Living and working with ADHD can be tough itself, so what happens when you add burnout to the mix? Mindfulness and boundaries can help.
Burnout is a persistent feeling of mental and physical exhaustion, often due to prolonged stress, such as at work or school. It often comes with:
- decreased motivation
- challenges with work or school
- negative self-perception
Burnout isn’t a mental health condition but is a widely recognized experience. According to Sheng Lee Yang, “when a person experiences burnout, we’re starting to cross the line of, perhaps, mental well-being, but maybe they’re not to the point of it being a mental health disorder.”
Yang says that for people with ADHD, burnout almost becomes a co-occurring condition, complicating and exacerbating ADHD symptoms, “and now you’re throwing burnout in, the mental well-being is going to be much more compromised.”
A 2021 review of studies worldwide found that symptomatic ADHD from childhood into adulthood decreased with age. Reportedly
ADHD burnout is most commonly caused by excess and prolonged stress, especially at work or school.
It can lead to:
- additional stress
- problems with work or family
- decreased mental well-being
You may feel like you’re always tired or couldn’t possibly go on. Learning what to look for is the first step to getting help.
There’s not a simple diagnostic test for burnout, no blood test or swab, but there are signs to look for. Yang identifies the most common signs of burnout:
Yang says irritability is commonly the most noticeable sign. For example, perhaps “you’ve been cranky for a couple of days now, more than a bad day.” Of course, you might have a string of bad days, but being consistently more irritable than usual can signify burnout.
Appetite and routine changes
Yang also urges people not to ignore changes in eating habits or appetite. “Sometimes we don’t think about appetite as much, but appetite is a huge [sign].” Trouble sleeping is another sign to watch for. And lack of sleep can cause issues of its own.
Changes in how someone talks about their day or work
You might be on the watch for changes in how someone reports on their day as well.
If your partner, for example, normally comes home and gives a 30-minute recap on their day, and they suddenly start summarizing it in a couple of phrases, it may be a sign something’s up.
Or, if they normally say something like, “work was fine,” and they start talking and complaining about work. “That’s a common indicator,” says Yang, “something may be going on, or something may not be going well.”
Though not an externally obvious sign, Yang also says people experiencing ADHD burnout will frequently experience symptoms of imposter syndrome because someone may feel “as though they’re not up to par … that also leads to the idea of imposter syndrome.
“And when someone experiences imposter syndrome, two things happen: they either isolate, and they feel like a complete failure, and they essentially feel trapped and can’t move forward.”
“Or, getting into the impulsive side of ADHD, they overcompensate and volunteer for more things than they can actually do, to appear as though you’re doing much more than what you can actually be taking on or should be taking on. Which then also leads to failure or not success.”
People with ADHD can sometimes feel utterly paralyzed by a seeming inability to take action, even when they’d like to do so. ADHD can cause issues with the brain’s decision management system, known as executive dysfunctions. Burnout stress can lead to more of these dysfunctions.
“Eventually,” Yang says, “it’s going to filter into relationships and family, whether it’s children or just a partner. How do you contribute if you’re [living] with ADHD and burnout? Your mental health isn’t allowing you to do what you would like to do.”
Burnout is commonly caused by stress, so reducing stress could be one way to avoid burnout. But if it were as easy as just reducing stress, nobody would ever get burned out. Yang has more actionable advice for those hoping to avoid burnout.
“I think the simplest thing I could say is just being honest with yourself,” Yang says.
“People who live with ADHD and are maybe headed in the direction of burnout … being honest and say[ing] ‘you know what? I’m not well right now, and I need to do something.’ I think that piece of vulnerability to ourselves is even hard sometimes.”
She also stresses the importance of:
- having a strong sense of self and what you can handle
- how to assess your own mental well-being
- work-life boundaries
Attempting to numb negative feelings away is another common reaction to stress. “If you find yourself going that direction,” Yang says, “it’s probably a good time to stop and reflect.”
Yang encourages those experiencing burnout to reach out to a mental health professional for counseling or therapy. “You don’t have to go every week [or] every 2 weeks [or] call them monthly … [you can] find a therapist that knows you well.”
She stresses the importance of a good relationship with your mental health professional.
“I think that is incredibly important because … you have a third party that has a relationship with you, who knows when you’re mentally well and when you’re not. They can help reduce your stress,” she says before it gets to be acute stress, “which is then a mental health disorder.”
ADHD burnout is a feeling of exhaustion largely brought on by stress, made more complicated by ADHD symptoms.
People with ADHD
- trouble sleeping
- decreased appetite
Sudden changes in how someone speaks about work or their day can also be a sign.
Monitoring your own mental state and seeking help when you feel you need it, can help you avoid burnout. Additionally, seeking treatment can help effectively manage burnout. You might try: