(originally published May 2, 1013, Updated July 17, 2020)
I know, as an adult with ADHD, you are all too familiar with what it feels like to be overwhelmed. ADHD overwhelm can seem like an ever-present companion, one you’d like to take a break from, right? But maybe you’re not sure how to do this — reduce these feelings.
So, you continue to ride the waves until they inevitably come crashing down on you. And when they do it can feel as though your brain is flooded. It might even seem like the wires in your brain are short-circuited. So, you can’t even think straight. Then you panic and go into fight, flight, or freeze mode.
While you might not know the best path forward, you do know you want to escape this feeling.
No doubt, everyone has challenges in their day-to-day life, leading to overwhelm. But your ADHD challenges may be causing you more overwhelm than your neurotypical family, friends, and colleagues. And your overwhelm, in turn, can exacerbate your ADHD symptoms.
Knowing how they’re linked can help you create the right workarounds to both mitigate your overwhelm and effectively work towards your goals. Hopefully, this understanding will also help you feel more self-compassion and reduce the shame you may feel about the way you currently operate.
As Maya Angelou said,
Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.
Ready to see how you can do better at managing your overwhelm?
What Overwhelm Can Look and Feel Like for ADHD Adults
To start, let’s look at the hypothetical scenario below where you’ll get a glimpse of Carrie’s thoughts, feelings, and actions as she struggles to start working on a report. As you’re reading think about what sounds familiar to your own situation.
Carrie has just left a meeting and thinks, “Asaf probably thinks it’s my fault the product rollout was delayed. I’ll have to deal with that later. I need to work on the Ruggles report. And I’m not even sure how to start it.”
As she opens the document Carrie feels the stress coming on. Her head feels fuzzy. Then she thinks, “Oh, maybe I should answer Paul’s email and return Sari’s call. I’m never going to get this report done in time! I can’t believe Asaf is blaming me!”
Worried about Asaf and all her other work Carrie is having a hard time getting started. But she re-engages with the report for 20 minutes until she remembers… “The sink has been leaking for a week. I should call the plumber. It will only take a minute.”
After she calls the plumber, she notices her back is hurting from the stress. She looks at the report and remembers, “I promised to be home by 6 so we would talk about summer plans over dinner tonight. I’m never going to get this report done.” It’s already 4:30.
By 5:00 she finds herself reading the paper online, instead of working, thinking, “I might as well just take a break, as I’m too stressed. And, besides, I don’t have that much time to work.”
While reading the newspaper gave Carrie some short-term relief, her overwhelm will return as her challenges are still there, right? If Carrie’s story sounds familiar, keep on reading to see what you could do differently to reduce the stress in your life.
What Is Your ADHD Overwhelm Habit?
Of course, when you’re overwhelmed, you’d like to feel a sense of relief sooner rather than later. In the above scenario with Carrie, she chose to read the paper to gain relief from her overwhelm. It’s one of her overwhelm habits.
I bet you have one, too.
Some people shut down, find a distraction, focus on an unimportant task, or maybe even eat or drink too much when they’re overwhelmed. If you’re not sure what you do, try paying attention over the next week to what happens when you become overwhelmed. You might be surprised.
Trying to stop doing something that a habit is really, hard. So, rather than focusing on stopping your overwhelm habit, the trick is to replace it with an activity that will serve you in the short run and in the long run.
If you want to learn more about how you developed your overwhelm routine, check out, ADHD and the Habit of Overwhelm. And then continue reading to learn what replacement activities you can use to change your overwhelm.
Do You Avoid Having One To-Do List Because It Overwhelms You
You might opt not to have one central task list because looking at all your open loops exacerbates your overwhelm. And, as I noted above, this overwhelm is especially magnified when you don’t have a plan for completing these open loops, right?
But, as a result, you’re probably often wondering what you’re forgetting to do. This is because you have no mechanism for remembering to remember. A central task list can be this mechanism.
Once you choose the kind of task list you want to use, you can learn how to keep your tasks list from getting too long and how to craft your task list effectively to help you execute. But a to-do list by itself is not enough to help you execute, of course.
Unless you have a plan for executing these tasks, you will still be overwhelmed and likely give up on using your to-do list before too long. Because it will just be a reminder of everything you’re not getting done. So, the next step is to get a better sense of how you’re going to complete your open loops.
And this execution planning will help you persist in using your task list.
Planning Helps ADHD Adults Reduce Their Overwhelm
Yet, you know planning is hard for ADHD adults. This was true for Carrie, too. As a result, while she ruminated about the report since she was assigned it a month ago, she did not figure out a plan of attack. And, consequently, put off starting.
Because planning is hard for ADHD adults the first step is to have a plan to plan — when and how, as well as with whom, if you want support. Whether you work with someone else or not you want to make sure to externalize you’re planning and not try to do it in your head.
Obviously, you don’t have time day to day, moment to moment to do the necessary upfront thinking. So, your planning should include a deep dive once a week to review and plan. Then each day you can follow these 7 steps to plan your day.
To get from task list to execution, as you’re planning you may decide to:
- focus on specific large projects in the upcoming weeks.
- batch similar tasks and do them at reoccurring times each day/week.
- be more attentional by choosing 1-3 essential task must get done each day
- knowing and honoring your natural rhythms when deciding how to schedule your day
Check out these 4 steps to find out more about how to go from your task list to follow through.
See Your Plan in Your Calendar and Reduce Your Overwhelm
Another reason for your overwhelm and procrastination is your ADHD challenge with time. I know because you find it difficult to estimate time accurately you may resist creating a time-based plan. But, knowing the steps without placing them in time means you might not start your projects soon enough, right?
Then, when the due date seems a long time away, you just don’t feel any urgency, your primary motivator. You may even tell yourself, “I don’t need to worry about this right now. I have plenty of time. Besides, I have too much else to do right now.”
Let’s look at Carrie’s situation. If Carrie had sketched out a plan of how to tackle the report, she would have realized she didn’t have that much time because:
- She was going on vacation for a week.
- Part of the report depended on getting information from five other people in the company. And she needed to give them enough lead time to deliver their part.
- Four days out of the month she was traveling for business, too.
- They were sure to be random unexpected pulls on her time, whether professional or personal.
The next time you think, “That’s a long time away,” pause. Remind yourself, ADHD time blindness maybe “providing” you inaccurate information. And then plan your project over time to see how much time you really have.
To learn more about ADHD time blindness and workarounds that can help you, check out, How to Fix These 5 Common ADHD Time Management Mistakes. Of course, as always, reach out for help, if this is too difficult to do on your own.
Easier Decision-Making Helps ADHD Adults Feel Less Overwhelm
Decision-making is likely another place where you may get easily overwhelmed. When unsure what to do, you may default to your overwhelm routine of avoiding thinking about it, impulsively deciding, or continuing to ruminate, but not act.
To experience less overwhelm when navigating decisions you need to make, try:
- letting go of the fear of missing out.
- deciding to have fewer options when making a choice.
- express more gratitude and less regret when making a choice.
- remove excessively high expectations and comparisons to others.
- learn to love structure. 😉
If you want to learn more about how to do the above, check out Overwhelmed by Too Many Choices? Here Are the Solutions for ADHD Adults
Less ADHD Overwhelm When You Clear Your Clutter
No doubt, physical clutter may also contribute to your feelings of overwhelm. Yet, as is true for many adults with ADHD, managing clutter can also be a challenge for you. So, you may end up ignoring it because you’re just not sure what to do. And then maybe even give up trying.
The first step to turn this around is to be aware of the impact of your clutter currently. Remember, as we all have different tolerance levels, clutter for one person may be just a decorating choice for another.
So, to assess the impact of your clutter and whether you want to do anything about it, ask yourself:
- Does my space inspire and energize me or deplete my energy?
- Do I incur any costs — late fees and lost opportunities — from my clutter?
- Am I losing time to clutter because I need to look for misplaced items, clean up the fallout from my lack of organization or become distracted from the clutter?
- Other questions?
Then, if you decide you have more clutter than you’d like, check out, Part 2 – When You Have ADHD & Your Clutter Overwhelms You to begin learning how to reduce it. You can also check out, Part 1 – When You Have ADHD & Your Clutter Overwhelms You, to learn more about the cost of clutter for ADHD adults.
Stop ADHD Overwhelm From Getting in Your Way
To summarize from above, if ADHD overwhelm is getting in your way, work on upgrading your skills in the five areas above:
- use a task manager
- create a plan to execute on your task
- make sure the plan is time-based
- learn how to make good enough decisions
- clear your clutter so your physical space is good enough for you
This is a lot. I know. So, just pick one area you’d like to work on over the next few weeks