When ADHD symptoms intensify, you might feel you’re having a “bad ADHD day.” There’s a way to manage severe ADHD symptoms, 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.
At times, it might not be clear what caused your ADHD symptoms to intensify. Some of these severe attention deficit, hyperactivity, and impulsivity symptoms may be the effects of untreated ADHD in adults. Other times, it may be some of your habits or experiences.
Those days you feel your ADHD is so bad may feel challenging to handle, but there are ways to manage your severe symptoms and cope with the situation.
Adult 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 day” might feel like or one that could make you wonder “why is my ADHD so bad today?”:
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, procrastination or 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 adult ADHD, particularly on a bad day.
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.
“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,” explains Edward M. Hallowell in his seminal book “Delivered from Distraction: Getting the Most Out of Life with Attention Deficit Disorder” for people with this disorder,
This isn’t a personal flaw. It’s how the ADHD brain works. On a bad ADHD day, you may feel even more bored and unmotivated.
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 when ADHD symptoms intensify, 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:
1. Not enough exercise
- improvements in attention
- mood regulation
- greater motivation
- less general fatigue
- decreased depression symptoms
If you’ve been skipping working out or leading a sedentary life, you might feel your ADHD symptoms are more severe on some days. You could feel stressed, restless, or upset and with less ability to focus.
2. Not managing your stress levels
“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, 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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On days you’re even more stressed, you may feel you’re having a very bad ADHD day. In fact, it’s the stress that’s causing your symptoms, not necessarily your ADHD.
Stress management techniques may then help you prevent ADHD symptoms from getting worse.
Engaging in relaxation techniques every day can prevent severe symptoms when you’re handling a lot of stress.
3. Experiencing hormonal shifts
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.”
Talking with your doctor about ways to balance your hormones and reduce PMS symptoms, may help you avoid bad ADHD days.
4. Being sensitive 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, who specializes in ADHD.
Clements, who has also received an ADHD diagnosis, notes that rejection sensitivity “leads to intense emotional overwhelm and flooding when the person perceives or actually experiences rejection.”
Dealing with emotional pain from rejection can actually intensify ADHD symptoms and make you feel you’re having a bad day.
5. Having overlapping symptoms
“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 ADHD 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 with severe ADHD symptoms.
1. Keep a journal
To better understand your bad days, consider tracking your symptoms and writing about your experiences.
Having this kind of information can help you plan ahead or take care of yourself. Journaling can also help you release stress and manage emotions better.
2. Work with your health professional
If you’re experiencing many bad ADHD days lately, over time and based on various factors, you might need to change your medication or other treatment interventions.
You may want to talk with your health professional about worsening symptoms. They might recommend switching doses or medications, or they may be able to help you identify why your ADHD is so bad lately.
You may also want to work with a psychotherapist and an ADHD coach who can help you develop new coping skills for severe symptoms.
3. 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.”
Hunter also suggests pairing compassionate self-talk with deep breathing or mindfulness to further reduce anxiety on bad days or whenever you anticipate your symptoms may worsen.
4. 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.
5. Use systems
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.
6. 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 to handle rejection 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, especially if you’re having a bad ADHD day that feels overwhelming, 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. If you’re having bad ADHD days lately, consider asking family and friends to help you handle tasks that are especially draining for you.
8. 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 so it helps you calm your brain and body quickly. Williams notes that this can be as simple as taking a walk or a few deep breaths.
9. Be mindful of 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 ADHD days shall pass too.
If they don’t, and you feel your adult ADHD symptoms are worsening, it might be helpful to reassess what’s throwing you off, says Matlen.
Talking with a therapist, ADHD coach, or another health professional may be of great support during these times.