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ADHD overwhelm can trigger a nervous system response that can take us into fight, flight or freeze. Today, I’m sharing a message from a reader (with her permission) about her own experience with ADHD overwhelm. I’m sharing it with you in case you too end up in freeze mode, unable to do anything because you can’t get unstuck from your emotional response. I hope it helps!
My biggest struggle at the moment is work. For the past few months, I’ve been barely keeping my head above water and unable to keep up with all of my tasks. I’m starting to feel like my job security is slipping through my fingertips. When I get overwhelmed, I freeze, and I’ve been frozen a lot since the fall. – Emily
First of all, how relateable is Emily’s situation? I’ve been there and I’m sure you have too. So, let’s get into it and see how we can get Emily out of a state of freeze and into a state of forward momentum.
What is Overwhelm? (ADHD or Otherwise)
There are many triggers that can lead us to overwhelm, but first let’s agree on what we’re talking about when we say we’re overwhelmed. By definition, this can mean:
- feeling buried beneath a huge mass.
- being or feeling defeated
- or a feeling of being inundated
Overwhelm can can be short-lived, like a frustrating Saturday morning with the kids or a stressful meeting at work that leaves you feeling off for the rest of the day. Or, in Emily’s case, this situation can go on and on and get worse until we hit a state of burnout. We push and push ourselves and feel worse and worse as a result, and nothing gets resolved.
I liken this to driving a car with the emergency brake on. Eventually, that brake will burn out. Or, if you drive your car without ever changing or refilling the oil, eventually the engine will seize, and that’s the end of your vehicle.
If we stick with the car metaphor, we’ve got to pause, stop the vehicle and see what’s causing the engine to cease up. Since in this case, Emily probably can’t just stop working, she needs to find ways to grease the wheels of her work life to make it easier on herself.
Now, since I don’t know Emily’s situation at work specifically, I’m going to provide a framework for taking the pressure off that covers a broad spectrum of situations and provides some insight into locating the chokehold that’s perhaps causing the overwhelm. She may know what the source is, but let’s assume she doesn’t so we can make this more universal.
Why is ADHD Overwhelm so Crippling?
Let’s consider what’s happening downstream from the feelings of overwhelm as it relates to ADHD. When we’re in that state, we can’t focus and pay attention because there is simply too much going on internally.
When we lose that ability to pay attention or to attend, we quickly shift into fight, flight, or freeze. So our prioritization, organization, and task initiation skills head out for a boozy lunch. As we know, ADHD means that we already have executive function challenges, so when we get into a state of overwhelm, it’s even harder for us to function. This leaves us in a state of frustration which exacerbates the issue.
Now, getting back to Emily, who said, “For the last few months, I have been barely keeping my head above water; unable to keep up with all of my tasks. I’m starting to feel my job security slip through my fingertips. When I get overwhelmed, I freeze, and I have been frozen a LOT since fall.”
Okay, so we know that Emily’s situation is spurred by an inability to keep up with her tasks at work. What we don’t know is whether or not this is due to her lack of attending, or if she’s just being asked to do too much. However, because she goes on to say that when she gets overwhelmed, she freezes, we can probably assume that there are some attention issues at hand here.
So let’s put aside the assumption that she’s being asked to do too much because we can’t solve that problem right now. Let’s assume that it’s her emotional disregulation, showing up as overwhelm, that’s at the root of this problem. What’s next?
Beat ADHD Overwhelm with S.T.I.C.K.S.
The framework I like to use in this situation is STICKS, which stands for State, Thoughts, Interest, Clarity, Knowledge, and Structure or Support.
This framework is a way of getting curious about what the source of your overwhelm is so that you can address it. Even if you think you know what the source of the overwhelm is, sometimes it’s a good practice to get curious about what it is specifically, and sometimes, we have no idea why we’re feeling overwhelmed, which in this case, makes this model a really helpful tool for tuning inward when our brains are feeling out of reach.
So let’s break down STICKS. I created a worksheet you can download to help you work through your own state of overwhelm as well.
- State – How are you feeling? Tired, hungry, under medicated, bored? Very often, a hot meal and a good sleep can kick us back into a calm state where we have the resilience to deal with overwhelm better. Please don’t underestimate how important this is.
- Thoughts – What are you believing about your overwhelm? What stories are you telling yourself? Are your thoughts negative or ruminative? Are your perceptions aligned with reality, or are you over or underreacting? This is where you want to challenge beliefs that are holding you back or consider where you’re drawing unhelpful conclusions.
- Interest – Are you feeling overwhelmed because the task at hand is so boring that you can’t attend to it? You just don’t have the brainpower? This is a big one for ADHDers because our dopamine is disregulated, and sometimes our brains just don’t have the right chemical cocktail to do the task at hand. Is there a way to resparkle it? Gamify it? Make it interesting or at least aligned with your goals and values? Can you give yourself a reward for finishing or a body double to get through it?
- Clarity – Ambiguity is ADHD kryptonite. When we don’t quite know what we’re doing, we can default to procrastination, which can lead to overwhelm. What questions do you have about the task at hand? What does done look like? Who can you ask about your gaps in understanding? Is there an example or template you can take inspiration from?
- Knowledge – Sometimes overwhelm comes from a skill gap. We don’t come out of the womb knowing everything there is to know about everything. That’s okay not to know, and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. I’m the first person to say I don’t know something in my own practice. In fact, the sign of a good coach is someone who doesn’t assume they know what their clients are thinking or saying. Skills are the foundation of confidence. But confidence is only built through action, so you have to be comfortable with showing up when there’s a skill gap and being open to learning. Ask yourself – is this something that would require an expert, or can I Google it? What’s at risk if I try and fail? Setting up an email series versus brain surgery.
- Structure or support – What kind of additional structure do you need to work through the overwhelm? Is it better self-care habits to attend to your state? Is it someone to clarify your next step? Do you need to declutter your space or create better boundaries at work? Maybe it’s an expectation management issue that needs to be addressed?
This framework is clearly not a magic bullet that’s going to solve all your overwhelm issues, but it’s a way to externalize the problem and help you think through reasons why it’s holding you back.
Want more support for your ADHD Overwhelm?
I offer 1-1 coaching for adults with ADHD who need help getting out of their own way. I also created a signature online program specifically for ADHDers who want to shift from distraction into action. Very often our overwhelm comes from overcommitting ourselves. If that’s you, then this program will help you get out of that habit.