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ep.17: Leaning into Discomfort with Dr. Saara Haapanen

There's nothing quite as invigorating as stepping out of your comfort zone, is there? I had the opportunity to chat with Dr. Saara Haapanen, an expert in sports and exercise psychology, who knows all too well about this feeling. Sara's journey is both inspiring and enlightening, especially for those of us learning to navigate life with ADHD.

We highlight how people with ADHD often grapple with this issue, and we bring to the table some effective strategies to overcome this challenge. This episode is a masterclass on self-care, persistence, and motivation for everyone, particularly those managing ADHD. So, join us, and understand ADHD and motivation like never before.

Coming soon, I'm rolling out The ADHD Academy! Click here to learn more!

What you'll learn:

  • The role of discomfort in growth and personal development

  • Strategies for breaking down tasks into manageable pieces

  • Keeping promises to oneself and strategies to build a habit of doing so

  • Dr. Haapanen's experiences and how it shaped her understanding of motivation

"Out of all the things you can control, regardless if you have children or a significant other, the only human you can control on this whole planet is you." - Dr. Saara Haapanen

Useful links mentioned:

Learn more about Dr. Saara Haapanen:

Dr. Saara is a seasoned wellness expert, speaker, and coach with 24 years of experience transforming lives. Her diverse background includes coaching athletes on the world stage and pioneering corporate wellness programs, she's dedicated her career to empowering individuals to achieve their optimal well-being.

Her Master's and PhD are in Sports and Exercise Psychology, and her expertise lies in unlocking the secrets of motivation. She is an internationally recognized researcher in the field of motivation and optimal human performance.

Dr. Saara's journey has many highs and lows including discovering 12 days before the Olympics she wasn’t going, and overcoming many health challenges, including diagnoses of ADHD and traumatic brain injuries.

She's made it her mission to teach humans about mindset and motivation for optimal success and reclaim their vitality through holistic wellness and mindset shifts.

She loves to help humans break through barriers and thrive to have happier healthier lives, and to teach ADHD women about their superpowers.

Listen to the Episode:

Click here to read the transcript:

Welcome to Learn to Thrive with ADHD. This is the podcast for adults with ADHD or ADHD-like symptoms. I'm your host, Coach Mande John. I'm here to make your life with ADHD easier. Let's get started.

All right. Welcome back! This week, we have Dr. Saara. Can you say your name for me, please?

Saara: Saara Haapanen.

Mande: Thank you. And where does that come from? Tell them about your descent.

Saara: My genes are a hundred percent Finnish. My mother and father are Finnish. My father was born in Canada to a Finnish family and my mom was born in Finland and went to visit Canada and met my dad and that's where I grew up in Canada.

And then I came to the United States. On a full ride diving scholarship, and I met my husband that was 20 years ago, and then we actually together with our dog at that time moved to Finland so I could train for the Olympics to represent Finland.

I actually found out 12 days before the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics, I wasn't going, and then, but I did my master's there, and started my PhD then we moved to Denver, Colorado, to check it out for a year, that was in 2010, and we're still here, and now I also have an American citizenship as well.

Mande: Very interesting. I didn't know about the Olympics. That's fascinating. So, tell the audience what your background is as far as what you do.

Saara: My undergrad is in kinesiology and health promotion. So, I didn't really know what I wanted to do, but I knew who I didn't want to be. So, I knew I really wanted to be healthy.

I kind of wanted to be opposite from my family. So, it’s actually ironic when I was doing my undergrad, I said, I will never be a personal trainer and I will never help anybody get fit. I only want to work with elite athletes. There's a little foreshadowing there. And then it was very relevant to me because I was an athlete myself.

I took one course in a graduate level course in sports and exercise psychology. And my whole life changed. So, then I decided that was really relevant to me. Psychology was amazing. I got actually introduced to psychology through a human behavior class. I actually have my two dogs sitting right behind me as a recording.

And prior to me going to college, I thought I was going to be a veterinarian and I was so blessed to have the opportunity in my last semester in high school to do a co-op placement. So, I actually worked in a vet's office and that was life changing for me because I really realized I don't want to be a vet.

The number of animals that they put down and euthanize and all they do is spay and neuter, it wasn't what I thought it was going to be. So, I'm blessed, but I love animals and we are doing this human behavior class and the teacher asked, it was like one of those 300 style lecture courses. And the teacher asked, does anyone here have a puppy?

And of course, we're all in college. So, someone's going to have a puppy, and someone said, yeah, I have a puppy. So, it was a Tuesday class. They brought their puppy on Thursday and this woman had the puppy on stage and used positive reinforcement and taught the dog so many tricks and was like, you train humans exactly the same way.

And my mind was blown. And at that moment I was like, oh, I thought I wanted to do health promotion, but I also want to do psychology because your mind is huge. And look, you can train humans just how you train dogs. So that kind of got me going towards psychology and then I took a sports and exercise psychology class, fell absolutely in love, decided to move to Finland.

I was in the 1st year program of the English-speaking sports and exercise psychology program. And then, I also stayed there to do my PhD and then moved to the United States to collect data. But that's kind of the short story of that.

Mande: And one thing that we haven't brought up yet is Saara does have ADHD. So, she understands our brain and how it works because she has one.

We were talking before the call and one thing you mentioned was that you've done a lot of work in motivation. So, can you tell me about that?

Saara: Yeah. So, I actually still have the world's largest study ever done on divers and it's on motivation. I do have ADHD and when we are interested in something, we are hyper focused and really interested in that.

And I knew that my brain was different, and I knew motivation didn't come to me as easily as other people. So, for my master's dissertation, I really looked at motivation and that was basically my whole dissertation. There's two main theories called the self-determination theory and the achievement goal theory.

And I really dug into the research and really went head over heels about motivation and continued on that way into my PhD, not knowing that I had ADHD. And what happened is, I had a research grant, I was going back and forth from Finland to the United States, my research grant got taken away, I got frustrated with the academic system, basically, when you're in academia, your work no longer becomes your work, you're writing stuff for other people, and your name goes last, and it's very frustrating.

So, I took some time off. I took about five years off. Then my supervisor was like, sorry, you can't do a PhD. You have to finish in 10 years. Like you can’t be a student anymore. Like you need to get done now. And so, what happened for me is, I went to go read the academic writing that I had written when I was really interested in motivation and sports psychology, and I was working with athletes, none of the information was going into my brain.

I would reread the sentence and the paragraph over and over again. I'm like, what the heck? Like I wrote this. Why don't I understand it? Why isn't it relevant? I saw the words, the words were going into my brain, but I couldn't process them. I was like, what the heck is going on? So, I got really worried, and I got a brain scan and they said, your frontal lobe turns off when you do a boring task.

And I said, that's what I was trying to explain. Like, I'm trying to read this. That's not going in there. Yeah, a hundred percent, you have ADHD. And at that time, I also got diagnosed with TBI. So, traumatic brain injury. Some of my sport I've had like 10 concussions, but in all lobes of my brain. So, that kind of solidified like, oh, my brain is different.

I always knew it was different. This is why I dove deep into motivation. But then, knowing I had a year left and I needed to get my dissertation done and I was not interested. And I have to do the hard things. How am I going to get this thing written when I can't even read it? But it was nice to know, like, my brain is not broken.

It's just a unicorn brain and very unique. So, then I really hyper focused, started hyper focusing on ADHD and how to make life easier because we can't change our brain, but we can give ourselves tools and tricks and I know lots of people hate the word hacks, but shortcuts to be able to really learn how our brain works.

And I think a huge part of that is really challenging for all of us is to do just comforting things, getting out of your comfort zone, like all those things. If it doesn't challenge you, it doesn't change you, but taking action to do that on purpose, because It's a life skill, and it's transferable.

Mande: And just for my clients that are listening, you heard what she said, right? Being uncomfortable on purpose, I'm always trying to convince them of that, and it's a hard sell.

Saara: Yeah. Not just ADHD brain, every brain out there has two jobs, to keep us alive and to keep us safe from not dying.

And our brains work by repeating behaviors that has kept us alive up until now. Regardless, if that's serving our bigger goal, often, it's because that big goal is scary and our brain is like, whoa, whoa, whoa! We don't want to do this. We've never done this before. This is challenging. So, our conscious mind, you can think of it like gas and a brake pedal in the car, our conscious mind wants to move us forward towards our goals to do hard things, but then your subconscious.

Because you're doing new scary things, if you haven't practiced this idea that we're going to chat about of getting discomfort on purpose, then your subconscious is going to put the brake on and be like, whoa, we've never done this before. This is scary. We are going to kind of like self-sabotage and keep you from not doing that because that's scary.

So, one of the things that I love to work with on people is getting uncomfortable on purpose. So, I'm also a personal trainer. I'm just going to tell a story really quick. I, in college, as I said earlier, like, never wanted to take a fat person and make them skinny, and that's not what I do at all. I help people get healthy and change their lives.

But after working with elite athletes, I had a client, I got really depressed. My husband's like, because I was doing my research, not knowing that I had ADHD, and it was super boring for me. My husband's like, well, why don't you do some personal training? Like you did in college that seemed to make you happy.

And I helped one woman change her life and I never looked back. Like that was so much more motivating for me to see. How it has a huge impact on someone's life when you give them the skills versus helping an athlete to get them one second faster jump higher. And I still train athletes and I like working with them.

They work harder in a different way, but I really love changing someone's lifestyle. And that really starts with your mindset and the way that you think, and those things can apply. In the gym, in your career, raising your kids, like they are life transferable skills. So how do you get discomfort on purpose?

You can do that in the gym. You can do that in a social setting. It might be something, this is not my idea. A lot of podcasters talk about it. I heard it the first time like 10 years ago, but you can do something like going to Starbucks and asking for a 10 percent discount. Like, yeah, that's going to be really uncomfortable.

Baristas have the capability to say yes or no, but to know, like, I'm not going to get hurt in this situation, but I am wanting to get discomfort on purpose. I do it, I have a sauna, and I also have a cold plunge. And that's one of the ways that I do it, is I get myself uncomfortable whether that's too hot or too cold, and just pushing that boundary a little bit farther.

Can I stay in here for two more breaths? Can I put, like, one more ladle of water on the stove so it gets hotter? But doing that on purpose, knowing that it might be a little bit discomfortable, but I'm not going to get hurt, this is not going to kill me, but we kind of have to trick and train our brains to do that on purpose.

So, in real life situations, when we want to move the ball farther towards our goal, when we actually are dipping our foot into the comfort zone, it's not as challenging as it would be. If you didn't train that muscle.

Mande: You mentioned earlier getting like 1% better or doing like one hard thing. What would that look like for people that don't have saunas or cold plunges?

What would that look like for people to do that one hard thing a day?

Saara: It could be super, super tiny. And it can be different for every single human, like what is hard. What is easy for me is probably hard for a lot of people. So, 1% better every single day, a year from now, you're not going to recognize yourself.

And the thing that I love about this concept is when you're in it, it's not that hard versus making these big, huge changes. And then our brain is going to put that back brake pedal on. Or we're going to have that self-sabotage, but 1% better could be, I'm going to stick to health and fitness just because that's right up my alley.

Could be drinking one more glass of water. Could be consciously in the moment when you want the cookie to say, I am deciding to make a different choice, I instead am going to have an apple and some protein. Or it could also be, I'm going to have the cookie, but I'm only going to have 1 and I'm going to add peanut butter onto it.

I always really like it, especially with health and fitness when you're getting started, not to take things away, adding good. How can you add good? What's that 1 percent good? So yeah. Okay, let's say you're going to have a cookie. Can you have that cookie with, if you can eat dairy and I'm jealous if you can, can you have that cookie with like some protein yogurt on top?

Can you, like, don't not have the cookie. How can you add in good? How can you add just something small? You want to walk around the block one more time or you are going to stop, let's go one block further. It doesn't have to be so huge. Just tiny, tiny, tiny little changes can make a big, big difference.

Because there are no neutral decisions. We think there are, but every single thing you do during your day is either going to go more towards the positive or staying the same. I don't like to say negative, like if nothing changes, nothing changes, but you can make a tiny 1 percent change or you can say the same.

And it's all the tiny little choices, and once you start changing your mindset and just catching the way that you're thinking, be like, how can I just do this a little better? How can I do this a little healthier? Can I do this a little, whatever the word is that's going to stick in your brain. The big thing about ADHD ears is I can't tell you what to do.

And the second I tell you what to do, you're going to be like, resist, resist. And you're going to be like, no, I can't do that. So, what's going to work? What's the wording that works in your brain?

Mande: Exactly. Well, who was it? It was an ADHD doctor anyway. And she said, nobody can tell us what to do, especially ourselves.

And so, we have to be really careful in the way we say things. I know with my clients, a lot of times they'll say, well, I don't like to say it that way if we're, we're talking about like accountability or whatever it might be, there's certain things that trigger them that they're more resistant if we state it in that way, but if we just change the mindset around it.

And say it in a different way. They're perfectly fine to do it. So, one thing I really want to touch on here today is keeping promises to yourself because that is the way we make any kind of change. And that is also the thing for people with ADHD that we struggle with the most is just keeping those promises to yourself.

So, what would you have to say about that?

Saara: Yeah, I think that's so true. We are the first people to give up because no one's going to know, right? If you say you're going to do something today, who you, we tell ourselves, oh, we'll do that Monday, or no one knows. Whereas if we were to have the same appointment with a client or a friend or a family member with anybody else, we always show up for everybody else.

And there are two big things to this. First is not putting ourselves first. And that's so hard for a lot of reasons. People pleasing comes in a lot, especially if you're a parent. But when we take care of ourselves first, we flip the pyramid, and we can be better for everyone else around us. It is just also a skill that you have to develop because we're not necessarily wired to do us first.

And a lot of that also has to do with, like, quieting the brain and actually, self-care is a challenging practice for everybody. Self-care is so much more challenging for an ADHD brain, because often we don't know how to quiet it. We don't know how to actually turn that off. There was nothing that existed.

So, like I created my own way of meditation and it's, I have to get my body in a really uncomfortable position to get my brain to shut up. But keeping promises with yourself is just like training a muscle. I want you to start super, super small. Because we tend to have this all or nothing mindset, big thinking, like we're either on or off and that's not how life really works.

So, I'd like you to think about something that you can say that you're going to actually follow through on. And I actually had a client who was like, yeah, I'm going to fold all my laundry and put it away. That's like the one thing I want to get today. I have this thing I made up that I said, don't burn the laundry.

It's a really great way to understand like, let's say folding and putting away laundry is the hardest thing. Washing is not hard, but let's say we start doing it. We fold two t shirts, and we get a phone call, or someone comes to the door. All the rest of the laundry, you will get to it. You're not going to just throw it out or burn it and be like, oh, okay, well all or nothing.

Like throw out the clothes, let's buy new ones. You're going to come back at some time, maybe it's next week, maybe it's a month, maybe it's like in an hour, and you'll get the laundry all put away. It just might not happen on your timeline. It might not happen when you want it to, and maybe you have to do something else while you're doing that.

It's the same thing with keeping promises to yourself. So, I want you to think of one tiny thing that you can do today. Maybe it is putting away the laundry. You're going to say, I'm going to get one shirt folded, or one shirt on a hanger. And then I'm going to follow through and then tomorrow, it might be two shirts on a hanger, but as we say, we're going to do something and we follow through, we're building that muscle and that trust with ourselves, because we are the first people to break that with ourselves.

And it comes back to how we think about ourselves, how we put ourselves first, but I want everyone to know that they are the most important person in their life. And out of all the things you can control, regardless of whether you have children or a significant other, the only human you can control on this whole planet is you.

And why are we keeping promises to other people and not to ourselves? Because we're not putting ourselves first. So, it all comes back to that idea of flipping the triangle, flipping the pyramid, and putting yourself at the top, and then everything else is going to trickle down. But it's really easy to say and it's hard to do.

So, it starts with tiny, tiny promises. And following through and then you're going to get different feelings and then it's going to be easier to do the bigger, harder things. But as ADHDers, yeah, we want to do the big hard thing right away. We have such this all or nothing black or white on or off the wagon.

There's no wagon. There's just life. This is the journey of life. We get one time on this planet, one time in this body, one time to change our mindset, to be like, let's enjoy this. Let's just do 1 percent better. Enjoy the ride. Try and make better choices than poor choices. and be here and be mindful.

And at the moment, that's one of the most challenging. We didn't talk about this before, but I think for ADHD years, that's one of the most challenging things to be right here right now. And I think quieting that mind is really hard for sure. A hundred percent, 159 percent super way harder for ADHD years, but it's a skill.

And you can train it and it starts with baby steps, you know, put yourself first, keep your promises to yourself. If something is hard, how can you break it down into the next two-minute action? Not where I want to be a year from now. It's great, like reflect on that. That's awesome. But what is the next baby step you can do now?

Because transitioning is hard for us. Thinking ahead is hard for us. Planning is hard. All these things are hard for us, but what can you do right now? And then get a little itty-bitty bit of dopamine so that you can do the next 2-minute action. We don't have to make it such a big, hard thing in our brains.

Mande: Love that. Yes, that's what we're always doing with clients, breaking it down into the smallest little pieces. And you guys heard Saara here, like you're not waiting for the motivation to happen. Once you do the little task, then you get the dopamine. And then you can go after a little bit more, so that's definitely the way to go.

Well, I think we had a great conversation here today. What I would like to do is let people know where to find you.

Saara: I can be found all over the internet. My company's name is Performance is Haapanen. So, I was trying to be really clever, but my last name is spelt very Finnish. But I believe also if you go to Performance is Happening, that is redirected to me.

What I think would be valuable for ADHDers is I actually have a mindfulness guide. So that can be accessed if you go to There's a workbook in there. It's great for ADHDers because you can do hands-on stuff. And I think mindfulness is a wonderful skill that is really beneficial.

And challenging for sure because quieting that brain and being right here right now is a skill that we should all be focused on. But my mindfulness guide I think would be a really great resource for your audience for sure.

Mande: We'll get that in the show notes as well. So perfect. Well, thank you for having the conversation with me today.

Saara: Oh, this was awesome. Thank you so much.

Mande: All right. Thanks.

Thank you for your time, and especially for your attention today. If you haven't looked into the ADHD Academy, you'll want to do that. This is my membership, with binge-able courses, weekly life coaching, new courses every month, a community of like-minded people and more.

Be sure to head over to to get the details.

See you next week.

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