CBT may become one of the primary treatments to help them see positive changes.
Few people who are diagnosed with ADHD are offered Cognitive Behavioural Therapy as a management tool, but the more research that emerges on its effectiveness, the more options people with ADHD will have.
Does CBT for ADHD work?
CBT has been found to be effective for ADHD, both on its own and as an accompaniment to medication.
A 2018 study on college-age students with ADHD found that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy could help reduce ADHD symptoms and alleviate feelings of anxiety and depression, and the results continued for at least 5 months after the study ended.
Similarly, a review of studies on adults diagnosed with ADHD looked at psychological interventions, and found that 92% of studies saw varying degrees of significantly positive effects on either primary or secondary outcomes associated with ADHD, with the strongest support coming from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy interventions.
And the same appears to be true with or without medication. One study found that adults with ADHD who received CBT saw significant reductions in their ADHD symptoms when compared to treatments involving only medication. It also appeared to inadvertently show positive results for anxiety and depression symptoms.
Is there a chance CBT might not work for ADHD?
CBT may not be the best option for everyone – our goal with this article is to show the potential benefits of CBT, not to tout it as a cure-all. CBT aims to implement coping strategies that will stand the test of time and can be used again and again by the person living with ADHD.
While we believe it can have huge benefits, it may not work in all cases, or it may take a very long time to work, so it is always best to discuss your options with a healthcare professional who can point you in the right direction for your symptoms and needs. Our free 15 minute consultation is a great option for this, as it can help you find the most relevant therapist and therapy style for you.
How has CBT for ADHD evolved over time?
CBT has grown in popularity over the years, both with mental health professionals and patients, due to its clear and easy-to-understand principles. The treatment is often short-term, very structured, and has a lot of useful research to support its effectiveness.
CBT has been used in the treatment of conditions such as:
- Social anxiety disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Panic disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Eating disorders
- Anger issues
- Relationship problems
- And more
The therapy has also been successfully used to help children, adolescents, adults, and elderly people in a number of settings, including hospitals and schools, and researchers continue to develop new CBT interventions to help people with various conditions.
The nature of the therapy makes it very accessible to many people – one 2023 study found that positive effects on ADHD symptoms can be found even when CBT is carried out online, with lower symptom levels being reported after one year of treatment.
What does a CBT session for ADHD typically look like?
Each practitioner approaches therapy interventions in their own unique way, and this will depend on your specific symptoms. CBT is no different, so your therapist will likely design an approach that fits your needs. However, studies suggest that CBT for ADHD often comprises several factors to encourage the development of a skillset that can address common ADHD symptoms in adults, such as:
- Psychoeducation and planning: This is a mix of psychoeducation focused on ADHD in adults, alongside implementing organisation/planning skills such as starting and maintaining an effective calendar, creating a task list, using problem solving to manage overwhelming tasks, articulating problems to make them easier to solve, generating a list of solutions, rating the solutions to identify the best one, and more.
- Coping with distractibility: This module helps people become more aware of external factors that may be distracting, and develop techniques to manage their tendency to switch from one task to another. This can mean finding a baseline for the length of time they can hold attention, learning cue-control to notice when attention drifts, or developing techniques for scheduling breaks and reducing distractions.
- Adaptive thinking: This is learning to become more aware of the thoughts that form the foundation of the difficulties you face, and developing strategies to reframe them.
- Cognitive restructuring: This focuses on your most detrimental patterns of negative thoughts, such as catastrophising, overgeneralisation, and mind reading.
- You may also be given tools to address procrastination, ways to involve your partner, and more.
If you are worried about what appointments may look like, our article on private ADHD assessments could help: What Is Involved In A Private ADHD Assessment?
Can CBT for ADHD work alongside medication?
CBT can work with or without medication, so it is something to explore with your therapist whether or not you have decided on taking this.
One study found that 12 weeks of group CBT alone had a positive impact on adults with ADHD to manage their symptoms, anxiety and depression, and improve their daily life and social functions.
Another study looked at the results of CBT combined with medication, which concluded that greater improvements were seen in ADHD symptoms when combined than with CBT alone. This included greater improvement in organisational skills and self-esteem. Interestingly, the group of participants who were combining CBT and medication maintained their status in follow up appointments, while the group who did CBT alone continued to improve.
Overall, it would seem CBT is a highly positive experience for people with ADHD whether they are combining with medication or not. Ultimately, results will depend on your individual symptoms.
How long does it take to see results from CBT for ADHD?
CBT is often a fairly short course of therapy, typically between 5 and 20 sessions overall. One study saw results for participants after just 12 weeks of treatment. That is not to say you will be guaranteed results within this time, or at all, as those with ADHD may find it more beneficial to commit to ongoing therapy with the aim of practicing the skills they learn in order to make them stick long-term.
What to do next if you have (or think you have) ADHD
We believe advice and support for those with ADHD should be bespoke and unique to the individual, so that each person receives the care and support that will work best for their specific needs. If you think you have ADHD or have recently been diagnosed with it, you should reach out to a healthcare professional who can evaluate your symptoms and recommend the best medication or therapy options for you.
You can read more about the medications you might be offered in our article: Your Guide to ADHD Medication in the UK.
There are a number of therapy options that may be recommended for ADHD, and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is one that can help you manage symptoms that may be causing you problems.
If you are unsure of what might be best for you, our free 15 minute consultation could help you figure out the most relevant therapist to help you manage your ADHD in daily life, and recommend CBT if they believe it is right for you. When you are matched with a therapist, they can provide ongoing support whether or not you decide to take medication alongside.
Whether you’re feeling off-kilter or want to shake up your routine, our state-of-the-art mental wellbeing platform gives you quick and seamless access to world-class support on your terms, from a private ADHD assessment or review, to broader private mental health care.
If you have a question about ADHD, like what exactly ADHD burnout is, we’re here to assist on your journey. Our free 15 minute consultation can guide you to the most relevant specialists to answer your questions and discuss next steps.