Clinical psychologist Roberto Olivardia’s clients who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) regularly tell him they feel overwhelmed by everyday tasks. “They feel as if they are in the midst of an avalanche of chores they cannot properly prioritize, organize or execute.”
Tasks such as paying the bills, preparing dinner, or getting the car fixed can feel monumental, he said. On top of that, adults with ADHD can feel frustrated seeing others without ADHD accomplish these tasks with little effort, he added. “This leads many with ADHD to feel like they are ‘failing at life.’”
According to Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D, NCC, a psychotherapist and ADHD specialist, detail-oriented work, vague guidelines or expectations for work projects also trigger overwhelm.
If you, too, feel the crushing wave of overwhelm, these reminders and suggestions may help.
Remember that ADHD isn’t a failure or flaw.
“First and foremost, accept that ADHD is a valid diagnostic entity and that these difficulties are due to a specific type of brain wiring and not due to willpower,” said Olivardia, Ph.D, a clinical instructor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
Avoid comparing yourself to people who don’t have ADHD, he said. “Part of accepting the diagnosis is that it opens you up to develop specific strategies that work for you.”
In other words, work with your neurology — your strengths and preferences — instead of against it. As Sarah Wright’s ADHD coaching school trainer used to say: “If the shoe doesn’t fit, don’t blame the foot.”
Remember the four Ds.
“Do, Delegate, Defer and Drop,” said Beth Main, a certified ADHD coach who helps individuals with ADHD develop the skills, systems and strategies they need to overcome their challenges and achieve success. That is, when you’re faced with a task, consider if you’re going to do it, ask someone else to do it, schedule it for another time or drop it altogether.
Write it down.
“Individuals with ADHD often have poor working memories, so attempting to keep things in one’s head is a recipe for chaos,” Olivardia said. Writing things down makes them more concrete and manageable.
Main suggested creating a master to-do list, which includes writing everything that needs to get done. “Then make a list of just what you need to do today, and only look at that,” she said.
Just do something.
“Remember that just doing something reduces the amount of snow in the avalanche,” Olivardia said. If you get stuck on figuring out the most important thing to do, just do what comes easiest, he said. This might be anything from making a phone call to mailing a letter.
“Sometimes just doing something, even if it is very simple, activates yourself to be motivated to do more complex tasks.”
Take a deep breath.
People with ADHD often go through an entire day without taking a deep breath, which only makes problem-solving more difficult, Olivardia said. “Taking a deep breath not only allows our brain to get more oxygen but it gives us distance from all that is bothering us.”
Remember that “this too shall pass.”
“When your day seems overwhelming, remember this is just a temporary phase, and everything will be OK,” said Sarkis, author of several books on ADHD, including 10 Simple Solutions to Adult ADD: How to Overcome Chronic Distraction & Accomplish Your Goals.
Focus on the present.
“Focusing on the present moment gets you out of your head and reduces the overwhelm,” Main said. That’s because our overwhelm spikes when we’re trying to forecast the future or we’re ruminating about the past. Main suggested taking 30 seconds to close your eyes, breathe and listen to the sounds around you.
To learn more about mindfulness, Sarkis suggested The Mindfulness Prescription for Adult ADHD by Lidia Zylowska and Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh.
Ask for help.
“Know there is nothing wrong with getting help or support,” Olivardia said. “Do not feel shame for hiring a housekeeper, a babysitter, a personal trainer or anyone else that can help unload you of your chores.”
Support doesn’t have to cost anything, either. He suggested asking a friend to check in on your progress to help keep you on track.
Try to coordinate doing tasks at the same time as your loved ones, he added. “Food shopping may seem less overwhelming if you are meeting a friend and know you have to be in and out at a certain time.”
Challenge self-defeating thoughts.
“What makes ADHD most challenging is the colossal hit on one’s self-esteem when they feel overwhelmed by things that they know they ‘shouldn’t’ be,” Olivardia said. He stressed the importance of not reacting to overwhelm with self-defeating thoughts, such as “I will never be successful” or “I’m so stupid.”
If you find yourself thinking these negative thoughts, don’t take them at face value, he said. Challenge them, call them out as mere thoughts, not facts, and reframe them into more accurate statements, he said.
“For example, instead of ‘I am such a loser for not getting this project done,’ reframe the thought as ‘I have a lot of difficulty in getting this project done and therefore I am going to ask for help.’”
Having ADHD can be overwhelming, because it affects all areas of your life. Try to seek support, find strategies that work for you, and be kind to yourself.