You won’t be surprised to hear that my clients will on occasion cancel at the last minute because something has come up — an emergency. Such is the life of an ADHD coach, you may say. True. But more often than not, while it may truly feel like a crisis, it’s not.
And so these occasions become opportunities for us to delve into where else they are jettisoning their schedule because of a perceived crisis. Because I know, if it is showing up in coaching, it is likely showing up in other areas of their life. And probably getting in the way of following through and being intentional.
If this sounds familiar, the first place to start is to understand your brain wiring. As an appreciation of your unique neurobiology can help you better understand your responses to various types of stimulation, including perceived emergencies.
Remember, being really good in crises can be one of the superpowers for adults with ADHD. So, if this is one your superpowers, you don’t want to lose it, for sure. You just want to make sure you’re using your laser-like attention in the right contexts. And not treating non-emergency situations as if the sky is falling.
So, let’s get on with exploring the ins and outs of responding to “emergencies.”
How Much Stimulation Does Your ADHD Brain Need?
When your brain is optimally aroused, you’re able to attend and focus — your executive functions kick into gear and you are motivated to act. But, because of the deficiency of dopamine in the frontal lobe, your ability to use your executive functions is compromised. You already knew that, right?
Did you also know, if you are like many with ADHD, your brain may constantly be scanning the environment for the optimal amount of stimulation? And, if you need a great deal of stimulation, it can actually be physiologically uncomfortable when your brain is under-aroused.
So, you may seek out additional stimulation.
It could be working out vigorously or engaging in a hobby. Not bad activities, for sure. However, you may opt to engage in risky behavior, play video games excessively, provoke arguments, spend compulsively or even respond to a “crisis” to get the stimulation you are seeking. The latter are not so great, of course.
Because when your brain wiring, and not your intellect, is in charge, you may seek out stimulation that is not in sync with your values and goals. If you often find yourself in these situations, I know you want to better balance your brain’s need for stimulation and your desire to be in the driver’s seat and be more intentional.
We’ll get to that in a bit. But first, let’s look at what happens when you get more than you bargained for.
What Happens When Your ADHD Brain Gets Too Much Stimulation
The need for stimulation falls along a continuum for adults with ADHD.
That is, as noted above, some may need a great deal of stimulation. And are ready at the quick to jump into the fray when there’s a problem. Even when it may be better for them to stay in their “lane.” Others may find they are very sensitive to stimulation and shy away from situations where they may become overstimulated.
Where do you fall along the continuum?
Whether you’re super sensitive to stimulation or crave it in abundance, there is a tipping point. And, when you get to your tipping point and go beyond, you can become overwhelmed. Knowing your tipping point is key to managing your environment when possible to avoid going “one step” too far.
Do you know your tipping point?
For those of you who crave lots of stimulation, you may be surprised when suddenly you become emotionally dysregulated — angry, irritable or even tearful. When just a moment ago the situation seemed exciting. But, when you reach the point where your brain is overwhelmed, you may withdraw. And others are just as surprised as you are by your reaction.
If, on the other hand, you are hypersensitive to stimulation, you may avoid situations where there is too much energy, like heated arguments or intense problem-solving sessions. Others may think you have nothing to offer when you sit on the sidelines. But really you are just trying to avoid the sensory overload that comes with unexpected stimulation.
Acceptance and Compassion for Your Neurobiology
Before moving on to looking at strategies to address your challenges with stimulation it’s important to explore your feelings about your neurobiology. Like many adults with ADHD, you may have feelings of shame — disappointment in “who you are,” including your ADHD.
These feelings of shame around your ADHD symptoms, including how you respond to stimulation may lead you to act in certain ways that do not serve you well. For example, you may avoid situations where you might fall short or blame others. Obviously, neither of these responses will help you deal with your challenges, right?
In fact, you might end up feeling more shame because of your response, which leaves you less motivated to keep on trying to work toward your goals. So, it’s important to consider what you are willing to accept and what you want to/can change. As Dr. Ned Hallowell noted in his adaptation of the serenity prayer:
G-d’ grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
The insight to prioritize wisely what I want to change;
The patience to resist trying to control everything I could, had I the energy and time;
The courage and skill to change the things I have chosen to change;
And the wisdom to know the differences among all these.
Working effectively with your ADHD necessitates an understanding and acceptance of both your strengths and challenges. And when you are able to accept all parts of yourself with compassion, you can more easily create the space you need to access the resources, both internal and external, you need to work with your ADHD.
Can You Identify Emergencies Accurately?
This includes adapting strategies so you can respond how you want in situations that seem urgent.
For adults with ADHD, many situations can feel like an emergency. But are they really? Sometimes it is obvious to you when there is an emergency, such as a health crisis or burst water pipe. You need to take care of those right away. Then, I bet there are a lot of times when you don’t need to respond immediately. The trick, of course, is knowing the difference
Whether you crave stimulation or shy away from it understanding the nature of emergencies in your various environments is the first step in learning how to respond. And you can use the Urgent-Important Matrix, shown below, as one means to gain some perspective on this.
As author and psychologist Ellen Littman notes, there is a tug-of-war that pits intellect against neurobiology. And on some days your neurobiology is going to win. Happens. But you can learn strategies to put yourself in the driver seat more often than not.
Pause-and-Plan So You Can Be More Intentional
This includes using a process that will allow you to pause-and-plan so you can chart your course each day according to what is important to you. The first step in this process is to recognize when you are getting revved up because of a perceived emergency. For example, is it a tightness in your chest or feeling as if your brain is getting flooded.
Whatever the initial feeling, this is your cue to pause. That might mean physically removing yourself from the situation — going for a walk. It could also include doing some deep breathing to “clear your head.” Whatever pausing means to you, you want to give yourself a chance to think and not react. Then become curious and ask yourself questions to decide the best path forward.
If you are someone who craves stimulation, asking yourself the questions below will allow you to avoid inadvertently entering the ring just for the excitement of it all. And, if you shun stimulation, these questions can help you better decide what to do so you don’t avoid situations that truly need your attention.
- To decide whether you really need to attend immediately, ask yourself, “What would happen if I put this off an hour, a day or a week? Is that okay?”
- If there is an emergency, decide who is responsible for tackling it by asking, “While this needs immediate attention, who is the right person to tackle it?”
- To find out if it is someone else’s emergency and you just need to “stay in your lane” ask: “Is it someone else’s perceived emergency and I don’t need to attend to it at all?”
Of course, I’m sure there are other questions you can think of to help you decide whether to attend to a matter that feels urgent. The bottom line, though, is you want to pause and decide. Rather than being reactive by either jumping in the ring or heading for the hills.
After all, I know you want to be more intentional, right?
Questions for You
How do you respond to stimulation? Does your need for stimulation or avoidance of stimulation affect your response to perceived emergencies? What would help you respond to what feels like emergencies in a way that feels right to you?
Look forward to hearing how your experiment goes!