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A Guide to Surviving in the Wilderness (and Other Places) with ADHD
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By Michelle Frank, Psy.D.

On a recent camping trip to enjoy the Fall colors, my cousins and I were searching for games to play around the campfire when we stumbled upon a friend's old deck of Wilderness Survival Tips cards. I'm not sure if they were meant to be funny but they entertained us for hours. The tips and tricks were not so tricky, after all. Some were nearly sarcastic in their simplicity; others hyperbolic, catastrophic and generally gloomy. Charming!

Did you know, for instance, that necessary camping supplies include a space blanket, barometer, weather computer and avalanche pick? Otherwise, good luck to you. If your friends get lost, secure a six mile perimeter, and perform a grid search. Despite such efforts, the prognosis seems to be: "Outlook not good"! (So much for my mother's advice to "Stay put and wait!")

For all its outrageousness, some of the best advice was so obvious it was nearly insulting, albeit valid.

  • How to Survive a Bear Attack? Do not go where bears may be lurking.
  • What Do You Do If There's An Avalanche? Do not go where there may be avalanches.
  • What To Do If You Spot a Mountain Lion: You shouldn't be wherever there may be mountain lions.


Slightly offended by the lack of complexity this "guide" had to offer, I credit it for its honesty. It made me think how we often overlook our own simple needs. We complicate things unnecessarily and fight the path of least resistance. We work through lunch, ignoring hunger to ride the hyper-focus wave and push through the workday as painlessly as possible. We over commit for a plethora of reasons. We do not follow the most basic strategies because they seem simplistic and therefore insulting, or because they are just too annoying to implement.

Adults with ADHD have a particular need to be mindful and intentional about setting themselves up for success. They work harder to get focused, complete things and remember where they put their keys. They may need more reminders than others, be easily overwhelmed and regularly feel scattered. The ADHD brain needs more breaks and routine periods of downtime to de-stress than a neurotypical brain, simply as a by-product of the way their brain works; which is often brilliantly but not always efficiently. The ADHD brain has difficulty tuning out stimuli, deciding where to focus its attention and regulating start-stop mechanisms. It can be tiring.

Surviving in the wilderness, or anywhere, comes down to prevention; setting boundaries and making purposeful, compassionate decisions to commit to helpful behaviors. We cannot prevent inclement weather or wandering bears, but we can identify and anticipate our challenges. We can, at least in part, prevent or minimize the overload, the distracting environment, the opportunity to procrastinate or avoid, the crash of motivation and the inevitable moment of self-contempt. Stop creating your own avalanches!

The most important boundaries are those we set for ourselves. Some call it discipline, but this carries a negative connotation. Instead of seeing limits as an external mandate or "should," think of your commitments as a personal choice to care for yourself... as "could." Choose to set yourself up for success. Decide to stick to a schedule for the day and prioritize just three tasks or commit to a regular physical activity three times per week for one month - these have nothing to do with discipline and everything to do with making a commitment to your own wellbeing. If the commitments don’t work, the mindful thing to do is ask why and make adjustments. Maybe you're still thinking "should" and trying to commit to something that just doesn’t work for you (like those 5 am workouts!)

Ultimately, the message is this: Make choices to protect and care for yourself. Do not over commit, do not say yes when you mean no and do not "Follow the Rationalization Train to Avoidance Town." Do commit to a structured schedule, speak your mind (just pause first to be sure!) and choose to surround yourself with positivity.

Do not forget your materials and supplies. No space blanket needed... this time. Use your planner, electronic or paper, every day. Consider medication. Talk to a coach or therapist. Rejoice in the plethora of smart phone apps with reminders, To Do list guides and timers galore. Use accountability partners to keep you on track with commitments. Break down tasks into the simplest parts, and then break them down again. Reconsider your To Do list. ALWAYS have a place to jot down ideas or thoughts and consider voice activated dictation software. Keep your keys next to the door and, for the love of all that is sacred, use automatic bill pay!

And if you suddenly find yourself interested in camping (at least some of you reading this have already acquired all of the necessary supplies and keep intending to go), I highly recommend Indiana's Shades' State Park. Keep it in mind for the moment when you commit to doing something for yourself and following through on a passion not yet pursued.

After all, as Tolkien wisely bemused, "Not all who wander are lost." Enjoy your journey.

Action Potential:

1. Prevention is everything for avoiding wilderness (read: life) catastrophes.

2. Your choices matter. To avoid an avalanche, walk away from where avalanches occur. Start small. What is one tiny, realistic, and time-limited behavior you could commit to this week to set yourself up for success? What is one small thing that always makes you feel good, inspired, relaxed, confident or organized? Do that.

3. Do not forget your supplies. Outsource. Establish an external hard-drive by using systems, technology and a lot of "Notes to Self."

4. Don't forget to pause and enjoy your trip.

Dr. Michelle Frank is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist located in Chicago, IL. She specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of ADHD and related challenges. Dr. Frank understands ADHD and takes an active and empowering approach in helping clients live successfully in spite of challenges. Learn more at: and

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