Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for ADHD: What is it? Does it work?
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a one to one therapy, for adolescents or adults, where a therapist teaches an ADHD patient how thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are all interrelated and how each of these elements affects the others. CBT emphasizes cognition, or thinking, because a major goal of this therapy is to help patients identifying thinking patterns that lead to problem behaviors. For example, the therapist might discover that the patient frequently has negative automatic thoughts such as “I’m stupid” in challenging situations. We call the though ‘automatic’ because it invades the patients consciousness without any effort. Thinking “I’m stupid” can cause anxiety and depression which leads to failure. Thus, stopping the automatic thought will modify this chain of events and, hopefully, improve the outcome from failure to success.
CBT also educates patients about their ADHD and how it affects them in important daily activities. For example, most ADHD patients need help with activity scheduling, socializing, organizing their workspace and controlling their distractibility. By teaching specific cognitive and behavioral skills, the therapist helps the patient deal with their ADHD symptoms in a productive manner. For example, some ADHD patients are very impulsive when conversing with others. They don’t wait their turn during conversations and may blurt out irrelevant idea. This can be annoying to others, especially in the context of school or business relationships. The CBT therapist helps the patient identify these behaviors and creates strategies for avoiding them.
So, does CBT work for ADHD? The evidence base is small, but when CBT has been used for adult ADHD, it has produced positive results in well-designed studies. These studies typically compare patients taking ADHD medications with those taking ADHD medications and receiving CBT. So for now, it is best to consider CBT as an adjunct to rather than a replacement for medication. There are even fewer studies of CBT for adolescents for ADHD. These initial studies also suggest that CBT will be useful for adolescents with ADHD who are also taking ADHD medications. Some data suggest that CBT can be successfully applied in the classroom environment but, again, the evidence base is very small.
How can this information be used by doctors and patients for treatment planning? Current treatment guidelines suggest starting with an ADHD medication. After a suitable medication and dose is found, the patient and doctor should determine if any problems remain. If so, than CBT should be considered as an adjunct to ADHD medications.
Antshel, K. M. & Olszewski, A. K. (2014). Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Adolescents with ADHD. Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am 23, 825-842.
Safren, S. A., Sprich, S., Mimiaga, M. J., Surman, C., Knouse, L., Groves, M. & Otto, M. W. (2010). Cognitive behavioral therapy vs relaxation with educational support for medication-treated adults with ADHD and persistent symptoms: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA 304, 875-80.
Solanto, M. V., Marks, D. J., Wasserstein, J., Mitchell, K., Abikoff, H., Alvir, J. M. & Kofman, M. D. (2010). Efficacy of meta-cognitive therapy for adult ADHD. Am J Psychiatry 167, 958-68.
Myths about the Treatment of ADHD
Myth: ADHD medications “anesthetize” ADHD children.
The idea here is that the drug treatment of ADHD is no more than a chemical straightjacket intended to control a child’s behavior to be less bothersome to parents and teachers. After all, everyone knows that if you shoot up a person with tranquillizers they will calm down.
Fact: ADHD medications are neither anesthetics nor tranquillizers.
The truth of the matter is that most ADHD medications are stimulants. They don’t anesthetize the brain; they stimulate it. By speeding up the transmission of dopamine signals in the brain, ADHD medications improve brain functioning, which in turn leads to an increased ability to pay attention and to control behavior. The non-stimulant medications improve signaling by norepinephrine. They also improve the brains ability to process signals. They are not sedatives or anesthetics. When taking their medication, ADHD patients can focus and control their behavior to be more effective in school and work and in their relationships. They are not “drugged” into submission.
Myth: ADHD medications cause drug and alcohol abuse
We know from many long-term studies of ADHD children that when the reach adolescence and adults they are at high risk for alcohol and drug use disorders. Because of this fact, some media reports have implied that their drug use was caused by treatment of their ADHD with stimulant medications.
Fact: ADHD medications do not cause drug and alcohol abuse
It is true that some ADHD medications use the same chemicals that are found in street drugs such as amphetamine. But there is a very big difference between these medications and street drugs. When street drugs are injected or snorted, they can lead to addiction, but when they are taken in pill form as prescribed by a doctor, they do not cause addiction. In fact, when my colleagues and I examined the world literature on this topic we found that, rather than causing drug and alcohol abuse, stimulant medicine protected ADHD children from these problems later in life. One study from researchers at Harvard University and the Massachusetts General Hospital found that the drug treatment of ADHD reduced the risk for illicit drug use by 84 percent. These findings make intuitive sense. These medicines reduce the symptoms of the disorder that lead to illicit drug use. For example, an impulsive ADHD teenager who acts without thinking is much more likely to use drugs than an ADHD teen whose symptoms are controlled by medical drug treatment. After we published our study, other work appeared. Some of these studies did not agree that ADHD medications protected ADHD people from drug abuse but they did not find that they caused drug abuse.
Myth: Psychological or behavior therapies should be tried before medication.
Many people are cautious about taking medications and that caution is even stronger when parents consider treatment options for their children. Because medications can have side effects, shouldn’t people with ADHD try a talk therapy before taking medicine?
Fact: Treatment guidelines suggest that medication is the first line treatment.
The problem with trying talk or behavior therapy before medication is that medication works much better. For ADHD adults, one type of talk therapy (cognitive behavioral therapy) is recommended, but only when the patient is also taking medication. The Multimodal Treatment of ADHD (MTA) study examined this issue in ADHD children from several academic medical centers in the United States. That study found that treating ADHD with medication was better than treating it with behavior therapy. Importantly, behavior therapy plus medication was no more effective than medication alone. That is why treatment guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent recommend medicine as a first line treatment for ADHD, except for preschool children. It is true that ADHD medications have side effects, but these are usually mild and typically do not interfere with treatment. And don’t forget about the risks that a patient faces when they do not use medications for ADHD. These untreated patients are at risk for a worsening of ADHD symptoms and complications.
Myth: Brain abnormalities of ADHD patients are caused by psychiatric medications
A large scientific literature shows that ADHD people have subtle problems with the structure and function of their brains. Scientists believe that these problems are the cause of ADHD symptoms. Critics of ADHD claim that these brain problems are caused by the medications used to treat ADHD. Who is right?
Fact: Brain abnormalities are found in never medicated ADHD patients.
Alan Zametkin, a scientist at the US National Institute of Mental Health was the first to show brain abnormalities in ADHD patients who had never been treated for their ADHD. He found that some parts of the brains of ADHD patients were underactive. His findings could not be due to medication because the patients had never been medicated. Since his study, many other researchers have used neuroimaging to examine the brains of ADHD patients. This work confirmed Dr. Zametkin’s observation of abnormal brain findings in unmedicated patients. In fact, reviews of the brain imaging literature have concluded that the brain abnormalities seen in ADHD cannot be attributed to ADHD medications.
Wilens, T., Faraone, S. V., Biederman, J. & Gunawardene, S. (2003). Does Stimulant Therapy of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder Beget Later Substance Abuse? A Meta-Analytic Review of the Literature. Pediatrics 111, 179-185.
Humphreys, K. L., Eng, T. & Lee, S. S. (2013). Stimulant Medication and Substance Use Outcomes: A Meta-analysis. JAMA Psychiatry, 1-9.
Chang, Z., Lichtenstein, P., Halldner, L., D'Onofrio, B., Serlachius, E., Fazel, S., Langstrom, N. & Larsson, H. (2014). Stimulant ADHD medication and risk for substance abuse. J Child Psychol Psychiatry 55, 878-85.
Nakao, T., Radua, J., Rubia, K. & Mataix-Cols, D. (2011 ). Gray matter volume abnormalities in ADHD: voxel-based meta-analysis exploring the effects of age and stimulant medication. Am J Psychiatry 168, 1154-63.
Rubia, K., Alegria, A. A., Cubillo, A. I., Smith, A. B., Brammer, M. J. & Radua, J. (2014). Effects of stimulants on brain function in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Biol Psychiatry 76, 616-28.
Spencer, T. J., Brown, A., Seidman, L. J., Valera, E. M., Makris, N., Lomedico, A., Faraone, S. V. & Biederman, J. (2013). Effect of psychostimulants on brain structure and function in ADHD: a qualitative literature review of magnetic resonance imaging-based neuroimaging studies. J Clin Psychiatry 74, 902-17.
Psychotherapy for ADHD
Psychotherapy and ADHD: How a Harvard Professor Help his Patients
Professor Larry Seidman is world renowned for his neuropsychology and neuroimaging research. In addition to all of his creative science, he has found the time to create what he calls “Neuropsychologically Informed Strategic Psychotherapy (NISP) in Teenagers and Adults with ADHD.” Let’s start with what NISP is not. NISP is not cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). CBT emphasizes teaching patients to identify thinking patterns that lead to problem behaviors. NISP describes how the interpersonal interaction we call psychotherapy can help patients increase self-regulation and self-control. NISP treatments vary in duration from brief psycho-educational interventions of one to five sessions to much longer term therapies of indefinite duration. The duration of therapy is tailored to the needs and goals of the individual. The methods of NISP can be adaptively applied into well-known therapy modalities such as CBT and family therapy. By creating a solid therapeutic alliance, NISP improves adherence to medications and addresses ADHD’s psychiatric comorbidities and functional disabilities. NISP is “neuropsychologically informed” because it follows a comprehensive neuropsychological assessment of strengths and weaknesses. This leaves the therapist with an understanding of the patient's personal experience of ADHD, the meaning of the disorder, how it affects self-esteem, and how cognitive deficits limit the ability to self-regulate and adapt to changing circumstances. Attending to the patient’s strengths is a key feature of Prof. Seidman’s method. ADHD is a disorder and it usually has serious consequences. But ADHD people also have strong points in their character and their neuropsychological skills. These sometimes get lost in assessments of ADHD but, as Dr. Seidman indicates, by addressing strengths, patient outcomes can be improved. A NISP assessment also seeks to learn about the psychological themes that underlie each patient’s story. He gives the all too common example of the patients who view themselves as failed children who have not tried hard enough to succeed. A frank discussion of neuropsychological test results can be the first step to helping patients reconceptualize their past and move on to an adaptive path of self-understanding and self-regulation.
Prof. Seidman’s approach seems sensible and promising. As he recognizes, it has not yet, however, been subject to the rigorous tests of evidenced-based medicine (my blog on EBM: http://tinyurl.com/ne4t7op). So I would not recommend using it as a replacement for an evidenced-based treatment. That said, if you are a psychotherapist who treats ADHD people, read Prof. Seidman’s paper. It will give you useful insights that will help your patients.
Seidman, L. J. (2014). Neuropsychologically Informed Strategic Psychotherapy in Teenagers and Adults with ADHD. Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am 23, 843-852. (In: Faraone, S. V. & Antshel, K. M. (2014). ADHD: Non-Pharmacologic Interventions. Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am 23, xiii-xiv.)
Can ADHD be Treated with Fish Oil?
If you’ve been reading my blogs about ADHD, you know that I play by the rules of evidenced based medicine. My view is that the only way to be sure that a treatment ‘works’ is to see what researchers have published in scientific journals. The highest level of evidence is a meta-analysis of randomized controlled clinical trials. For my lay readers, that means that that many rigorous studies have been conducted and summarized with a sophisticated mathematical method.
If you are interested in fish oil as a treatment for ADHD, there is some good news. Many good studies have been published and these have been subjected to meta-analysis. To be more exact, we’re discussing omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), which are found in many fish oils. Omega-3 PUFAs reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, which is why they had been tested as treatments for ADHD. When these studies were meta-analyzed, it became clear that omega-3 PUFAs high in eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) helped to reduce ADHD symptoms. For details see: Bloch, M. H. and J. Mulqueen (2014). "Nutritional supplements for the treatment of ADHD." Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am 23(4): 883-897.
So, if omega-3 PUFAs help reduce ADHD symptoms, why are doctors still prescribing ADHD drugs? The reason is simple. Omega-3 supplements work, but not very well. On a scale of one to 10 where 10 is the best effect, drug therapy scores 9 to 10 but omega-3 therapy scores only 2. Some patients or parents of patients might want to try omega-3 therapy first in the hopes that it will work well for them. That is a possibility, but if that is your choice, you should not delay the more effective drug treatments for too long in the likely event that omega-3 therapy is not sufficient. What about combining ADHD drugs with omega-3 supplements? We don’t know. I hope that future research will see if combined therapy might reduce the amount of drug required for each patient.
Keep in mind that the treatment guidelines from professional organization point to ADHD drugs as the first line treatment for ADHD. The only exception is for preschool children where medication is only the first line treatment for severe ADHD; the guidelines recommend that other preschoolers with ADHD be treated with non-pharmacologic treatments, when available. You can learn more about non-pharmacologic treatments for ADHD from a book I recently edited: Faraone, S. V. & Antshel, K. M. (2014). ADHD: Non-Pharmacologic Interventions. Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am 23, xiii-xiv.