Overwhelm Shutdown: Why ADHD Makes Us Feel Stuck and How To Stop It

For many adults living with ADHD, overwhelm can shut them down and keep them from moving forward. To give you perspective, let’s look at Janice’s story. Then we’ll review how to stop feeling overwhelmed and give you ten steps to get moving again.

Janice is a 38-year-old woman. From the outside, her life looks perfect: she is successful professionally, happily married with two children (and a dog!). Janice lives in a lovely home and is active in her community. However, Janice feels like she is hanging on by a thread inside.

Janice constantly dreads “dropping one of the balls I’m juggling.” She is overwhelmed with all that is on her plate and racing to keep up. Sadly, Janice is paralyzed and stuck because of her seemingly endless to-do lists, causing her to freeze instead of taking action. Why? Janice has adult ADHD.

If you live with adult ADHD, as I do, this scenario might hit home. You have probably experienced feelings of overwhelm and paralysis and just plain shut down. If so, you’re not alone; in 2020, there were over 366 million adults in the world living with ADHD (Journal of Global Health, August 2021) who have all probably felt the same way.

Let’s talk about how feeling overwhelmed affects you and suggest ten quick remedies to help you break through this frozen place and take the steps you need to live the life you want.


Overwhelm in a Nutshell

Everyone gets overwhelmed sometimes. But it’s different for us. Adults with ADHD get overwhelmed more often and by more things than those with neurotypical brains. The overwhelm happens because our brains do not have enough of the critical neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine) we need for effective executive functioning skills.

Basically, adults with ADHD feel overwhelmed because our brains don’t have enough of the chemicals we need to help us live our lives as easily as others do.

Adults with ADHD Struggle with:

  1. Filtering: Our brain lets everything in because it doesn’t filter out information, stimulation, and other incoming data!
  2. Organizing and categorizing all the information that we receive
  3. Prioritizing projects and tasks: This skill doesn’t come naturally to an ADHD brain because everything is or is not IMPORTANT. We can’t differentiate between the two and there is no middle ground.
  4. Emotional regulation; Our feelings are either ON or OFF (usually ON), and they are BIG feelings!

Ultimately, we are nearly always overstimulated and can’t sort through the chaos in our heads. It all seems either very important or not important at all, so we can’t determine what to do first. Then we panic, and we can’t compartmentalize our feelings, so whatever we feel spills out over every part of our lives.

In overwhelm, as online magazine ADDitude explains, “Individuals with ADHD experience life more intensely than neurotypicals. The ADHD nervous system wants to be engaged in something interesting and challenging. Attention is never “deficit.” It’s always excessive, constantly occupied with internal engagements. When people with ADHD aren’t in the zone, hyperfocus, they have many things rattling around in their minds all at once. Nothing gets sustained undivided attention. Nothing gets done well.”

Our brain is flooded by feelings, particularly those survival feelings like fear, anxiety, worry, or dread, and it moves into fight/flight/freeze mode. We just shut down.


10 Steps to Break Through Overwhelm and Get Moving

How to Stop feeling stuck when you are an ADHD adult

  1. Be prepared. Overwhelm will occur. It’s hard to know what to do when it happens, so create a plan in advance. Then, when overwhelm strikes, look at it and try to do the next thing you intended to do.
  2. Self-awareness – Ask yourself the following questions:
    • What are my indications that I’m going into overwhelm mode?
    • What do I feel in my body?
    • What am I thinking (Am I thinking?)?
    • The faster you recognize the signs and symptoms that overwhelm is approaching, the quicker you can catch it before it floods your system.
  3. Stop everything! Breathe. Focus only on your breathing for 2-5 minutes. In doing breathing exercises, your body has a chance to catch up with your brain.
  4. Do something physical – run in place, take a brisk walk, quickly clean some area of your house or office. Get yourself out of your brain and back in touch with your body because doing something physical stops the ruminating.
  5. Do a written brain dump. What are all the tasks that are on your mind? Get them out of your head and down on paper. It will help clear your mind of clutter. Then you can organize it into categories.
  6. Think of the ONE thing you could do that would most relieve your stress. Let your body be a part of this – what would feel best to get out of the way?
  7. Where are you now? Are you able to do that ONE thing? If so, do it! Even if it’s a small and (to you) inconsequential thing. It’s getting something done, which activates dopamine flow to your brain. If not, and you’re still stuck, start smaller.
  8. Check on your Overwhelm: how’s your overwhelm now? Can you identify the next thing you want to do? Do it! If not, take some deep breaths and go back to step seven.
  9. Step away again and take a break: walk away from your task and get a protein snack, go outside for five minutes, listen to some music you love, etc.
  10. Repeat the process.

In Summary

Here is a quick summary of the highlights to help you overcome your overwhelming thoughts. 

  1. Be prepared.
  2. Self-awareness.
  3. Stop and take a deep breath.
  4. Do something physical.
  5. Do a written brain dump.
  6. Think of ONE thing.
  7. Take action.
  8. Check on your overwhelm.
  9. Take a break.
  10. Repeat the process.

In Conclusion:

Experiencing ADHD Overwhelm is common, challenging, and debilitating. It can keep you from moving toward a productive and happy life. With these quick remedies, you can learn to control overwhelm in no time.

My Closing Thoughts: 

As you now know, I am an adult with ADHD. I struggled with issues like overwhelm for years before I was diagnosed. So I can relate to your challenges. Before working with a coach, I was a lot like Janice’s story.

Today, as a certified ADHD coach, I guide smart and passionate adults to develop creative solutions to manage their ADHD successfully. My clients become empowered to bring about the changes they have always hoped for so they can be clear, confident, productive, and happy. You can read more here.

You deserve to be happy without ADHD ruling your life,

Lisa Alecci
Lisa Alecci Certified ADHD Coach

I understand what you’re going through, because I’ve struggled with ADHD my whole life. Most adults I work with want to lead meaningful and productive lives.

As a certified ADHD coach, I help my clients develop specific ADHD strategies, tools, and techniques so they can achieve more than they ever thought possible.

I can help. Take the first steps towards your productive and happy life by scheduling a consult today!

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