Transforming ADHD with Anders Rønnau
Helping his patients in transforming ADHD into positive emotions is all in a day’s work for Anders Rønnau, but he recharges by taking mindfulness walks to see things that are outside of himself.
Going into a mental deep dive to help his patients means getting intensely occupied during work, because instead of managing or killing Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Anders Rønnau gears more on transforming ADHD. He needs to get into a deep level of connection so that he can transform their meltdowns or breakdowns into emotions they can control and understand. These connections take a certain toll, but thankfully Dr. Rønnau lives in Copenhagen where he can recharge during his lunch breaks and do walks that disconnects him from the city and technology. He encourages everyone to try to decouple with this mindfulness walks where they see what is outside of themselves and observe everything else that goes about without taking snapshots and posting on social media. Learn more of his epiphanies and other ways to talk about ADHD.
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Today’s guest is Anders Rønnau, PhD. He is an Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder expert and coach who is fiercely committed to helping children, teenagers, and adults transform their ADHD through cognitive enhancement and inspire them to become extraordinary with their unique gifts and talents. Anders leads the Transformational Parenting and ADHD Power Mind programs for adults and the ADHD Team Power Mind for teenagers. Anders, welcome to the show.
Thank you, Clare. It’s good to be here.
I would love to know a little bit about where you live today, the significant city in your life, and the work that you do and how that is influenced by the place that you live.
I live in Denmark. After I finished my studies twelve years ago, I moved to Copenhagen to live and study some more and work there. Copenhagen has really given me a lot of stuff in different ways. I don’t live in Copenhagen anymore, but an interesting thing about living in Copenhagen was that when I’d lived there for a couple of years, I was incredibly excited about being in Copenhagen. I remember distinctly thinking, “I really love this city. This is going to be the smallest city I ever live in.” I definitely have a thing for cities, although I don’t live in one anymore. I even applied for work in bigger cities across the US. I am, in some ways, a city person but then a strong part of me isn’t. Three years ago, I moved out of Copenhagen and into a smaller town fifteen kilometres out of another city.
What is Copenhagen like as a city and what’s the general vibe?
Copenhagen has a really relaxed vibe. It has an intimacy compared to a lot of bigger cities because it’s so relatively small. There are a lot of cafes, there are a lot of really nice places to hang out and walk and really enjoy the beach, which is at the end of the road in Copenhagen. You can go take a bath in the harbour. There’s a harbour bath and stuff like that. It’s clean, it’s friendly, it’s cosy. It’s just a really nice city.
Where you live today is obviously quite a different vibe. Tell us a little bit about that and also how it influences the work that you do.
Copenhagen was really good for meeting a lot of people and being close to a lot of networks that I had at the time. There’s a part of me that didn’t enjoy the intensity and the continuous sound vibes that are in a big city. At some point, my wife and I moved the whole family, my two daughters with us, out to this small little town. I work from home, so I can look out at the trees behind the other houses, and I can go for a small walk in my lunch break and I’ll be right outside in nature. In the sense how it influences how I work, the work I do is pretty intense. I work with people and I have to do a mental deep dive with every one of my clients, which means that I am so intensely occupied when I work that it’s really good for me to decouple and go for a mindfulness walk. I do this every day after my lunch break, so it becomes part of my lunch break and recharge period.
Is this something that you recommend your clients do to combat anxiety and the feelings of overwhelm?
Absolutely. It doesn’t really matter when you do any form of mindfulness practice. For me, with the kids and family life, I find it really hard to start the day out with mindfulness practice. In the evening, I’m just too tired to do anything like that. I’ll fall asleep if I start meditating. The middle of the day is a really good time for me to recharge. I think whatever your schedule is, any type of mindfulness practice like this should be a part of your life if you have struggles with stress or anxiety or whatever it can be.
Are there any other mental strategies that you could recommend for somebody listening today who is just really feeling a bit overwhelmed by the frantic pace of city life in this hyper-connected world?
Yes. I am a modern style coach so I don’t actually give very much advice. I usually help people tell me what it is they should do. In general, I think that most people could really benefit from disconnecting from their phone and from social media a lot more. I would suggest people actually turn off all or most notifications on their phones and on their computers, so that they can get quality time with themselves without being disrupted all the time, and to combat that rush of checking the emails and the text messages and Facebook and whatever’s on that phone. I actually have set up my phone so I only get messages that are from my wife, and then I get text messages. Facebook is on the third or fourth page in a subfolder on my phone, so I have to consciously go there. It’s not on the front screen and broadcasting to me. I have to choose to go there.
I think that most people should start becoming more aware of how they spend their time. Right now there’s a book I want to mention called Deep Work by Cal Newport. That would be the one book if people have stress or anxiety about work or even daily life. The book gives so many perspectives and strategies about how to become more focused and doing more deep work. You can easily think of that as “How can I do deep free time as well?” When I do my lunch walk, in the beginning I would listen to a podcast or something and I would come back stressed out or not relaxed, at least. I thought maybe I should be more mindful about it, so I started walking without anything in my ears and just looking around. I was still in this stressed-out mode, so I would walk around thinking about what creative idea I could get or how I could spend this time thinking about business so that I would get value from it. Eventually, with the help of good people around me, I realised that I should just shut down all of those things and just really, really enjoy the walk and nothing else. I come back recharged in a different way.
How do you actually do that? For somebody who has never knowingly taken a mindful walk, what do you recommend that they tune into and focus on as they’re moving through their time on the stroll?
Just like you do in your work, focus on anything out there outside of yourself. Every time we get caught up in our own thoughts and ideas and curiosities, we can slide away from reality and the outside world. That can be fine. At least the way I do it in the outside world, I focus on the trees. I focus on the snail passing the road. I focus on the swinging in the wind. I focus on the amount of rain my clothes can carry, and stuff like that. It really becomes this observing of whatever is out there. It’s not like I’m doing a Zen Buddhist mindfulness practice. I have tried doing this on previous occasions where you’re literally mindful of everything; I’m not. I think most of the time but then I come back to my senses, if you will, and start sensing the real world. I try to become more and more aware of my senses, what I see, what I hear, what I smell on those walks, and they become more and more interesting and more and more recharging for me.
Just going back to some of the really, really fascinating and powerful recommendations in Cal Newport’s Deep Work book, I find it really, really interesting how he totally drilled in at quite a young age into what is important to him, what his true priorities are. I find it particularly interesting that he’s operating in an academic environment. I’m familiar with the tenure track system from my past career. It seems quite subversive for him to have taken the route that he’s taken. However, it does not seem to have stopped him being successful but also being clear about what success means to him and his family life. I’d love for you to talk a little bit to that.
I think Cal Newport is incredibly value-driven. I think the way he explains it, he’s always been that, maybe more subconsciously in the beginning, but now really conscious about “What are my values and how do I fulfil them?” I think that’s one of the reasons we also moved from Copenhagen to here, because we really wanted to, particularly and definitely my wife was on it, I wanted the kids to experience nature more and not grow up in an apartment, which I had ideas about not being so good for their development as if you brought them out into the wild. We have deliberately put them into institutions, like kindergartens and day care facilities where there was this wild element where they were allowed to fall and hurt themselves basically. Being value-driven can be both incredibly valuable and tough some times because you have to make decisions that are against the norm. Cal Newport is a great example of that. Showing us all how you can succeed in spite of going against the norm.
My entire work is going against the norm because I work with clients with ADHD diagnosis. I really find them incredibly fascinating and valuable in themselves, not as a distraction from the norm but really powerful people in their own right. I think being value-based is important if you want to survive in a society that praises the norm and doesn’t give much praise to people that are not normal, if that makes sense.
It does. I would really like to know a little bit more about some of the lessons and epiphanies you’ve had that have only come because you’ve been working with this group of people.
One really interesting epiphany, if you will, was working with these people for years and years and just being aware that most of their problems were reflected in me. I have had that as well, but I kept thinking that was interesting because that would probably make them more normal than they thought. It probably took five to seven years for me to realise that it probably really meant that I also had a wrangled mind. In the end, I had to succumb to the fact that I am extraordinary, as I call it, just like these people that I work with. I’ve been going through most of the same problems but managed to find solutions where most of my clients have not. I’ve struggled with most of the same things but really found my way through life in a good way. I also know that you can find these great strategies that are individual to each person.
The other thing that can be really important is finding communities so that you don’t feel so alone. I think that’s something that living in a city, it can absolutely be the case, regardless of whether you feel that you’re ‘normal’ or not. I don’t think any of us is, we’re all unique. I understand what you’re saying about societal norms. How important is community to your clients and to you, in your life, where you live?
I think community is incredibly important and I really think that most people with the ADHD diagnosis should find their peers. Some of the communities around the ADHD are a little too, if you will, problem-oriented or rejoicing the victimised experience, so you want to be careful about that. Find a group where you’re actually talking about how awesome you are and how you solve problems, instead of how you don’t solve problems. You want to find a peer group that is helping you become better, more happy, and more joyful in life. Being in a city will definitely help this because the diversity in a city is so much bigger. People will realise this, if they have the diagnosis, there are only ADHD groups for adults in the big cities so that would be the easy way to join these groups. In general, community is fantastic and science shows that it’s one of the most important factors in longevity and mental health.
I’m just wanting to dive in a little bit more into some of the coping mechanisms and strategies that you help your clients identify and adopt. For someone who’s having a bit of a meltdown, whether it’s because they’ve just had an awful day and city life has just really gotten to them at that particular point, or whether it’s because there’s something more significant going on with their health or in their family life, if someone’s feeling really explosive, furious, and angry, as it can be the case living in cities addicted to speed where we can lose our humanity, what are ways in which somebody might identify the feelings but be in control of them and not feel out of control with their anger and frustration?
I think most of the suggestions that will come in when you research this will be behaviour-oriented, or you should do this or you should do that. Anything from listening to a specific soundtrack or taking a foot bath or whatever it is, these are all great points. Where I am going with my work is dig in behind the behaviour where all our thoughts and emotions are. Not only explore them as some people do and some therapists will do with you happily, I always try to help my clients transform these inner experiences. That’s why my website is called Transforming ADHD and not Managing ADH or Killing your ADHD or whatever. There are many different ways of talking about ADHD. I think that you can get under your own skin and transform whatever is going on in there. If you are having a meltdown, that may not be the best time to explore what’s going on inside of you. You want to just get out of that breakdown or meltdown.
You want to start becoming aware of the emotions that are driving you into this meltdown, whether it is “I have to perform so I have to work more than I’m really capable of,” or it’s “I’m not good enough so I am constantly in this.” If the conviction is, “I’m not good enough,” you’ll spend most of your day in this fearful state of being seen as who you really are, the classical Impostor Syndrome. Or maybe you are just really sensitive to a certain type of input, whether that be sounds from the office environment you’re in. You may want to figure out a way to tune those out, whether it’s a mental strategy or a physical strategy with earphones or whatnot. I think it’s a lot about this realisation process of what is it inside of me that is driving me into this meltdown. Most meltdowns are the result of whatever is going on inside of you, whether it’s your body’s cry for help or your mind’s cry for help, or whether you’re just exhausted from trying to do something or be something that you’re not.
I think that last comment that you made is really a huge epiphany for people to have and to realise that sometimes we’ve had ourselves in situations that just don’t work for us and the way our bodies and minds work and exist in an optimal state. For me, it’s only now that I look back and realise working in an open-plan office for years and years was just about the worst thing that I could have done to myself. It is a societal norm and I was on a particular career track. The fact that it really contributed to me having frazzled nerves by the time I fully hit the burnout wall, it is what it is. It’s also interesting now for me to feel more empowered about understanding how I work and pay attention in a way that also works for my mind and my body. I’m really protective of those conditions today, but that’s also because I’ve carved out a life and a way of working for myself that gives me that autonomy. I appreciate not everyone has that so I think it’s, as you say, really important for individuals to work out what’s the physical or the mental tactic that can help them.
Start thinking of life as something you optimise continuously, instead of having this routine and it doesn’t work and then you go out the next day and do it again. Start researching and figure out how can I change just little steps everyday how things are done and how I perceive the world, how I experience the world. With some of my clients that are, for example, in a situation like the one you were in and they really want to stay there, but 70% of their focus is on everybody else in that open-space office. We’ll talk about solutions for closing yourself in. You can do this mentally. Most people have tried having the experience of being in a book, not reading a book, but really being in the book or in the movie, so that when people talk to you while you’re reading, you don’t actually hear it because you’re in the book and not in the real world. When you can create that experience from a mental place with your work, you can start creating this mental place that you go when you sit down at your desk, and that’s really powerful. Some people have a really hard time doing this. I suggest headphones, brainwaves, anything from soft music to brainwaves to complete silence. Most people will stop bothering you if you have big enough headphones on even though there’s nothing playing inside of them.
If somebody is really struggling with spinning thoughts and they’re just really feeling anxious, whether that’s in an office setting or as they’re moving around the city, have you got any particular things that we can focus on to try and feel less like we’re at the mercy of these crazy thoughts?
Yes, very much so. The way we normally think of our thoughts are as opponents. We think of them as something we need to stop or kill or get rid of. I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice like that. Most of traditional psychology is based on this oppositional way of talking about the mind. The way I work and why I have such good results that I have is that I work as if every spinning thought in there is really trying to help you. Imagine if you’re going towards overwhelm and you just keep thinking about all the things that you should be doing today. For most people, it turns out that that is a leftover strategy from childhood when they really only had to think about one or two things a day. They had to think about getting to school and who to play with after school and then to be home by dinner. That’s three things. You can have those spinning in your mind lazily and you’ll be perfectly fine.
As you move through school and through life, everything becomes more complex. You add more balls, if you will, to this spinning game of thought balls in your mind. “Too many balls in the air” will be an example of this, that when you had three balls, it’s fine because you can juggle them in your mind and you’d be fine because you knew what every ball was. For a lot of people today, they have dozens or even hundreds of things on their to-do lists and on their mind. If you try to juggle all those at the same time, you’re really using an outdated strategy. The mental strategy of juggling whatever it is that you need to do is no longer performing as it should. You can really think of the metaphor of juggling balls as what is going on inside the mind. When we do that, the metaphor is really describing what’s going on inside a mind. When we change the metaphor, we change the programming of the mind. That’s what my work is about when I say transforming ADHD, in this case, but it could really be anything, and transforming it from the inside-out. Typically, we try to transform things from the outside-in by having lists and organising and having all these sheets and whatnot.
What I want to help people get to is realising that if you have a hundred spinning thoughts, you’re not doing it bad or you shouldn’t oppose that. You should really change it and try to figure out, “If I take all these thoughts and in my mind bring them down in front of me so I can get the full overview. Change them from balls to headlines instead.” Suddenly it’s a very different way of experiencing all these tasks, and most people will get the full overview and some calm. It doesn’t mean the tasks go away but it means that you have a different relationship to them because you can get the overview. I don’t know if that makes sense, but that is the essence of my work, to move into the metaphor and accept that whenever people use a metaphor, it’s really based on what’s going on inside their mind.
For the person who’s got the crazy to-do list and all of the busy thoughts and the spinning thoughts, do they have a moment of clarity whereby they realise they can cut some things from the list? How do you think that works in your experience with both your clients and yourself running your business with a young family and a long to-do list, I imagine, at times?
The moment of clarity is when one of my clients realise that they’re not stupid, they’re not lazy or wrong. They’re just using a strategy that’s no longer helpful, that’s inexpedient for them and the strategy is changeable. As I said, that doesn’t change the fact that there are many tasks, but there are a lot of ways to perceive this huge amount of tasks. I had one client come in and explain that his experience of going to work was to get on a rollercoaster. He would be on the rollercoaster until he got off work. Because the rollercoaster was spinning and going up and down, it would just be this incredible ride that was supposed to be a joyride but wasn’t after a couple of hours. When things are so hectic, you really don’t get to this deep work place that Cal Newport is talking about, because there’s always more to talk about, there’s always more projects coming in. When he changed this metaphor, this inner experience of being on a rollercoaster to actually being in a garden where he had vegetables that were his projects and tasks, he could have something grow for weeks or months and tend those projects and move around them in an orderly fashion and prioritising and see what project or task needed his nurturing that day. His physical anxiety level just completely went to zero after that and he got so much more done because he was able to focus on one thing at a time.
I think that’s often the key to really just pay attention and be fully engaged with this one thing. Multi-tasking is something that we’re encouraged a lot of and life-hacking and using all these different productivity tools and hacks. Actually sometimes, that just leads to us feeling scattered and more stressed out, rather than really engaging in the one thing and then moving on to the next one thing.
Single-tasking is the way to go.
Anders, where can people find out more about you and your work?
The listeners can find me at TransformingADHD.com, and from there find whatever social media I’m on. That would the easy place to find me.
Lastly, I have to ask you, what are you curious about right now?
I am an incredibly curious person. I recently took one of these character strength test and curiosity just popped out as one of my primary strengths. I’m curious about a lot of things all the time. Right now, I’m really curious about nutrition. While I have been interested in nutrition, I’m getting to this deeper layer of understanding not just that there are these things that I have to put in my smoothie and my salad and whatnot, but understanding the nutritional complexity that’s below this. That’s really fascinating.
Anders, thank you so much for being a guest on the Urban Curiosity podcast today.
Thank you for having me.