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Part 4: Hygiene
Welcome back to Part 4 of the series! This is a multi-part series on Symptoms of ADHD you usually don’t hear about. If you missed the intro and the first three parts, you can read those here:
Today we’re talking about Hygiene. This is not something anyone wants to admit to, but a lot of ADHDers have trouble keeping up with their personal hygiene. As a kid it’s more acceptable to forget to brush your teeth or avoid taking a bath, because kids are expected to be a little wild. But as an adult… it’s kind of a big deal. This problem is a secret source of shame for many adults with ADHD.
To make it easier for your ADHD brain to navigate this Article, you can jump to whichever section you want to read:
- It’s not just you (there’s a lot of us who struggle with it too)
- Common problems and the reasons that could be behind them
- What you can do about it (this is definitely not an unsolvable problem)
A little about my own experience
When I was growing up I had a lot of trouble keeping up with my hygiene. Hopefully I hid it well enough at school, but I’ll probably never know for sure. For all I know I could have been known as the gross girl who obviously used Febreze one too many times instead of washing her jeans. God, I hope not.
The things I struggled with the most were:
- Washing the makeup off my face at night
This resulted in a many-years battle with acne, to the point that my dermatologist informed me I was the “poster child for Accutane” …not exactly something you want to hear.
- Showering in the morning before school
No matter how many alarms I set for myself, I would always wake up ten minutes before I had to be at my bus stop. All I had time for was frantically scrambling to find clothes to throw on, and slapping some makeup on my face. No breakfast and no Shower.
- Washing my laundry consistently
I think my mom eventually gave up on doing my laundry due to the knee-high pile of clothes covering my bedroom floor. And my ADHD brain wasn’t great at remembering to wash my clothes on a regular basis…
- Remembering to brush my teeth
Regular toothpaste hurt like hell and caused my mouth to water uncontrollably while I stood there wincing in pain. So even the nights I did remember to brush, I sometimes still wouldn’t just because I knew it would hurt so bad.
Being a girl with ADHD sucked
As a girl, this was an extra embarrassing secret for me. Poor hygiene was not something I would have ever openly admitted to. I always hoped it was this hard for everyone, but I figured I was probably alone in this particular struggle. Guys can usually get away with being a little gross or unkempt, but as girls we grow up feeling this everpresent pressure to look perfect, smell perfect… just to BE perfect in general. And I definitely tried, but too often I found myself falling short of hygienic expectations that were thought of as normal and effortless for the rest of the world.
This was one of the many ADHD symptoms that caused a good bit of damage to my self-esteem. Why did so much of my private life resemble that of an unruly boy rather than a well-mannered, well-kept girl? My room wasn’t a neatly organized space with frilly pink pillows and photos of my horseback riding adventures hung on the walls (this is how I imagined every other girl’s room looked).
My floor was covered in clothing, both dirty and clean with no obvious way of knowing which was which, unless you were me of course. Only I understood the tornado that was my bedroom. My closet was full of empty hangers because I despised hanging my clothes. There was more clothing spilling out from the closet floor into the bedroom along with miscellaneous books, papers, art projects and god knows what else. I had even taken the liberty of writing and drawing all over the walls in sharpie (sorry about that mom…). So basically, I was NOT what I imagined a typical girl should be.
Learning to Accept Myself
For many years I was secretly ashamed of not being a girly girl, though publicly I tried to play it off as being artsy or a tomboy. While I was definitely artsy, I wasn’t as much of a tomboy as I wanted people to think. I have a lot of interests and habits that seem more common with guys than with girls, but I’m a girly-girl at heart for sure.
The older I got the more I learned to embrace both sides of myself. It just so happens that my inner girly-girl isn’t into horseback riding or frilly pink stuff. She also doesn’t have beautiful handwriting, and has to put a lot of effort into remembering to keep up with her personal hygiene. Turns out most people have both sides to them in varying degrees anyway, so it wasn’t as big of a deal as it felt like when I was growing up.
Even though I got better at accepting myself the way I was, it was still a total mystery to me why I had such a hard time with something as simple and routine as personal hygiene. I was diagnosed at a young age, so I knew I had it. But nobody had thoroughly explained to me what having ADHD meant. I knew it had something to do with not being able to pay attention, and that it was most likely the reason my grades were so bad. I would have never guessed that something like forgetting to brush my teeth was a symptom of my ADHD.
Learning to Cope
I started showering at night before bed when I had no time constraints, and putting my deodorant and outfit for the next day out before going to sleep. I would also braid my hair in the shower so I didn’t have to do anything to it in the morning.
I learned that I needed toothpaste for sensitive gums. I’m fairly certain this can be at least partially blamed on something called Sensory Overload, which many ADHDers are prone to. But I’ll get to that in a minute.
I learned to have face wipes on hand because there will always be those nights where passing out feels way more enticing that washing my face, and that makeup needs to come off.
Common Problems & Possible Reasons
There are so many reasons we might be struggling to keep up with our personal hygiene. But luckily, there’s plenty we can do about it.
Here are some common hygiene difficulties listed by Adults with ADHD
- Hating the feeling of hands pruning up in the water
- The texture or flavor of toothpaste
- The process feels like a chore/pain in the ass/takes too much time
- Hair too long, gets tangly and frustrating especially in the shower
- Hating the feeling of being wet
- Hating the feeling of wet hair, especially if it’s long and heavy
- Hating the feeling of wet hair touching your skin
- The whole process is just too boring
- Not having the motivation to do it until it becomes necessary
- Hating the feeling of brushing hair
- Hating the feeling of lotion
- Having an aversion to water in general
- Remembering to do any of it in the first place
- Scented products smell too intense, sometimes even hurting the nose
- Bathroom lights being too bright, especially first thing in the morning
Some likely culprits
- Dopamine Deficiency
As I’ve mentioned many times in previous Articles… our ADHD brains are dopamine deficient. Because of this they’re always searching for ‘hits of dopamine’.
An activity that has an immediate reward (like checking our Facebook and seeing that someone liked our status) is super attractive to the ADHD brain. This is because that reward gives our brain a hit of dopamine.
But an activity that doesn’t have an immediately obvious reward (like keeping up with moisturizing our face to prevent future wrinkles) is not as attractive to our brains. So we can easily put it off one night, then another night and another until one day we realize we haven’t put moisturizer on in like…a month.
Our brains are on a constant search for stimulation. That’s why we tend to get more addicted to super stimulating things like iPhones, Food, and even Drugs. And that’s also why something mundane like brushing our teeth or shaving our legs can fall by the wayside. It’s just not that stimulating.
- Trouble with Prioritizing and Sticking to a Schedule
We may have difficulty making a shower a priority when we’re already struggling to make…anything…a priority. We don’t prioritize in the same way as the other humans. We categorize our priorities like this:
1. Stuff we want to do, always top of the list!
2. Stuff we need to do, a close second because yikes, it’s urgent!
3. Stuff we should do, often not even on the list because…it can wait, right?
We have no problem doing the stuff we want to do. If it’s something we’re actually into, it’s likely stimulating and rewarding for our brains.
And as far as doing stuff that needs to get done, we’re pretty good at that too. Knowing that there’s pressure to do something (like studying for the exam because suddenly we realize it’s happening tomorrow) provides adequate motivation for our brains to kick into gear and get it done.
When it comes to stuff we should do, however, it’s a totally different story. If we can’t see an immediate reward or consequence, we’ll probably put it off until it becomes a thing we need to do. For example, we might not shave our legs for weeks until suddenly we have to attend a wedding and shaving our legs becomes a must.
It’s especially hard to prioritize anything when we’re already not great at sticking to a schedule. A lot of times we’re amazing at creating a schedule (just ask my boyfriend about my giant pile of fancy, partially used planners), but maintaining it is where things get tricky. It’s hard to consistently make sure we brush our teeth, shower, etc. when there’s not a structured schedule for those things to fit into.
ADHD brains are notorious for being unaware of how much time is passing. Maybe we have to be at work in three hours, and instead of jumping in the shower and getting ready we decide we have plenty of time to play our favorite video game first. Then before we know it, we have 30 minutes to book it out the door and we didn’t even put our work clothes on. No shower today I guess.
- Sensory Overload
This one is really common in people with ADHD. Sensory Overload occurs when one or more of the body’s senses experiences over-stimulation from the environment. For example, the tag on our shirt may be so bothersome that we can’t focus on anything until we cut it out. Or the sound of the fan in the bathroom is just…too much..and it’s jumbling our brain.
There are many ways Sensory Overload can affect our ability to keep up with Hygiene. We might avoid showering because we find the scent of our soap overwhelming or we hate the feeling of wet, heavy hair afterwards. Maybe we don’t want to brush our teeth because our gums are so sensitive.
Let’s talk Solutions
How can we use this knowledge to our benefit? How can we leverage knowing the ‘why’ behind our struggle with hygiene?
How to solve the Dopamine problem
We can attach our own Reward. We know that our brains are dopamine deficient, and we know that we respond best when there’s an immediately obvious reward involved. Could we create a little reward system for ourselves, so the mundane task we’re avoiding feels more exciting?
If you live with someone you trust, like a romantic partner, you could ask them to help you with this. It might be a little embarrassing, so let yourself joke about it a bit and that should make it easier to talk about. Plus…it is kind of funny, right? You’ve got to be able to laugh at yourself sometimes. Plus, being serious is boring and we don’t like boring.
Let’s say you have trouble making yourself wash your face before bed. Try giving your trusted housemate a pile of one dollar bills (no, not for the stripclub, you dirty dog) and ask them to give you one dollar every time you actually wash your face. Use your face-washing money to save up for something you always want to buy but never do because it’s not “on the list”. Like that candle that smells like food? Or that other candle that smells like a different type of food?
Another thing we can do to solve the Dopamine problem is adding our own brain stimulation. Showering can be pretty boring. But did you know there’s such a thing as a bluetooth shower speaker? Whattt? Yep, I assure you it’s true. You can listen to podcasts or music or whatever you fancy, all while showering. I mean, I don’t own a fancy bluetooth shower speaker (yet) but I do have a speaker that I probably shouldn’t put in the bathroom while it turns into a steam room. And that works just fine. For now.
I honestly can’t do anything unless there’s something stimulating my brain. I’m an avid podcast listener, especially long-form podcasts because I can put them on and have them playing in the background for a few hours before having to decide on the next thing to listen to. The Joe Rogan Experience is my favorite long-form podcast because he has a great mix of humor and interesting conversation.
When it’s not a podcast, it’s music from one of my many Youtube playlists. I even have playlists I made that have only music without words. Hearing words scrambles my brain when I’m reading or writing, so I’m always collecting wordless music for my brain to munch on while I work.
How to solve the Prioritizing, Scheduling and Time-Blindness Problems
A good way to deal with Time-Blindness is by using something called Time Blocking (which I explain in one of my previous articles). Basically, you do things in specific blocks of time and that helps with the overwhelm of a task and it helps you be aware of how much time is passing. I use time blocking the most when I have an entire counter full of dirty dishes, which happens more often than I’d like to admit. Not a hygiene thing, but it can obviously apply to that too.
I’ll set a timer for ten minutes and I’ll only wash dishes for that amount of time. Once the timer goes off, I set it for 30 minutes and do something else. When the 30 minutes is up I set it for ten minutes again and get more dishes done. I go back and forth like that until they’re all clean. It makes mundane tasks feel less overwhelming, which helps me actually start them in the first place. And if I didn’t set the timer I’d either wash dishes for so long that I get fed up and walk away without finishing, or I’d spend way more than a half hour working on other stuff, forgetting about the dishes altogether.
For helping the ADHD brain with Prioritizing and Scheduling, this is a great time to be alive. There’s an app for almost everything our brains have trouble with. In fact, there’s usually several apps for the same thing, and we get to pick and choose which one works best for our particular brain.
I’m not ashamed to say that I definitely couldn’t function without my smartphone. Okay, I’m a little ashamed, but I shouldn’t be. And neither should you. We’re so, so lucky to have access to tools like this. A lot of us remember a time when we had to go to the library and hopefully find a book about whatever it was we wanted to learn.
It was a time where if we needed to remember something important, we had to write it down and make sure we put it somewhere we could see it. And if our cat swatted that piece of paper off the fridge and into the trash… there’s a good chance we wouldn’t remember it at all.
Now we have Apps, Alexa and a bunch of other technological wonders to help us pretend like we’re amazing at being adults. I pride myself on finding great apps specifically for ADHD brains, and I thought I’d put together a list for you with some of the best ones I could find. It’s a free gift from my ADHD brain to yours:
How to solve Sensory Overload
If something about the process of showering makes you feel uncomfortable, maybe you can try working up a sweat or working out in the garden before showering. That way the discomfort of being dirty and gross outweighs the discomfort you’re avoiding.
If you hate the feeling of your hair being heavy and wet after a shower, you could get a shower cap and only wash your hair every few days, when it feels like you need to. It’s healthier for your hair if you skip a day or two anyway. Maybe even get some dry shampoo for the days you use the shower cap.
If you can’t stand wet hair touching your skin, there’s something called a Turbie Twist you could get that I’ve heard can be a big help. This was suggested to me in a ADHD support group I’m a member of. I’m planning on getting one soon, because I don’t like my clothes getting all wet from my hair after a shower and every time I try to put my hair up in a towel it just comes unraveled over and over. So frustrating.
If regular toothpaste hurts your gums like crazy, you probably need a toothpaste for gum sensitivity. I was using Sensodyne for a long time but I wanted to find a more natural alternative after reading up on some of the ingredients. After some searching I found a toothpaste called Magic Mud that I’m now totally in love with.
The name sounds a little weird, but hear me out. This toothpaste actually reverses sensitivity and is really soothing for your mouth. And the ingredients are all natural and don’t include any of the icky stuff in normal tooth paste. There’s also a Magic Mud mouthwash that leaves your mouth feeling awesome and clean.
And if it’s the taste or texture of the toothpaste that bothers you, experiment with different brands and flavors until you find one you don’t mind using. I’ve heard that kids toothpaste flavors are sometimes more tolerable. Bubblegum flavor seems like a good option.
These tips are specific to some of the more common sensory overload complaints. If your issue isn’t included, get creative and try to find your own solution. Then come back and tell us about it in the comments. I’d love to hear what you came up with, and I’m sure there’s someone out there who could benefit from hearing it too.
A few more ideas
For long tangly hair that’s annoying in the shower, try getting a wet brush. This thing glides through hair like butter. It’s pretty incredible. Or you could try cutting your hair short. Apparently tons of ADHDers opt for a shorter hairstyle and are really glad they made the decision. As for me, every time I’ve gotten my hair cut shorter I’ve left the salon in tears. I have a bad case of haircut regret.
In general, it’s a good idea to have backup plans in place for those times where you’re too tired, lazy or busy. Always try to have dry shampoo, wet wipes, face wipes, and mouthwash on hand so you can at least do something. It’ll make it easier to not beat yourself up over it.
If you have trouble getting motivated to take a shower, wash your face, etc., it can sometimes help to spend a little extra on fancy products that make you more excited to use them. Using a body wash from Bath&Body Works that smells like heaven is much more exciting than using a generic body wash you picked up at the dollar store. Obviously this depends on your financial situation though. I know I’ve had to start settling for less-fancy stuff from walmart and the dollar store in recent years, but once my budget allows for it…I’m totally dishing out the extra dollars.
What about You?
Is Hygiene something you’ve struggled to keep up with? I hope you’re able to walk away from today’s Article equipped with the knowledge and solutions you needed.
If you found this one helpful, you’ll probably get a lot out of the rest of the series too. Sign up for the mailing list below and I’ll let you know when each part comes out.
And if you missed the intro and first three parts, you can catch up here:
Until Next Time,
Keep Calm and Grow On
Join the Conversation!
- Has Hygiene ever been a struggle for you?
- What are some tricks you’ve had to implement to better keep up with it?
Let me know in the Comments 🙂
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Article I wrote about it
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