If you have ADHD, knowing your tipping point — that moment when you reach your “boiling point” — may help you manage your behavior.

If there’s one thing people living with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) tend to have in common it’s the toolbox of coping mechanisms they pick up along the way.

If you’re living with ADHD, these tools can help you manage your symptoms in challenging situations.

But every once in a while, an event (or series of events) occurs that renders all of those tools useless. This is called a tipping point.

When approaching a tipping point, the ability to manage your ADHD symptoms often goes out the window. Instead, you may find yourself overwhelmed, drowning in chaos, and completely consumed by the symptoms you’d previously had under control.

If you’re living with ADHD, you might have experienced this at least once or twice. But being able to recognize your tipping point will help prevent you from crossing over it.

“An ADHD tipping point simply refers to a timeline in an undiagnosed patient’s life when it seems that the coping mechanisms and strategies that they were using to compensate for their ADHD signs and challenges are no longer working and falling apart,” explains Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios, MD, board-certified psychologist in Houston.

In other words, a tipping point is much like the phrase: “The straw that broke the camel’s back.”

It’s rarely just one thing, but instead a series of small events or changes that add up to one big push — the kind of push that can upend the tools you have to help manage your symptoms.

But it’s not only people living with ADHD who experience tipping points.

We all have those moments when life becomes too much and we topple over instead of rising to the occasion. For many, COVID-19 may have represented a tipping point with job losses, ongoing shutdowns, uncertainty, and the illness of friends or family members.

For those who experienced more than one of these events at the same time or close together, a tipping point certainly may have occurred.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has flagged emotional impulsivity — sudden and intense shifts in emotions — as a possible tipping point for the pediatric diagnosis of ADHD.

Rather than a cause of ADHD, it’s more likely that this is simply one of the first symptoms of the condition. Yet it often goes unnoticed in early diagnostic settings.

There are many situations that could contribute to a tipping point. According to Gonzalez-Berrios, examples might be any significant life transition, including:

  • moving from elementary school to high school or high school to college
  • new job or promotion
  • new life roles such as marriage or becoming a parent
  • moving into a new house
  • health problems or chronic illness
  • sleep deprivation

“Any major life change can become a tipping point if the [person] finds it overwhelming and challenging to deal with it,” Gonzalez-Berrios says.

“Even the most bright and talented person can experience tipping points because of the fact that they always had ADHD symptoms, though in a dormant state,” she adds. “It never became apparent as they could manage it well. They had the ability to go longer and use their talents and creativity to keep the signs at bay. But [triggers] can change things suddenly and they may seem to fall apart faster than expected.”

Also, there may not be only one thing that constitutes a tipping point. Instead, it could be a culmination of situations and events that can disrupt your balance.

While some tipping points may be impossible to avoid, others could potentially be corrected before your ADHD symptoms get too out of control — if you know the symptoms to watch for.

Some common ones include:

  • Big life changes: Change is inevitable, but it can also be a precursor to a tipping point. Being aware of the inevitability of change, and taking extra steps to preserve balance when big changes occur, can prevent a tipping point.
  • Increased impulsivity: Impulsivity is recognized as one of the hallmark symptoms of ADHD. But when that impulsivity becomes reckless or increases at a rapid rate, a tipping point may be near.
  • A loss of routine: When routines are significantly altered — for instance, when the school year gives way to summer break — the lack of structure can contribute to a tipping point. Taking steps to continue a regular routine when possible can help prevent this.
  • Missed assignments and appointments: When you’re missing more assignments or appointments than you’re making, it may be a clue of that a tipping point is about to happen.
  • Detachment: Your to-do list gets so overwhelming that giving up and withdrawing feels like the simpler choice. But it’s at this point — when you might disconnect from the people and expectations that otherwise help keep you grounded — that a tipping point is likely already in progress.

Some people have experienced tipping points this past year as a result of the pandemic, says Trynia Kaufman, senior manager of editorial research at Understood.org and expert on the neuroscience of learning, emotional-behavior issues, and teaching strategies in New York City

“Parents were especially impacted by having to manage their job responsibilities while also caring for their kids who may have been doing virtual learning at home or unable to go to day care,” Kaufman says.

The hard part, she says, is that some people who are having trouble may not even realize that ADHD is at the root of their problems.

“They might blame themselves and think they’re just not trying hard enough,” Kaufman says. “People might not realize they have ADHD until they seek help for other challenges like depression or anxiety.”

It’s not uncommon for people with ADHD to also have mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. This is all the more reason to seek help if you’re having trouble.

So, what do you do if you recognize these symptoms in yourself or someone you love?

You can start by determining whether the tipping point is simply approaching or if it’s already tumbled.

If you catch the symptoms early, it’s possible one of your coping mechanisms may still work. At the very least, you can reach out to loved ones so that they can rally around you in support and help prevent the tipping point.

But if you’re suddenly so overwhelmed that you don’t even know where to begin, consider reaching out to a family doctor or mental health professional for help.

“A person living with ADHD should seek help if the symptoms get worse and it becomes difficult to deal with the new changes happening around every day,” Gonzalez-Berrios advises.

“If the responsibilities and burdens of life are more than the person’s ability to compensate and make desirable changes, or to cope in a healthy manner, he or she should seek support from a licensed therapist or a certified psychiatrist for better coping and adjustment,” she says.

If you find yourself in this situation, know that there is help available, and organizations like Children and Adult with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD) can help you find it.

Other places that can help include:

Tipping points are not unique to people living with ADHD, but they can be especially challenging when you have ADHD.

If you’re living with ADHD, recognizing the symptoms of a tipping point can help you know when it might be time to reach out for help.

When in doubt, consider discussing your feelings with someone you trust or a medical professional. They can help you to determine how close to a tipping point you may be and give you tips on getting back on track.

Even when you find yourself in the midst of a tipping point, there’s always help to re-establish the balance you may feel you’ve lost.