Feelings of overwhelm are a common companion for ADHD adults. So, knowing these five steps to manage it in the moment is key to working well with your ADHD.
- Your ADHD can make your overwhelm worse and your overwhelm can also exacerbate your ADHD symptoms.
- Overwhelm can lead to procrastination as a way of deferring the discomfort of your overwhelm.
- Addressing the source of your overwhelm can help reduce your tendency to procrastinate.
- Managing your negative thought patterns is one of the keys to reducing your overwhelm.
- Identifying and replacing your overwhelm routine with a more helpful habit is also important.
- You will also want to know how to “pause” situations where you are feeling overwhelmed so you can decide what to do next.
Do you ever feel as though your brain is flooded like it may short circuit at any moment, and in those moments, maybe you can’t even think straight. You may even begin to panic going into fight, flight or freeze mode. You just want to escape from whatever is causing the overwhelm. Sound familiar?
You’ve tuned into scattered focus, done re-imagining productivity with ADHD, a podcast for ADHD, adults like you who want to learn how to adopt the best strategies, tools, and skills to be able to get your essential work done in a way that works with the way your brain is wired. I’m Marla Cummins and I’m really glad you decided to join me today on this journey to re-imagining productivity with ADHD so you can get your important work done without trying to do it like everyone else. In this episode, we’ll explore why ADHD adults may be predisposed to becoming overwhelmed and how to manage it so it doesn’t get in your way of doing what is most meaningful to you each day. No doubt
everyone has challenges in their day to day life leading to overwhelm, but your ADHD challenges may be causing you more overwhelmed than your non ADHD family, friends and colleagues. I know you already know this, I didn’t need to tell you that, but I did and anyway, you’re overwhelmed and turned can exacerbate your ADHD symptoms. So figuring out how to manage it is an important piece of learning how to work with your ADHD. So let’s get on with doing that. And we’re going to start this journey by looking at a hypothetical scenario.
Let’s take Carrie. She’s a software engineer and, of course, an adult with ADHD and she’s struggling to complete a report that is due in four days. She’s known about it for a month. Sound familiar? Anyway, she’s already blocked off time to work on the report from three to five. So far so good. She was being intentional with her time.
It’s a little before three and she’s just left a meeting with her team. She’s pretty upset after the meeting and thinks to herself. Tony seemed really upset that the product rollout was delayed. He probably thinks it’s my fault. I’ll have to deal with that later. I really need to get down to work now. So Carrie opens the report to get started, but in that moment she starts to realize she may not have enough time to finish the report. Then she thinks to herself, I’m such a screw up and I bet I’m going to get fired.
Oh, maybe I should answer that email from Paul that just popped up and I really should return series call too. I’m never going to get this report done in time. I can’t believe Tony is blaming me. Anyway, she re-engage us with the report for about a half an hour. Then she remembers, I’ve been promising to call the plumber for a week.
I should do that now, but I don’t know when I’m going to schedule it. Okay, I’ll have to call him later. She tries to work on the report again until she remembers. She promised to be home by six for dinner. It’s already four 45 her overwhelm is on the rise as she begins to think, I’m never going to get this report done and I promised we would talk about summer plans over dinner tonight. I really have to be home by six and then Dory, my boss wants to see me tomorrow. Can’t be a good thing. When the boss calls you into their office, I have to have something to show her.
By tomorrow the stress is mounting and by five o’clock she finds herself reading the paper online instead of working. Yes, reading the paper, she’s in fight, flight or freeze mode. Now she’s fleeing the overwhelmed by reading the paper.
She’s procrastinating ever happened to you. In fact, it’s her go to strategy when she’s feeling overwhelmed at work like Carrie, when you’re overwhelmed, what do you do to procrastinate, to avoid facing whatever it is that’s causing you over the causing you the overwhelm, differing, whatever it is that you don’t want to face. Anyway, back to Carrie. It’s 5:30 she’s packing up to go home for the promised six o’clock family dinner. And as she’s leaving the door, she’s berating herself for wasting her time. It’s agonizing. Yes, agonizing. Carrie is pretty distressed. When you experienced similar situations to Carrie’s, you might get down in yourself and even feel shame that you didn’t get your report done in time or that you might not get it done in time or whatever project you’re working on.
Knowing how your ADHD might be contributing not only will help you create the right work arounds, which we’ll get to, but also hopefully help you feel more compassion for yourself that you’re not being lazy, that it really is your brain wiring.
One way your ADHD can contribute to your overwhelm is like Carrie. You aren’t very good at creating long range plans to be able to complete a project by what seems like a far off due date. So, while you may keep on thinking about the project, you don’t even start it even though you know about it far in advance, even a month like Carrie did and yet you just keep on worrying about it. Another factor that can contribute to the challenges with planning is the ADHD time blindness.
You have like Carrie, she thought she had a lot of time when it was a month away for ADHD adults as you know there’s now and not now and a month is a long time. Right, so she didn’t feel any sense of urgency until four days before it was due at which time she didn’t even know if she had enough time to complete it.
Obviously panicking while trying to work is not going to help you do your work, but the other difficulty you may have like Carrie is transitioning from one task to another and focusing on the task at hand when you finally do get to it. Even though Carrie had blocked off time to work on the report, she had a hard time starting in part because she was still thinking about the meeting she had just left and worrying about Dory and Tony and everyone else that she thought might not think she was very good at what she did. She was also distracted by thoughts of things at home that she felt she should be doing, like the plumber. And how about dinner?
She just couldn’t tune them out and then eventually unable to manage her overwhelm. She started reading the paper, one of her automatic go to responses to overwhelm.
You can see some of the ways Carrie’s ADHD exacerbated her ability to work and made her overwhelmed worse. And you can maybe see how your ADHD may be contributing to your overwhelm as well. Sure. Your ADHD contributes to your overwhelm. That probably makes sense to you. But how about your overwhelm contributing to your ADHD? I mean, think about it. Your overwhelm makes your ADHD symptoms worse. Think about all the various executive function challenges you have, including to please in decision making, planning, organizing, regulating your emotions, transitions, et cetera. And when you are stressed and overwhelmed, what happens? These challenges can be even greater.
That makes sense, right? So your ADHD can make it harder to deal with situations that cause your overwhelm and your overwhelm can make your ADHD harder, but in some cases, in fact, in a lot of cases your thoughts about the situation rather than the situation itself can intensify your overwhelm.
This may include thoughts like Carrie’s including black and white thinking after making a mistake, like not starting the report on time and she says, I’m such a screw up or personalizing the situation when she thinks Tony or her boss doesn’t like how she’s working and she decides, my boss hates me or Tony doesn’t like me or any of the colleagues that she has or how about catastrophizing when she’s not sure if she’s going to get the report done and she then decides I’m going to get fired. In many cases, this faulty thinking is a result of negative automatic thoughts.
Those are thoughts that occur without any conscious thought stemming from beliefs you have about yourself. Think about that. Beliefs, internalized beliefs that you have about yourself you’ve probably had for a long time. And because these thoughts, these beliefs are so habitual, you can’t control them directly, at least not in the moment, but thankfully you can learn how to control them by challenging the beliefs that lead to the thoughts.
To do this, you could try of course coaching, but you may need more intensive help such as cognitive behavioral therapy and if you’re just curious and you want to give it a go on your own, check out the book, Mind Over Mood by Dennis Greenberg. It really is an excellent guide. You can try on your own or in conjunction with the therapists, whatever path you decide to take. Identifying and addressing your faulty thinking and the beliefs that underlie this faulty thinking are definitely important. Keys to managing your overwhelm and how about your overwhelmed routine?
That’s right. You have an overwhelmed routine and this is another key to managing your overwhelm is identifying this routine and replacing it with a more helpful habit. The first step in changing any habit is identifying and understanding the components of your habit loop. You may not even realize you have this.
So let’s get on with looking at this part of overwhelm and changing it. Though you may know it by different names. Every habit is comprised of three parts, a cue, a routine, and a reward. The routine is what you probably think of as the habit. So when Carrie, for example, gets overwhelmed at work, she often reads the paper on line. That’s her routine. The queue feeling overwhelmed can be thought of as the prompt for the routine. This has become a habit for her because when she reads the paper, her overwhelmed dissipates. She’s deferring the discomfort of facing, having to do the project or deferring the discomfort of not being able to do the project. Whatever it is, reading the paper is helping. It’s her reward because now she has relief from her overwhelm and over time she has come to anticipate and crave this reward.
The relief from the overwhelm. And, of course, this reward just solidifies the habit. Whatever habitual response you have to overwhelmed, it may be so automatic at this point that you don’t even recognize it as a response to being overwhelmed. And it’s through this habit loop that over time your routines have become so firmly entrenched. So when you feel overwhelmed by work, you need to do decisions. You need to make relationships, you need to navigate. What do you do that is what is your routine?
Well, it likely looks different depending on the context. Do you shut down and stop working or stop engaging with people or stop making decisions? Alternatively, do you find a distraction like web surfing, watching TV, working on an easier project, or maybe you decide to hyperfocus on a relatively unimportant task, just not the one you intended to do. Another thing that you might do is decide that the task well previously important.
It’s just not worth doing now and then again, maybe you just eat or drink too much. What else do you do? Is there something else I haven’t mentioned? Are you not sure what you do when you’re overwhelmed? Okay, so try this over the next few days. Notice when you are overwhelmed, then write down what you do next. So far, I’ve been going over different aspects of overwhelm and ADHD, so you can have a better understanding of it. But how about what other people see when you’re overwhelmed, people at home, people at work.
Because when you’re overwhelmed, you’re probably not operating very effectively. I know this may be an understatement, and while this may feel incredibly distressing, the outside world is probably not aware of your internal experience. After all, you may have reached a certain level of success because of your ability to hide how you’re feeling. So what others see is you’re late to meetings.
You’re not returning calls or emails, you’re not completing your work on time. You’re not focused in meetings. And what other consequences of your overwhelmed do people perhaps see? And it may seem to them as though you’re lazy, like you don’t care, or maybe even that you’re incompetent, but you’re none of these. Your brain has simply been hijacked because you’re overwhelmed or you want people to think differently of you if they think poorly of you now, but really you’re listening to this because you just want to feel less overwhelmed.
And if you want to respond differently. The first step, and I mentioned this before, is identify the specific routine you want to change. For example, maybe your response to overwhelm is to shut down if this is the case, the next step is to figure out how you can get relief from the overwhelm without shutting down or in Carrie’s case, without reading the newspaper.
So if you’re overwhelmed by a big project, create a plant and obviously get help to create the plan. If the source of your overwhelm is having too much on your plate, you may need to decide what to keep on your plate, what to defer, what to delegate or drop. And if you have a boss, you may need to go to your boss and get some help with making this decision because you may not have agency to do this on your own. Or if it’s something at home, maybe you can ask your partner to help you decide what to keep on your plate and what to get off your plate maybe. Or you’re overwhelmed is from needing to make a difficult decision and you need a strategy to figure out what to do.
So instead of falling back on your old routine next time you feel overwhelmed, ask yourself, why am I overwhelmed? And then experiment with addressing the source of your overwhelm and of course get the support you need to follow through on this experiment. Of course, you want to learn strategies so you can be proactive in minimizing the chances of getting overwhelmed in the first place, no doubt. But even when you start learning these strategies and you are more proactive in learning how to delegate and plan and whatever else will help you minimize the chances of becoming overwhelmed, you’re still going to have moments of overwhelm.
You know this, right? So, in addition, I’m going to start practicing strategies to manage overwhelm that you will inevitably feel in the moment. The first step you can take when you’re feeling overwhelmed is notice the feeling in your body. It may be a tight stomach, a fuzzy feeling in your head or some other sensation. This is your cue that the overwhelmed cycle is beginning. And then remember, you want to break your habitual response to overwhelm.
So, once you feel the cue that you are becoming overwhelmed, you know your habitual response will probably kick in. To avoid this, the first step is to pause, breathe. Really don’t give it a chance to start then because you may not be able to figure out what to do in that very moment. Remember working memory challenges. The next step is to take a break. If you’re working alone, you may decide to stop working.
If you’re in a meeting, perhaps you excuse yourself to go to the washroom and if you’re having a one on one conversation, you might ask to reconvene to another time. And then again, you might even decide to engage in activity you enjoy. So, you can have some time away from whatever it is that is causing your you the overwhelm. It might just be the best thing to do in the moment and no, it’s not procrastinating. If you’re being intentional, you get it. Once you’ve slowed down, then pay attention again to the negative self talk that is contributing to your overwhelm.
Work on replacing this negative self talk with a more balanced perspective. I talked about a little bit of this earlier. For example, Carrie shutdown when she didn’t think she would be able to do everything she needed to do if she could adapt a more balanced perspective.
She might have said to herself, I have a lot to do right now, but it’s getting late. I’m tired, and things always looked bleak. When I get to this point, I should stop now and ask Tori, that’s her boss. If she has time to help me sketch out a plan because this is hard to do on my own. Even when I’m at my best and maybe later I can talk to Tony and see what he thinks because I could be really off base in what I’m thinking. Engaging in self-talk that is more balanced will help you avoid shutting down, procrastinating or acting impulsively when you become overwhelmed.
In some cases it might be enough to take these steps to reduce your feelings of overwhelm, but once you feel more grounded, you might decide it would be best to come up with a larger plan to address the cause of your overwhelm.
And the best way to do this is to approach it from a solution focus perspective. That is instead of avoiding the discomfort and in some ways running away from it, deciding, okay, I’m overwhelmed. What’s the source of my overwhelmed and what can I do about it and what kind of support do I need in order to do those things? Or maybe there are solutions that I don’t even know about, so what kind of support do I need to come up with those solutions? We’ve covered a lot of territory and I don’t want you to become overwhelmed by trying to do it all. That would be well ironic. So pick one thing that you could do and
let me know how it goes. That’s it for now. I’m really glad you joined me and look at that. You stayed until the end. If you’re interested in learning more about my work with adults with ADHD, check out my website, Marla commons.com of course, if you flirted a thing or two from today’s podcast, please pass along the link to anyone else in your circles you think might also benefit. Until next time, this has been scattered focus done, and I’m Marla Cummins wishing you all the very best on your journey to re-imagining productivity with ADHD.