You wake up, and already feel absolutely drained. It’s as though the energy has been sucked out of your body. It’s as though your brain left the building while you were sleeping. You’re having a hard time concentrating. You can’t seem to find anything, from your keys to your bag to your lunch. Everything feels extra difficult.
For Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and ADHD expert who also has ADHD, a difficult day is when he feels out of control. “Unexpected traffic, my computer malfunctioning, feeling way behind on the to-do list or too many days of sleep debt create a sense of chaos and stress.”
When this happens, Olivardia turns to his personal three-step process. First, he checks in with his mindset and says, “I can only do so much.” Second, he reviews his list of values, which are written down, to see where he stands in relation to them. He reflects on these questions: “Am I taking care of my health? Have I had enough leisure time?” One of his values is staying healthy so he can be available for his family and his patients.
Lastly, Olivardia thinks of something he can look forward to, which helps to raise his “dopamine levels in anticipation of some reward.” This might be anything from watching “Survivor” that night to ordering his favorite pizza for dinner.
Natalia van Rikxoort, MSW, a life coach who specializes in ADHD, stressed the importance of taking good care of yourself. “People often underestimate the role that diet, sleep, physical activity, and stress play in terms of the severity of their ADHD symptoms.” So you might eat protein-packed, nutrient-rich foods; not skip meals; get enough sleep and participate in physical activities that you love. Think of these habits as your foundation.
When you’re having a bad ADHD day, a day where you feel overwhelmed and your symptoms are sharper and more persistent, try these additional suggestions.
Press pause. “This technique helps you refocus by allowing you to breathe, engage your prefrontal cortex, and think logically,” said van Rikxoort, also a social worker and therapeutic arts facilitator who helps her clients use their strengths to overcome challenges and discover true fulfillment in their lives.
When you’re feeling overwhelmed, stop what you’re doing and begin taking deep, slow breaths. Notice and acknowledge your feeling, the location of that feeling in your body and the thoughts that arise. For instance, you might say, “I’m feeling anxious and my chest feels tight. I’m afraid of messing this up.” Then say something empowering: “I need to step away for a few minutes and do something else to help myself calm down. I’ll come back to this when I’m feeling more relaxed.”
Take a break to move your body. “Taking a walk, dancing in your office, a quick run, or doing 10 minutes of jumping jacks can be a good release that can help declutter your mind and create some clarity,” said Olivardia, a clinical instructor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. Shake things up. “The ADHD brain is wired to be constantly seeking out stimulation,” van Rikxoort said. “When you are genuinely interested in something, your brain is getting the stimulation it needs and it becomes much easier to stay focused and engaged.”
A stale routine can exacerbate ADHD symptoms, which is why van Rikxoort suggested making small changes to your schedule or surroundings. Her clients have found that something as simple as getting a new planner or notebook or putting up photos or buying a new rug for their office reenergizes them and boosts their motivation. She also suggested trying different physical activities and doing daily tasks in a different order.
How can you shake up your routine? How can you get creative with your day? Split tasks into micro-steps. Olivardia recommended writing down two to three tasks you want to accomplish that day. Then divide each task into several concrete, specific micro-steps to help you feel less overwhelmed and more grounded.
He shared this example: Instead of writing down, “pack for ADHD conference,” you’d write, “Pack toiletries,” “Pack casual clothes,” “Pack formal/presentation outfits,” “Pack laptop/electronics.” Engage your sense of humor. “Think of yourself as a character on a sitcom and how funny some of the ADHD shenanigans can be from a distance,” Olivardia said. “This is not meant to minimize the seriousness of a situation, but rather gain distance from it and create levity when feeling down.”
How else can you take a lighter, sillier approach?
Tackle a toleration. This is more of a preventative strategy, but it can go a long way. According to van Rikxoort, tolerations are: “those seemingly small and insignificant things which add up over time, sapping your precious time and energy.” This might be clutter or household chores or unfinished projects. She suggested listing all the tolerations in your life. Then identify which ones would be easiest to tackle.
“Removing tolerations from your daily life can help restore your energy by giving you some breathing room and a sense of personal satisfaction.” Temper the judgmental talk. As Olivardia said, “There is nothing about calling yourself ‘an idiot’ that will help you during any kind of day.” One helpful technique is to stop making mistakes and missteps into further evidence of your supposed inadequacies. For instance, he said, instead of saying “I’m so stupid,” you say, “I guess that strategy failed. I need a new one.”
This is vital because “If you feel the failure is you, then there is no hope. It deems you defective. If the failure is outside of yourself, you can then work at changing it and paving a path toward success.”
Recharge your batteries. Set time aside to do something you enjoy that doesn’t require much focus or mental energy, van Rikxoort said. (Try to do this every day.) This might be anything from watching your favorite TV show to going outside to engaging in a fun hobby to just daydreaming, she said.
When you’re having a difficult day and your symptoms have peaked, it can feel very demoralizing. Acknowledge those feelings and your frustration, and experiment with the above techniques. Remind yourself that you’re not alone. As Olivardia said, “Don’t focus on how ‘only you’ have these kind of days. You are not that unique. Lots of people, even those without ADHD, have days that feel tough to sift through. Adults with ADHD can especially relate to your frustrations.”
And remind yourself that you are doing your best. Because you are.