When ADHD symptoms intensify, it’s natural to get frustrated. But there are a few ways to navigate these days, and in some cases, prevent them.
When you live with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), there are days when your symptoms may fade into the background. But on other days, they’re front and center, interfering with your daily activities.
Sometimes, there are specific triggers you may recognize. You can work on preventing some of them. Other times, it might be less clear what caused your adult ADHD symptoms to intensify. Some of these severe symptoms may be the effects of untreated ADHD.
Those bad ADHD days may feel challenging to handle, but there are ways to manage your symptoms and cope with the situation.
ADHD varies greatly from person to person, so everyone’s bad days may be different. What is manageable for you may not be for someone else.
Here’s what a bad adult ADHD day might look like:
Taking hours to do something you think will take minutes
For marriage and family therapist Cameron Hunter, who was diagnosed with ADHD at 37, frustration arises when he takes longer to complete a task than he thinks it should.
“The temptation there is to get overwhelmed and shut down,” says Hunter, who has a private practice in Vancouver, Washington.
For many people with ADHD, not being able to accomplish tasks on time, or at all, triggers a shame spiral — particularly if you’ve been called “lazy” or told you can’t handle things, explains Hunter.
Forgetting something super important
You didn’t just forget your keys. No. You forgot that today’s the day of your big work presentation. Or you realized it’s your partner’s birthday. The morning of.
Here’s the thing about forgetfulness: At times, it’s not a sign of a thoughtless spouse or careless worker.
In fact, forgetfulness occurring more often is a hallmark symptom of ADHD. It’s related to having difficulty with working memory. Working memory is a kind of filing cabinet in your brain that stores short-term information, and it often becomes impaired when you have ADHD.
Having to do something you don’t want to do
You have to finish or start a project for work or school, and for you, it’s deeply boring. So, you sit at your desk, agonizing about how awful it is.
Still, you appreciate the gravity of not getting it done, but as your anxiety peaks, everything becomes even more challenging.
As ADHD expert Edward M. Hallowell writes in his seminal book “Delivered from Distraction: Getting the Most Out of Life with Attention Deficit Disorder” for people with this disorder, “Being bored is like being asphyxiated. It cannot be endured for more than a minute or so. When bored, the person with ADD feels compelled to do something immediately to bring the world back up to speed.”
This isn’t a personal flaw. It’s how the ADHD brain works.
Feeling anxious and worried
On a bad ADHD day, you may be feeling overwhelmed with dread. Your brain may be buzzing with what-ifs, making it harder to focus on the tasks you need to complete.
What if I can’t get this done?
What if I fail the final exam?
What if they’re mad at me?
Your body may also feel restless, and you may grow incredibly uncomfortable in your own skin. At a certain point, the worries may keep you from completing what you’re working on. This, in turn, may make you feel defeated.
On a given day, many things can intensify your ADHD symptoms, some of which you can manage. Everyone is different and may have different tolerance levels for specific triggers, though.
Here are some of the potential causes of ADHD symptoms getting worse:
Lack of exercise
- improvements in attention
- mood regulation
- greater motivation
- less general fatigue
- decreased depression symptoms
If you’ve been skipping working out, you might feel your symptoms are more severe. You could feel stressed, restless, or upset and with less of an ability to focus.
“As your stress levels rise, you may become more forgetful, have more trouble focusing, and it might make you feel more frustrated,” says Risa Williams, a marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles, California, and author of “The Ultimate Anxiety Toolkit.”
A 2020 study suggested that stress increases depression symptoms in college students with ADHD.
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Stress management techniques may then help you prevent ADHD symptoms from getting worse on some days.
Psychotherapist and ADHD expert Terry Matlen, regularly hears from women who worry “because their brains are shutting down.”
“Word retrieval, short-term memory, and other related symptoms begin to take hold of these women and they often become very, very afraid and frustrated,” explains Matlen, who has a practice in Birmingham, Michigan.
Women may also notice ADHD symptoms worsen before or during their periods when there’s a reduction in estrogen levels.
“They feel like they’re in a fog and can’t get things done. They often feel depressed, anxious, and irritable,” adds Matlen, author of “The Queen of Distraction.”
Sensitivity to rejection
For some people with ADHD, rejection can be particularly difficult to manage. In fact, rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD) is common, says Adrienne Clements, a psychotherapist in Austin, Texas, who specializes in ADHD.
Clements, who has also received an ADHD diagnosis, notes that RSD “leads to intense emotional overwhelm and flooding when the person perceives or actually experiences rejection.”
Additional mental health conditions
“ADHD rarely travels alone,” says Matlen. It’s common for ADHD to co-occur with other mental health conditions.
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Whether you’re receiving treatment for anxiety or depression, on some days, due to the nature of these disorders, you may experience more intense ADHD symptoms.
Even though bad days can be draining, they can also serve as valuable lessons, says Matlen. Consider identifying what adds to your bad days and come up with specific solutions.
Of course, not every bad day can be prevented. But there are also helpful ways you can cope.
Keep a journal
To better understand your bad days, consider tracking your symptoms.
Having this kind of information can help you plan ahead or take care of yourself.
Work with your health professional
Over time, based on various factors, you might need to change your medication. You may want to talk with your health professional about worsening symptoms. They might recommend switching doses or medications.
You may also want to work with a psychotherapist who can help you develop new coping skills.
Change your self-talk
To feel less overwhelmed, it may be advisable to use encouraging self-talk while focusing moment to moment, says Hunter. You might tell yourself: “I can handle this,” or “One word or step at a time.”
Move in fun ways
Exercise is “really about embodied movement in whatever way feels good and is interesting for you,” says Clements.
“Perhaps that’s dancing around the kitchen to your favorite music or embracing your inner kid and swinging on a swing set or jumping on a trampoline — as long as your body is moving, that helps regulate the ADHD nervous system,” she says.
While the best strategies differ for each person, in general, “with ADHD if things are out of sight, they’re out of mind,” says Clements, so easy-to-see systems are typically most effective.
This can include putting dry-erase boards with reminders — like a written-out self-care plan — in different areas of your house and keeping nutritious foods in the fridge or on the counter, not in a drawer or pantry, she says.
Soothe your rejection
While you can’t prevent rejection and might not be able to stop the initial sting, you can mute it a bit.
One tip is to ask someone who cares about you to “remind you that you are worthy, capable, and loved and that this RSD episode will pass,” says Clements.
Another strategy is healthy sensory-based practices that distract your nervous system from the threatening feeling of rejection, she says. For example:
- holding an ice cube
- splashing cold water on your face
- smelling a strong scent, like an essential oil
- practicing progressive muscle relaxation
If your budget allows, says Matlen, consider hiring a cleaning service and having more than enough child care — “even when you’re home, so you can relax in your own bedroom or tub.”
For tighter budgets, you may want to tap your network. Consider asking family and friends to help you handle tasks that are especially draining for you.
Have your own stress-reducing tool kit
To keep stress at bay, consider identifying your pain points and understanding how stress affects you, so you can intervene before it magnifies, says Williams.
Also, it may be a good idea to have a personalized tool kit in place that helps you calm your brain and body. Williams notes that this can be as simple as taking a walk or a few deep breaths.
Be mindful about medication
If you have a difficult time taking your meds consistently, Clements says these reminder tips may help:
- Set an alarm on your phone as a reminder.
- Make the alarm difficult to ignore — bright with lots of emojis.
- Leave your meds out somewhere visible.
- Get a timer top for your prescription bottle that tells you the last time you opened it.
- Ask your doctor and insurance provider if they’ll cover a 90-day supply.
It’s natural to feel overwhelmed and frustrated when you’re in the thick of a bad ADHD day. But bad days shall pass too.
If they don’t, it might be helpful to reassess what’s throwing you off, says Matlen. Maybe your meds have stopped working for you or you’re experiencing symptoms of another condition.
Talking with a therapist, ADHD coach, or another health professional may be of great support during these times.