When you have ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) you may feel like a juggler. You may be pretty good at keeping two or three balls in the air. But when the world tosses a few more at you, they can all fall to the floor.
Trying to keep up with work, school, and other responsibilities overwhelms you and can cause burnout – especially if your ADHD isn’t treated.
What Is Burnout?
Burnout can affect your home, work, and social life, says David Goodman, MD, assistant professor, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, director of the Adult Attention Deficit Disorder Center of Maryland, and an expert with CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder).
Goodman describes burnout this way:
- You no longer take interest or pleasure in your normal activities.
- You see allies (like co-workers) as enemies who are burdening you with more and more work.
- You withdraw because you believe it’s impossible to get things done.
Why Can ADHD Make Burnout Worse?
The symptoms of ADHD – like not being organized, trouble paying attention, and poor time management – add to burnout.
ADHD burnout is a specific kind of burnout, says Amber Meeks, who has ADHD and is a mental health advocate from Murfreesboro, TN. Part of the problem is that “people with ADHD work harder to do the things most people do with little effort.”
Imagine yourself on an interactive exercise bicycle, Goodman says. You pedal faster and faster to try to keep up with others, your heart rate hits its peak and you can’t pedal any harder. But, even your best isn’t good enough and you fall behind the standard of others.
Certain life changes can ignite burnout – especially if you’re untreated, Goodman says. In college, for example, “academic demands are increasing but so are social distractions. Plus your time management skills are already poor.”
Other problems specific to people with ADHD also add fuel to burnout.
“ADHDers experience something called ‘hyperfocus,’ periods of time in which we are transfixed and fully focused on a subject or project. These periods can last from hours to days and we often neglect taking care of ourselves when we are hyperfocused. We don’t eat right, sleep well, etc. This often leads us to burnout more quickly,” Meeks says.
How Do You Know You're Burned Out?
Look for these ADHD burnout symptoms:
Lack of motivation. “If you like working out 5 days a week, you’re probably not going to be doing that. Or, if you enjoy playing with your kids you’ll do less of that,” Goodman says.
Exhaustion. “You feel tired all the time no matter how much rest you get,” Meeks says.
Poor Performance. You may not be able to focus on the work at hand. “It may feel impossible to do anything, even when it’s really important,” Meeks says.
Pain.Stress also can trigger things like stomachaches and headaches.
Irritability. You snap at people. You yell at the kids because they spilled milk on the floor. Or you get mad at your spouse because they forgot something at the grocery store.
Troubled Emotions. You withdraw or can’t smile at people, Goodman says. “I tend to get weepy and sad when I’m burned out,” Meeks says.
Negativity or Pessimism. It can feel almost impossible to be positive about anything, Meeks says. This is especially true in the areas that are causing your burnout – whether it’s school, work, or home life.
When your kids, co-workers, or clients start looking like the enemy, that’s a concrete sign that you are burned out, Goodman stresses.
He adds that at least 70% of adults with ADHD have another mental health problem like anxiety or depression. These problems interfere with your ability to cope and fight burnout.
If you have a medical condition too, it can make you sicker. Perhaps you have diabetes. Your burnout and stress can affect your ability to control your blood sugar.
“So you can see how this is a spiral downward,” Goodman says.
How Do You Break the Burnout Cycle and Recover?
The first step is recognizing and accepting that you are burned out. “If your friends and loved ones say you aren’t doing well, don’t take it as a criticism,” Goodman says. Educate yourself about burnout and then get some help from a mental health professional.
Here’s what else you can do:
Know your limits. Some people think they can pile it all on their plate and carry it even though it’s dripping off the plate, Goodman says. You need to face the fact that your expectations sometimes go beyond what you can actually do. This is where therapy can help you see that you need to balance expectations with reality.
Learn to prioritize. “You won’t be able to juggle 12 balls at once,” Goodman says. You need to pick six that you can juggle well and the other six need to be put to the side until you have more time for them. Setting priorities is difficult for people with ADHD. “It’s either I need to do it now or if it’s not due yesterday it doesn’t need to be done until tomorrow. The problem is something comes up tomorrow that’s urgent and that’s how things mount up.”
Just say “no.” People with ADHD often are people pleasers, have a hard time saying no, and overcommit themselves, Meeks says. “Practice saying no and not feeling guilty about it. The people in our lives should be understanding of the need to keep ourselves safe and healthy,” she adds.
Get some rest. Don’t feel guilty about taking a breather. People with ADHD spend their whole lives being told that they aren’t trying hard enough. As a result, they often push themselves as hard as possible, Meeks says. “Resting feels ‘lazy,’ a word that has been used against us like a weapon for most of our lives.”
If it’s broken, fix it. If your ADHD symptoms seem out of control, talk to your doctor. You may need to add or change medication or learn better organization and time-management skills. This can help you get through your days with fewer stumbling blocks and more confidence.
Meeks says: “Make sure that you ask for help when you need it, whether that be by asking someone to help you with chores or going to therapy. Be kind to yourself. Give yourself the same grace you would give a loved one who was in the same situation.”