ADHD and Overwhelm

Updated: Feb 22

Why Do People with ADHD Experience Overwhelm?

Overwhelm is a feeling commonly identified among those who have ADHD. One of the reasons for this is feeling that you have too many things to manage, which is often a result of the executive functioning difficulties that form a part of the ADHD diagnosis. For example, people with ADHD might underestimate how long it will take to do a task, the dopamine involved in completing the task, or transition times between different tasks [1]–[6]. At Unconventional Organisation, we help adults with ADHD build strategies and systems to support overwhelm.

How to Get Things Done When You Feel Overwhelmed?

Often the first thing we should do when we feel overwhelmed is to take a moment to plan and prioritise. This might contrast with the "Just get started!" advice you've been given. By planning, we can take into account struggles with working memory or other executive functioning issues.


So, instead of just starting an overwhelming task, try jotting down all of its elements. For example, what are the sub-tasks under this task? What resources do you need, and who will you get them? Then assign each element a colour based on priority (due today, this week, next week, etc.). You can find out more about that process here.

ADHD Overwhelm and Shut Down/Paralysis

Sometimes with ADHD, we can become so overwhelmed that we feel paralysed or shut down completely [7]–[9]. If this is the case for you, it's important to seek help as soon as possible. ADHD can be associated with other elements such as anxiety, RSD, and emotional overwhelm. If this is something you are struggling with, then mindfulness and grounding techniques might be a good place to start before you focus on working through priorities. A psychologist who specialises in ADHD can support you with this.

ADHD Overwhelm in Certain Situations

This section will provide examples of how to manage overwhelm in several common situations. Let me know if anything resonates with you.

ADHD and General Overwhelm!

Sometimes, it just all seems too much, and it can be hard to pinpoint the source for the overwhelm. In which case, it can be important to clear your head by talking it through with someone else, writing it down in a stream of consciousness, or even dictating your thoughts to yourself using an app like 'OneNote.' Mindfulness can be a helpful way to identify these thoughts.

ADHD and Overwhelm At Work

It can be easy to feel overwhelmed at work, especially if you're in a workplace where new tasks are added to your list continuously, or you're responsible for estimating time frames. It can be helpful to start by asking yourself, at which point do you begin to feel overwhelmed? Is it when your boss asks you to do another task when you've already started one? Is it when you're given a multi-step project at the team meeting? This should give you some clues as to which elements of your work are contributing to your overwhelm.


You can also ask a colleague about their work process and expectations. How many new tasks do they take on; how often do they respond to emails? This combination of tasks, expectations, and knowing when you're likely to experience overwhelm can help you piece together some strategies to help manage in the workplace.

ADHD and Overwhelm with your Inbox

It's a pretty common experience to feel overwhelmed by your inbox, especially with ADHD. Trying to consistently reduce the number of items only to find more incoming. Receiving too many promotions or losing messages are all common experiences with ADHD. Although your needs may differ based on your particular struggle, here are three ways to reduce overwhelm with emails:

  1. Set aside specific periods to read and respond to emails; keep all messages unread until then (even if you have to put them back on unread).

  2. Look forward, not back. Resist the urge to put off managing your inbox until you have time to go through everything and get it down to zero. Instead, start taking small steps today.

  3. If you can't bring yourself to unsubscribe, remember you can always mark it as 'spam.'

ADHD and Overwhelm Paying Bills

Remembering to pay your bills is a seemingly simple, but often frustratingly difficult, executive functioning task. If this is something you struggle with, strategies for support include setting up direct debits or dedicated bills accounts. Again, if you need any more personalised support, our ADHD Coaches are trained to help you.

ADHD and Overwhelm Shopping

Stuck in the store or with 25 tabs open on the computer and no idea how to shop for what you need? Though often portrayed as 'fun,' shopping can be quite a complicated task requiring several executive functioning skills, such as work memory, sustained attention, and prioritisation. It's all too easy to go in with a plan and come out with nothing you need but several things you wanted.


To help reduce overwhelming shopping, it's important to take some time to plan. For example, ensuring you have a list based on the meals you expect to make or writing our likely gifts for family members and a budget before you start shopping online.

ADHD and Overwhelm With Clutter

Sometimes it isn't the tasks we have, but the space we live in that feels overwhelming. You might want a cleaner house but struggle to sort through or throw away items. If you find that no matter how many TV shows you watch about home organisation and nothing seems to stick, you're not alone. There are elements of home organisation that are a lot more complicated with ADHD.


For example, if you struggle with working memory, then putting things away in boxes, even labelled boxes, can be hard to use again. Instead, placing items somewhere they can be easily seen, reached, used, and put back will make it easier for you to remember what you have. Putting things in the back of a cupboard can be a great way to find them three months later, having already bought three replacements! For more ideas about reducing overwhelm with ADHD, check out this article.

ADHD and Overwhelm with Emotions

Research has found that for many people, ADHD is not just about executive functioning emotions can also play a part [10]–[12]. Feeling intensely or struggling with rejection sensitivity are all parts of ADHD that can be overwhelming. If you struggle with overwhelming emotions, it might be a good idea to look for additional support from an ADHD specialised psychologist or therapist.

How to Help Someone With ADHD and Overwhelm

If you know someone with ADHD who struggles with feelings of overwhelm, there are ways you can provide support. One way is to talk with them and help them unpack what are often several subtasks and struggles with executive functioning or emotional regulation that are contributing to this feeling of overwhelm. You could even bring a notebook and write out some of what they are expressing to help them remember later. From there, figuring out which areas are the biggest blockages and working through tasks to chunk them down can be a helpful exercise. These practices also form part of what we do as ADHD coaches when clients express overwhelm.


Hopefully, this article has helped you feel more familiar with the experience of overwhelm and its relationship to ADHD. Remember that feeling overwhelmed is very common, but there are several strategies you can use to manage that feeling and get done what you need to do.


Talk again soon!


Skye.




Author:

Skye Rapson is an Academic, ADHD Coach and the Founder of Unconventional Organisation. She has worked in the field of adult education for over seven years. Skye has studied in various fields, including Psychology, Sociology, and Public Health, and is now a Doctoral Candidate in Population Health. You can read more about Skye or connect with her on LinkedIn.


References


[1] A. Alport, E. A. Styles, and S. Hsieh, ‘17 Shifting Intentional Set: Exploring the Dynamic Control of Tasks’, 1994.

[2] N. J. Cepeda, M. L. Cepeda, and A. F. Kramer, ‘Task switching and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder’, J. Abnorm. Child Psychol., vol. 28, no. 3, pp. 213–226, 2000.

[3] C.-T. Dai, Y.-K. Chang, C.-J. Huang, and T.-M. Hung, ‘Exercise mode and executive function in older adults: an ERP study of task-switching’, Brain Cogn., vol. 83, no. 2, pp. 153–162, 2013.

[4] S. DiMaio, N. Grizenko, and R. Joober, ‘Dopamine genes and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder: A review’, J. Psychiatry Neurosci., vol. 28, no. 1, pp. 27–38, 2003.

[5] G. Tripp and J. R. Wickens, ‘Research Review: Dopamine transfer deficit: a neurobiological theory of altered reinforcement mechanisms in ADHD’, J. Child Psychol. Psychiatry, vol. 49, no. 7, pp. 691–704, 2008, doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7610.2007.01851.x.

[6] N. Schreuer and R. Dorot, ‘Experiences of employed women with attention deficit hyperactive disorder: A phenomenological study’, Work, vol. 56, no. 3, pp. 429–441, Jan. 2017, doi: 10.3233/WOR-172509.

[7] A. F. T. Arnsten, ‘Stress signalling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function’, Nat. Rev. Neurosci., vol. 10, no. 6, pp. 410–422, Jun. 2009, doi: 10.1038/nrn2648.

[8] S. Pallanti and L. Salerno, ‘Adult ADHD in Anxiety Disorders’, in The Burden of Adult ADHD in Comorbid Psychiatric and Neurological Disorders, S. Pallanti and L. Salerno, Eds. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2020, pp. 167–181. doi: 10.1007/978-3-030-39051-8_11.

[9] D. Menghini et al., ‘The influence of Generalized Anxiety Disorder on Executive Functions in children with ADHD’, Eur. Arch. Psychiatry Clin. Neurosci., vol. 268, no. 4, pp. 349–357, Jun. 2018, doi: 10.1007/s00406-017-0831-9.

[10] D. M. Beaton, F. Sirois, and E. Milne, ‘Self-compassion and Perceived Criticism in Adults with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)’, Mindfulness, vol. 11, no. 11, pp. 2506–2518, Nov. 2020, doi: 10.1007/s12671-020-01464-w.

[11] D. B. Schatz and A. L. Rostain, ‘ADHD With Comorbid Anxiety: A Review of the Current Literature’, J. Atten. Disord., vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 141–149, Nov. 2006, doi: 10.1177/1087054706286698.

[12] Lenard. Adler and M. J. Silverstein, ‘Emotional Dysregulation in Adult ADHD’, Psychiatr. Ann., vol. 47, no. 7, pp. 318–322, Jul. 2018, doi: http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/10.3928/00485713-20180607-01.

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