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ADHD & Adults: 4 Things that Cause Overwhelm and What You Can Do

When you have ADHD, many things can cause you to feel overwhelmed. In fact, you might feel like you’re constantly behind and playing catch-up. You might run around all day long and yet not get much done.

The symptoms of ADHD affect your ability to be organized and efficient, said Juli Shulem, PCC, a productivity coach and organizing expert who specializes in helping people with ADHD. Maybe you can relate to what Shulem’s client said: “Life just happens at me.”

The good news is that you can do something — a lot of things — to help you navigate and reduce your overwhelm. First, Shulem stressed the importance of getting enough sleep, eating nutrient-rich foods and exercising. “Without having these three basic self-care practices in place, it is extremely difficult to build additional skills into your life.”

Below are four specific reasons you might be overwhelmed, along with practical tips to try.

You have tons of thoughts.

People with ADHD have many thoughts and ideas running through their heads at once, said Nancie Kohlenberger, MA, LMFT, a marriage consultant who works with couples all over the country and co-wrote the book The Couple’s Guide to Thriving with ADHD. Understandably, this makes it difficult to focus and triggers anxiety.

If you’re taking medication, Kohlenberger suggested talking to your prescribing physician, because you might need to adjust your dose. Maybe you need to try a different medication or an additional medication (e.g., for a co-occurring disorder). If you can’t take medication, supplements such as fish oil might help, she said. But again, check with your physician first.

She also suggested taking several deep breaths and repeating the phrase “I am OK” until your anxiety subsides. Make a list of your ideas, and try to identify which ones are most important and which ones can wait, she said. “Sometimes just writing them down can reduce overwhelm.” If you’re unable to do the most important thing right now, she said, schedule it in your planner.

You’re bombarded by stimuli.

On top of your own thoughts ping-ponging in your brain, your environment might feel like an attack on your senses. Everything from loud sounds to irritating scents to sunlight might distract you. Shulem likened it to being in a three-ring circus, because it’s really hard for people with ADHD to filter out their environment.

Kohlenberger stressed the importance of being prepared: Have earplugs on hand for noisy situations and tinted glasses for glaring lights. She always wears sunglasses outdoors and eyeshades at bedtime. “If someone is burning incense or a candle and you don’t like the smell, speak up and assert yourself.” If your work environment is too noisy, try working in a conference room. Or, if possible, adjust your hours. One of Kohlenberger’s clients works later hours when his colleagues aren’t in the office.

Also, background noise can help to settle the brain, Shulem said. If you’re working with numbers, she suggested using classical music. “It mimics the beat of the heart at 60 beats per minute,” and helps to “reduce the onslaught of stimuli that creates overwhelm.”

If you’re having a hard time focusing on reading, read aloud, she said. This helps because it incorporates an additional sense. “Or stand up and pace while reading out loud, now engaging a third sense.”

You’re surrounded by clutter.

You might have all sorts of piles on your desk: bills that need to be paid, reports that need to be completed, papers to fill out, letters to respond to, said Shulem, author of three books on productivity and organization, including Order! A Logical Approach to an Organized Way of Life.

The problem? Instead of being convenient, this is a “visual reminder of everything you didn’t do. And that’s very overwhelming and debilitating.”

According to Shulem, a better strategy is to create two lists: a master list of everything you need, want and have to do; and a daily list, which includes the highest priority items for that day.

Kohlenberger suggested clearing clutter by spending just 15 minutes cleaning a different corner in your home. She likes the decluttering tips on After you’ve completed a segment, “congratulate yourself…[and] have some kind of mini-celebration like lunch with a friend.”

Kohlenberger also suggested having a “body double” — a person who’s present for emotional support while you work.

You can’t find anything.

People with ADHD commonly lose their keys, wallet, phone and purse. That’s because ADHD hinders short-term memory. Losing critical items can easily make you late to work or other important appointments.

You can boost your memory by employing additional senses. Shulem suggested this trick: Whenever you’re putting down an object, stop just long enough to watch what you’re doing and say out loud where you’re leaving it. This engages three senses: “Your body makes the motion, you see yourself placing the item and you hear yourself saying where you put it.”

ADHD comes with many challenges, which affect you day to day, and trigger overwhelm. Thankfully, there’s a slew of strategies that lessen overwhelm and help you effectively manage ADHD. Experiment with different tools and techniques to find which work best for you. And remember to be gentle with yourself: ADHD is tough to manage. You’re doing the best you can.

Stay tuned for a second piece, which features more triggers and tips.

Messy desk photo available from Shutterstock

ADHD & Adults: 4 Things that Cause Overwhelm and What You Can Do

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Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). ADHD & Adults: 4 Things that Cause Overwhelm and What You Can Do. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 1, 2020, from
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Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 5 Oct 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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