When you’re overwhelmed by a million tasks and end up doing nothing — that’s what ADHD paralysis feels like.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is often associated with hyperactivity, hallmarked by fast speech (usually packed with a lot of info and ideas), and needing to move about physically to release energy.
When you’re surrounded by a whirlwind of activity, people tend to assume you get a lot done, but that isn’t always the case with ADHD.
ADHD can also mean challenges related to focusing. When you have energy but find it difficult to channel it, sometimes you can end up feeling stuck.
This feeling of motivation immobilization is known as ADHD paralysis. But take heart — it can be managed.
ADHD paralysis isn’t a diagnosis.
It’s a phrase used to describe a common experience for people living with ADHD — the experience of overwhelm freeze.
“Procrastination about completing tedious tasks is common for so many people, but for those with ADHD, the challenge can be even harder,” explains Ari Fox, a licensed clinical social worker specializing in children’s mental health, in New York.
According to Fox, the thought of taking on a mundane task like housework isn’t appealing to the brain of someone who has ADHD.
He explains these small tasks can be so daunting that you may avoid them completely, favoring activities that bring stimulation and immediate gratification, instead.
Types of ADHD paralysis
Freezing is one of several biological responses to a perceived threat. There are other responses you may be familiar with, including fright, flight, and fawn.
When you live with ADHD, altered executive functioning related to planning and carrying out tasks may mean it’s easier for you to feel overwhelmed.
Overwhelm can be stressful, and you may respond to that “threat” with ADHD freeze mechanisms, such as:
This sense of dread surrounding too much on your plate can also cause ADHD paralysis across multiple areas of functioning and is known as the overwhelm-shutdown process.
Common ways overwhelm-shutdown appears in daily life include:
- ADHD mental paralysis. A state of overwhelm from too many converging thoughts and emotions. It may make it challenging to speak, move, or convey what’s going on in your mind at the moment.
- ADHD task paralysis. A freeze in motivation may result in procrastination and task avoidance, brought on by a looming to-do list.
- ADHD choice paralysis. Also known as analysis paralysis, this is a sense of overwhelm related to too many choices or the need to make a decision.
Symptoms of ADHD fall into several categories:
Behaviors and outward signs may include:
- overlooking details
- seemingly careless work
- challenges maintaining long-format tasks, play, or conversation
- trouble listening
- avoiding tasks
- challenges planning or organizing
- frequently losing items needed for task completion
- easily distracted
- excessive talking
- need to be constantly moving
Is choice paralysis a common symptom of ADHD?
Choice paralysis — often referred to as indecision or decisional procrastination — can be experienced by anyone.
It’s the sensation that too many choices signify too many decisions and that stress leads to nothing ever getting done.
A 2008 pilot study showed choice paralysis was more common for people living with ADHD compared to the general population, though the exact prevalence remains unknown.
With some helpful strategies, ADHD paralysis can be an experience you can manage.
Breaking down tasks
When everything feels like it’s crashing in on you, it may help to isolate one task out of the bunch that feels less tedious.
Then, according to Fox, you can break that task down into smaller projects, using a timer to help you stay on track.
“The thought of cleaning the whole place is daunting. Instead, we often suggest setting a timer on a phone or microwave clock for 10 minutes,” he says. “For these 10 minutes, the individual can focus on just one aspect of cleanup, like the dishes.”
“I suggest using a whiteboard and a planner to physically write down tasks in the order they are to be completed and by what time,” suggests Laurie Singer, a licensed psychotherapist from New York. “Allowing time for breaks is crucial and should be written into the schedule.”
Designated project time
Christy Hom, a board certified pediatric neuropsychologist from Orange, California, suggests setting aside the same time each day to complete a few of the tasks on your list.
She adds not to worry about finishing the projects. “Starting a task is more than half the battle. Don’t worry about not being able to finish it all within one sitting and don’t wait for when you have ‘more time’ — that’s what leads to procrastination.”
Hom also recommends focusing on completing the task, rather than perfecting all the details.
All those little intricacies can lead to the opportunity to feel overwhelmed.
“Most things don’t have to be done perfectly,” she says. “They just have to be done.”
Crossing tasks off the list … literally
The act of crossing off a completed task may bring with it satisfaction.
“When we set a goal and work to reach it, there’s a real sense of accomplishment, irrespective of the size of the goal,” says Singer. “By crossing off that completed task we’re conditioning ourselves to repeat the process and generating intrinsic motivation to move forward.”
It doesn’t have to be all work and no play.
“Another good strategy is identifying motivation in the form of a reward,” says Fox. “Treating oneself to something pleasant immediately after the mundane task can be helpful (like a break, something tasty to eat, or playing a game).”
Making it fun
There may not be much intrinsic fun in household chores, but you can trick your brain into thinking so, says Fox.
“Being playful can help trick the brain into tolerating the tedious task,” he indicates. “Trying to make a game of something that is otherwise rote, seeing how fast you can do it and then beating that record or challenging a friend can all make the tasks a bit more palatable.”
ADHD paralysis is used to describe the overwhelm-shutdown process that can happen when you live with ADHD.
When too many things are happening, or too many emotions are building, you may “freeze” as a way of responding to the stress.
It’s natural for anyone to feel overwhelmed, but when you live with ADHD, your brain circuitry may make it more likely you’ll experience these feelings.
Breaking tasks down, noting your accomplishments, and making projects fun are some ways you can help avoid ADHD paralysis in the future.