ADHD Paralysis: The Struggle to Swim Forward
Our minds are like rivers. Thoughts come and go, and, while we’re able to watch them as they pop up, or disappear, we don’t always have control over their flow. We can dip our hand in the river, but we can’t necessarily redirect it. And, even though a river is strong enough to power a turbine and create energy, it can also sweep us away, carrying us places we didn’t mean to go.
This river metaphor might be especially useful if you’re someone living with ADHD. Because individuals living with ADHD know what it’s like to have energy that isn’t always so easily channelled. And they know that sometimes not being able to direct or focus thoughts is not a choice, but an inherent part of having thoughts at all.
But for all their similarities, our minds are not rivers, really. In reality, they’re far less predictable than that. Capable of flowing, or stopping, or even freezing up, at a moment’s notice. And for folks living with ADHD this freezing – known as ADHD Paralysis – can be difficult to manage. Especially when outside observers mistake ADHD Paralysis for procrastination or laziness.
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So, What is ADHD Paralysis?
One thing that ADHD Paralysis isn’t is a choice to be lazy, or to put off tasks that we must do. No, the brains of individuals living with ADHD experience a legitimate stress response that can lead to overwhelm, avoidance and complete shut-down in the face of certain types of tasks and stimulation. And understanding this important fact can help to better manage ADHD Paralysis, as well as the stigmas associated with it.
ADHD affects the brain’s executive function, that is, the brain areas that help us to plan ahead, meet goals, juggle tasks, and stay focused. Because of this, when individuals with ADHD start to feel overwhelmed by factors such as too many choices, a tight deadline, or an unclear task, their brain may react with a heightened stress response. The response may look like freezing, avoiding, or procrastinating. This stress can come from different places, and take different forms, such as: ADHD Mental Paralysis, ADHD Choice Paralysis, and ADHD Task Paralysis. Understanding these different types of ADHD Paralysis can help us start to understand how to manage and lessen their effects.
Types of ADHD Paralysis
ADHD Mental Paralysis
Mental Paralysis happens when someone is overwhelmed by thoughts or information, causing their senses to be overloaded. It feels like their brain is crashing, or they are unable to organize their thoughts or initiate behaviors. Mental paralysis often leads to a person with ADHD withdrawing and even giving up. In our metaphor of a river, the water has burst past the banks, and it’s impossible to tell where to start to get it all back where it belongs.
ADHD Choice Paralysis
Some people call Choice Paralysis “Analysis Paralysis.” Choice Paralysis happens when someone is trying to make a decision that has too many choices or too many steps. An overabundance of options can lead to overanalyzing, which in turn leads to an inability to pick the best option or initiate action. Whether it’s picking a place to eat or starting a project, choice paralysis can lead to an entire day wasted thinking about all the options. Not unlike a many-forked stream, it can be hard to see which of the paths is going to lead to the right end point, and starting down the wrong one feels like a big deal and a big mistake. So, what ends up happening is no choice at all.
ADHD Task Paralysis
Task Paralysis is when someone with ADHD is reluctant to begin a task, either out of fear (of doing it wrong), perfectionism, or because they haven’t been properly motivated. Task paralysis is especially common when the tasks involve mundane activities that feel painfully understimulating, such as doing chores. Fear or under-motivation can lead to starting other activities instead, or zoning out instead of beginning. While Task Paralysis can look a lot like procrastination, unlike procrastination, it is an involuntary response to the stress caused by fear or undermotivation. Ironically enough, task paralysis can often occur due to a desire to overachieve on a job. People with ADHD often see past the initial task and what could be. This type of pressure often contributes quite a bit to task paralysis.
Causes and triggers of ADHD Paralysis
Now that we understand the kinds of ADHD Paralyses, what causes it? Some triggers linked to ADHD Paralysis are executive dysfunction, emotional dysregulation, overstimulation, and perfectionism (or a fear of failure).
For individuals living with ADHD, there are differences in the wiring in brain areas that are responsible for executive function, known as executive dysfunction. Executive dysfunction negatively impacts the ability to plan, handle frustration, stay on task, and follow through on completion. These impairments in the ability to filter and organize information can lead to feeling overwhelmed, overstimulated and stuck — resulting in functional paralysis.
Emotional dysregulation is a core symptom of ADHD due to dysfunctions in brain areas related to emotional processing. Emotional dysregulation means that there is an increased emotional response which can involve rapid changes in moods, frustration, and stress. When someone living with ADHD experiences mental stress, emotional dysregulation can occur, redirecting attention away from the task at hand (which might now feel less than crucial) and leading to a productivity shutdown. In some instances, emotional dysregulation in the face of task and to-do lists can lead to spirals of self-criticism which further contributes to functional paralysis.
Overstimulation is defined as when a person surpasses their limit of sensory input. Too many choices, or too much information can be especially stressful for individuals living with ADHD. Overstimulation can make it feel like your brain is overcrowded which makes executive dysfunction issues even worse. Feeling overstimulated competes with the brain’s ability to filter through information and quite often a reset is needed before any progress can be made. In addition to being overstimulated by choices — factors such as noise, pressure, textures and distractions can all contribute to a state of overstimulation leading to functional paralysis.
Perfectionism and Fear of Failure
The way the ADHD brain is wired leads to unique challenges but also a lot of special strengths. It is common for folks with ADHD to be perfectionists and create extremely high standards for themselves. This is due to factors such as previous performance, overcompensating for negative past experiences, and differences in brain wiring that leads to all-or-nothing thinking. All of these factors can lead to issues such as taking on too much, setting the bar too high, and spending too much time focused on the ideal end goal rather than taking the first step toward it.
For individuals living with ADHD, the pressure they put on themselves to do more can be the overload that leads to ADHD Paralysis.
Effects of ADHD Paralysis on Daily Life
Everyone struggles with making decisions, and there’s nothing wrong with feeling overwhelmed, especially if you’re living with ADHD and feeling frozen by ADHD Paralysis. Feeling stuck or frozen can be particularly tough when you feel like your inability to act is having an effect on other parts of your life. Often these spill-over effects lead to further stress and further shutdown.
Whether ADHD Paralysis is affecting your productivity at work, causing you to feel as if you’re underperforming or letting your team down, causing stress in your relationship due to constantly shifting emotions, or putting stress on other parts of your mental health, it’s important that you know that ADHD Paralysis is real, and is not your fault. It’s also important to us that you know there are ways to manage it. The best thing you can do is to reach out for support from a professional or the ADHD community, but in the meantime, we’ve got some self-starter tips and tricks to help.
Tips for Overcoming ADHD Paralysis
None of us will ever really be able to anticipate how our brain might react to a certain situation, or even a bad day. However, there are some strategies we can put into practice – good routines – that help make the rushing rivers of our thoughts easier to manage and navigate.
1. Institute a Daily Download
Take a little bit of time every day to let all of your thoughts out. Write them down, or say them out loud, whatever works best for you. By voicing (or writing) everything that’s on your mind, from feelings, to to-dos, to wants and needs, you can keep your thoughts from jumbling together and see the forest for the trees. Or the river for all its drops. Make it an attainable goal by scheduling a convenient time to do a brain dump, such as with your morning coffee.
2. Break Things Down
Turn your big tasks into small ones. We call these “easy wins.” Need to write an essay? Start with a very high-level outline. And then check that off your list of things to do. Looking for a new job? Make a list of jobs you’d like. It may seem small, but it’s the first step toward completing a big goal. And it feels good to put something in the rearview mirror.
3. Simplify Your Schedule
Set aside project time instead of project deliverables. Set yourself an hour (and a timer) to work on a task. Rather than worrying about getting something done, feel good knowing you spent time working.
4. Put Perfection Aside
Sometimes we think things aren’t worth doing if they aren’t done perfectly. But, really, done is better than not done, even if we don’t achieve perfection. Let yourself off the “perfection” hook. You’ve got enough pressure on you anyway.
5. Reward Yourself
Sometimes the satisfaction of getting a job done isn’t quite enough. And that’s okay. Treat yourself when you finish tasks and reap more rewards for your hard work.
6. Be a Mover & Shaker
Shake things up. Literally and figuratively. Get up from your computer and move. Or trade your desk in for a nice sunny spot at your favourite cafe. A change of scenery can be just the thing you need to get the ball rolling again.
7. Make it fun
Underwhelming and mundane tasks like doing taxes, paying bills, and folding laundry can all lead to functional paralysis. Try adding a bit of fun to better stimulate your mind. You can try upbeat music, make a game of it or even create a competition or challenge (how many socks can you fold in 4 minutes?).
8. Be kind to yourself and do a reset
ADHD paralysis happens and beating yourself up won’t help fix it. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or frozen, give yourself a reset. You can try just laying down in a quiet space for a while, a warm bath, a bike ride, 1 hour of unstructured fun time, or any activity that nourishes your body and soul. Once you’ve given your mind a break you might be able to approach your tasks with a little more ease.
It's important that you understand ADHD Paralysis is a common issue. You’re not alone, and it isn’t a choice. Don’t let anyone make you feel differently.
If at any point you’re feeling more overwhelmed than usual, reach out to someone. We’re all in this thing called life together, and there’s no good reason for anyone to have to shoulder more than they can bear!