ADHD paralysis occurs when a person with ADHD is feeling overwhelmed by their environment or situation, resulting in a brain “freeze” which limits their functionality.1 When paralysis occurs, it is difficult for a person to focus or perform tasks, which can have a significant impact on their professional and personal life.
What Is ADHD Paralysis?
For people with ADHD, it is common to become overwhelmed physically, mentally or emotionally. Adults with ADHD may have struggled with negative stigma associated with their symptoms from an early age, perhaps by being labeled as procrastinators or lazy. In reality, an ADHD brain simply reacts to stress differently than a neurotypical one.
ADHD paralysis can impede a person from fulfilling responsibilities. Many of our everyday activities and duties require prolonged focus and attention. Unfortunately, when one is experiencing ADHD paralysis, these can be impossible to complete. Oftentimes, neurodiverse populations may find difficulty in keeping up with their commitments in a fast-paced world.
ADHD & Executive Function
Executive functioning refers to the skills necessary for much of the brain’s everyday operations. It emcompasses a person’s ability to focus, exert effort, retain information, regulate emotions, organize tasks, and self-monitor their actions.3
For those with ADHD, impairment in these planning, organization, and problem-solving dexterities is known as executive dysfunction. The effects of this vary among individuals, but the hallmark characteristics of ADHD originate from the impediment of these necessary mental faculties.2
ADHD Paralysis vs Procrastination
ADHD paralysis and procrastination are two very different things. For starters, procrastination refers to one’s purposeful decision to delay or ignore responsibilities until the last minute. Unlike paralysis, procrastination can affect anyone to a certain degree. Whether it be at work or at home, sometimes we all need to take a break, precipitating in a postponement of obligations. ADHD paralysis is differentiated from this, as it results from cognitive overload and dysfunction.1
Contrary to some opinions, people with ADHD are not natural procrastinators or using their diagnosis as a crutch. For example, someone with ADHD may struggle to stay on task at a typical nine-to-five. When overloaded with tasks and jobs, they can quickly begin to experience several mental interruptions, become easily frustrated, or shut down altogether. Of course, this behavior is entirely out of their control, but can be seen as careless by coworkers and supervisors. Additionally, one’s environment can greatly influence the occurrence and frequency of ADHD paralysis. As noted, someone with ADHD can be negatively impacted by the rigidity and inflexibility of a typical office setting. Alternatively, a person who works from home is more able to self-delegate and manage tasks according to their own schedules. This allows them to better regulate stressors that can lead to executive dysfunction or paralysis.4 In short, ADHD paralysis is an involuntary response to strain, not a choice.
ADHD Paralysis Symptoms in Adults
Untreated symptoms of ADHD can greatly impact a person’s daily life. Not only do they influence one’s occupational functioning, but also their social health, interpersonal relationships, and decision making skills1,2,4
. The symptoms of ADHD paralysis can vary in severity based on the person and situation in which they occur, but generally follow the same pattern of mental shut down and incapacity.
Potential symptoms of ADHD paralysis include:
- Brain fog: lack of focus or mental clarity
- Brain “freezes”: limited functionality due to executive dysfunction
- Social isolation
- Poor time management
- Time blindness: an inability to sense the passing of time
- Emotional lability: rapid changes in mood, emotions, or feelings
- Inability to make decisions
Types of ADHD paralysis
There are three types of ADHD paralysis including mental, task, and choice paralysis. These categories refer to the particular aspects of executive functioning that are affected by symptoms. A person with ADHD can struggle with one or a combination of these throughout their life, depending on what stressors they are exposed to at the time of an episode.
ADHD paralysis falls into the following categories:1
- Mental paralysis: Mental paralysis refers to when the brain shuts down or becomes “foggy” and can no longer tolerate further stimulation.
- Task paralysis: Task paralysis is the inability to start or complete a task. Someone experiencing this may delay responsibilities by zoning out or repeating already completed tasks. They may spend hours on a simple job due to this powerlessness.
- Choice paralysis: Sometimes known as “analysis paralysis”, choice paralysis occurs when one overthinks or fails to make a decision. This is especially common when a person with ADHD feels they have been given too many options to pick from.
How to Snap Out of ADHD Paralysis
Although ADHD is a life-long diagnosis, its symptoms are manageable with proper treatment and care. Moreover, there are plenty of self-coping skills you can use to help handle stressful and overwhelming situations. While it will take some time to get started and follow through with these methods, they are useful for allowing you to overcome periods of ADHD paralysis.
Here are eight tips for dealing with ADHD paralysis:
1. Write Everything Down
For those with ADHD, staying organized is crucial. Adding events, tasks, or obligations to a calendar is a great way to help keep track of your responsibilities. However, if this task sounds too difficult for you at the time, try simply writing them down and keeping them handy to revisit later. Forgetting important duties can be incredibly frustrating, so staying on top of them will save you a headache in the future and help you feel less overwhelmed. Additionally, journaling is also a great method of organizing your thoughts throughout the day.
2. Break Down Tasks
If you can, try planning out your tasks in a way that allows you to take breaks periodically. For those with demanding jobs, it may seem like there is little wiggle room to do so. Regardless, start small when combating tasks and be sure to take your time. Crossing items off your to-do list can help you feel accomplished, no matter how insignificant. After all, the ADHD brain often makes a job look more monumental than it is, so remind yourself to take a step back and reevaluate your approach.
3. Designate Project Time
For a person with ADHD, it can be tough figuring out the right amount of time needed to complete a task. Because of this, if you have past experience with ADHD paralysis, it is wise to designate time for only one task at once. While this may seem counterproductive, the idea is to work with the brain, not against it. Over time, you’ll understand the best way to tackle certain jobs, making it easier to perform more challenging ones later on.
4. Don’t Make Perfection the Goal
People with ADHD are not collectively “lazy” and oftentimes tend to take on more than they can realistically handle. One way to avoid this is to start thinking about the difference between your values and your goals. For example, you may try accepting too many responsibilities at work, because you have a goal o prove your worth within a company. However, ask yourself if these goals go against your values. Is the work you put forward going to be completed at a standard than what you’re happy with? Finding balance between the two is key to finding peace with the performance or output that you are able to give.
5. Schedule Rewards
Scheduling some time to celebrate your accomplishments can provide you the motivation needed to complete a task. Rewards can be as small as grabbing a coffee after work, or treating yourself to a new pair of shoes. If you are too focused on everything else you haven’t accomplished, you’ll only cause yourself unnecessary stress and anxiety.
6. Take Movement Breaks
Take a movement break to increase mental, emotional, and cognitive stimulation. The brain can easily become bored or fatigued overtime, so you can proactively avoid a mental “clock out” by recognizing and honoring your limits. When you start to feel overtaxed, it may be time to give your brain a rest. A movement break could be a short meditation session outside or a walk around the office.
7. Work Novelty Into Your Day
Monotony can be the enemy of productivity. Introducing novelty to your daily routine, even in small doses, can be incredibly beneficial. Consider choosing one day a week to try out something new at work or school. Reorganize your cubicle, take a half-day off, or check out a new restaurant near your office. Alternatively, try this out at home by recipe testing or listening to a new music artist.
8. Find What Energizes You
Find something that energizes you and stick to it. If you’re feeling burnt out from your routine, a new hobby or activity can help revitalize your motivation. This may seem difficult when you’re stuck in a period of paralysis. However, ADHD paralysis often occurs because your brain is sending you a signal that it needs change or stimulation. Instead of ignoring these hints, honor them; you might just discover your true passions.
How an ADHD Therapist Could Help
Typically, the symptoms of ADHD are managed with the help of prescription medication. While maintaining a healthy medication routine is important, a person can always benefit further by working with a therapist. Therapy will provide you with useful information about how to address ADHD symptoms, based on your personal experience and lifestyle. Additionally, a good therapist will help you identify the areas of your life that need the most attention. Neurodiverse-affirming therapists are knowledgeable about the intersection of cognitions and emotions, which is critical for those with ADHD. You can easily find a therapist online using a directory.
The best way to overcome ADHD paralysis is to allow yourself to better understand your personal symptoms, behaviors, and needs. Power comes from being able to identify triggers, heed warning signs, and confront symptoms. Have patience with yourself; it takes time to learn healthy ways of overcoming ADHD paralysis. Sometimes ADHD can seem inescapable, but you can start taking steps to improve its negative effects.