ADHD News & Research

When ‘Normal’ No Longer Exists: ADHD Brains in Free Fall

In the seventh of ADDitude’s pandemic surveys, adults and parents report higher-than-ever levels of exhaustion and overwhelm. Why now? Unease about economies opening up despite rising diagnosis rates, uncertainty about the school year ahead, sadness about missed celebrations, and lost motivation from obliterated routines — these are all factors, but they are not necessarily new. What’s changed is the realization that “normal” may no longer exist in a world rocked by nearly 430,000 deaths, plus social unrest following the murders of unarmed black Americans.

Not back to normal: A woman standing upside down

June 15, 2020

The ADHD brain feels emotions to the extreme. Worry becomes crippling anxiety in a blink. Frustration triggers red hot anger. And months of living through an isolating, uncertain pandemic — compounded by gruesome reminders of pervasive racism and nationwide protests for justice and police reform — leads to almost universal overwhelm and exhaustion.

This was the finding of ADDitude’s latest survey of 1,183 readers, which showed that 72.34% of you are feeling emotionally overpowered right now and 67.43% are feeling worried or anxious. These are the highest numbers recorded since ADDitude’s first pandemic survey the week of April 5; exhaustion, it seems, is at an all-time high.

“COVID-19, topped with other recent events that originated in my hometown and are now global, has made me so overwhelmed with multiple feelings at once,” wrote on ADDitude reader from Minneapolis, referring to the murder of George Floyd by police officers in her city.

Indeed, the murders of Floyd in Minnesota, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia were cited by many ADDitude readers in the survey deployed on June 1.

“Racism is a heavy weight for Black Americans always and especially now,” wrote one Florida mother of a 13-year-old with ADHD.

[Read This: Surprising Lessons Learned in a Quarantine]

“I’m extremely affected by the systemic racism and police brutality on display in our nation right now,” wrote the mother of a 9-year-old with autism and 7-year-old with ADHD.

“Coronavirus is still a big concern, but I’m more immediately scared about police brutality toward loved ones,” wrote one reader in California with ADHD and OCD. “I’m also scared that people are forgetting about coronavirus and not taking enough precautions.”

“I am filling out this survey in New York City, in the Bronx, where we have 8 pm curfews this week amid threats of riots in some parts of the city,” wrote one woman with ADHD, anxiety, and depression. “Just to add to my stress, I can see two fire engines on the next block, lights flashing. That is, these days are particularly stressful — more even than last week.”

[Read: What If ‘Back to Normal’ Is Terrifying?]

For many readers, the massive protests and political polarization of recent weeks have added unbearable weight to the pervasive underlying unease of the pandemic, high unemployment, shuttered schools, and so much other change. On top of this, most states are “opening up” again despite rising infection rates, and a new anxiety about nonchalance, complacency, and unsafe behaviors has set in.

“The emotions I’m experiencing are not due to the prolonged ‘physical/social distancing’ measures; those emotions come from society trying to go back to how it was before COVID-19, but I think this is our new reality (or at least a glimpse of what’s to come),” wrote one adult with ADHD and comorbidities. “The tension, confusion and unrest is so thick some days, it’s almost suffocating.”

“The U.S. is opening up and people are acting like normal again, but the virus is still acting like the virus,” wrote one mother of three in Mississippi. “I am doing all I can to not show how much this is affecting my mental state, which was already fragile before this virus… Oh and this crap about the cop worries me, too, because I am black and my children are black as well. I often wonder if racist people don’t realize most black people don’t have the time to hate others because of the skin God gave them at birth… I was never taught to hate, even when it was clear that others hated me.”

“The days feel surreal, as if time doesn’t matter,” wrote one mother of teens with ADHD and anxiety in Texas. “The lockdown routine is both stressful and utterly boring. The ‘opening up’ of the economy feels wrong without testing, tracing, isolation, and a vaccine, albeit people cannot afford to wait forever. It is so disorienting to not have good guidance (from federal and state government) on how to navigate this ‘in between’ situation in order to establish some semblance of a healthy routine.”

The loss of a reliable daily routine is distressing for many ADDitude readers. Nearly 13% of you have lost your job since March, nearly 40% continue to work from home, and 13% are working as essential employees — nearly half of those in the medical field. For the vast majority of readers, professional and home life still does not resemble its pre-pandemic state. Some readers have described the loss of normalcy as “depressing,” “saddening,” and “stressful.” They are desperate to return to life as it was before the pandemic.

“I feel like I’m on the Titanic and the ship is going down and there is no way out,” wrote one woman with ADHD in Colorado. “Every day is a low moment because I feel so restrained from being ‘me.’ I can’t visit friends, give others hugs, or volunteer or perform my job. My self-worth is in the toilet. I am so frustrated with this going on for so long and there is no end in sight. I hate it! I’m having a difficult time coping.”

Other readers say that downshifting to a simpler daily routine has been a gift, but that they are feeling the acute pain of missing graduations, birthdays, and other celebrations with family and friends.

“I am feeling a strange combo of relief of daily stress, yet a feeling of sadness and slight depression coming from missing life transitions that include seasonal changes, birthdays, family celebrations, and church events,” wrote one woman with ADHD in Indiana. “The lack of typical closure, the distancing from important people in my life (esp. grandchildren, pastors, friends), and the changing of long-awaited travel plans are all tough. Day-to-day routines are easier, simpler. Those special occasions, though, are much harder.”

“The relief from daily stress is lovely, but it also replaced by anxiety around our area’s return to school, which was disorganized at best,” wrote one essential employee with a 10- and 7-year-old returning to school. “We are supposed to return to normal life without any real normalcy.”

And then there are the teachers, who are recovering from a remote learning bootcamp experience while also preparing for multiple less-than-ideal scenarios for the Fall. Educators are feeling particularly overwhelmed and saddened by the losses ushered in by coronavirus.

“I’m a teacher and hate this,” wrote one mother of two from Illinois. “If we go back in the Fall to remote learning or some kind of partial teaching with all sorts of restrictions, I’m not sure I will remain teaching — which is sad because I love it!”

“Teaching special education students is a nightmare working from home,” wrote one educator from California. “These kids need much more support at home, and they aren’t getting it most of the time. Their routines and boundaries are gone, and it is like watching all our careful work go right out the window.”

Your Lowest Moments in the Pandemic

You are sleepless. You miss your grandchildren and parents. You feel sapped of energy and motivation with nothing to look forward to. You are worried about finances. You are stressed about screen time, video games, and a long summer of nothing. These are the themes we saw emerge when we asked ADDitude readers to share their lowest moments and thoughts over the last few months. Here are a few survey responses that reflect the broader themes we observed.

“My son has Asperger’s and the interruption in routine has been terrible for him,” wrote the mother of a young adult in Illinois. “He had limited social interaction before the pandemic, and now he has none. Overall, I feel I have failed him, and it is hardest right now. He was supposed to get a job, now there are very few jobs available, and he is not motivated. I worry about his future; but am trying to stay present and work from this moment.”

“One day I woke up at 5pm,” wrote one young woman in Canada with ADHD and anxiety. “That’s part of s whole bigger picture that involves unresolved chronic fatigue (cause unknown), executive dysfunction resulting in unintentionally staying up until all hours (I went to bed at 7am one day), and a lack of purpose. My anxiety has been getting worse. There’s no one lowest moment really, just the general struggle with almost every part of living as a functioning human.”

“The feeling that I am totally incapable of simultaneously doing my job and educating and entertaining my child and running a household even though under usual circumstances this would be an entirely unreasonable ask, the expectation from my boss that I ‘just manage it’ has led to massive additional stress and knowing that I am letting down my daughter because I can’t dedicate the emotional and mental resources to her when she needs me most because work and my own expectations of myself are using up all of my energy has been pretty awful,” wrote the mother of a 5-year-old child.

“The constant pressure to get the kids on track with online schooling and trying to meet deadlines,” wrote the mother of two middle-school students in Wisconsin. “Getting the kids motivated to do homework especially the last month was a joke. The fits, meltdowns, anger, yelling, lying about being done with assignments was unnerving. The use of profanity and name calling by my daughter hit an all-time high. It was bad.”

“We have found that the increased time together has strained relationships,” wrote the mother of two tweens. “With 4 people with ADHD in the home, arguments and disagreements occur because family members become bored and start looking for entertainment or ongoing stress builds and overflows. We have struggled with emotional regulation and I am concerned that the ongoing stress and arguments will cause wounds that won’t easily be healed.”

“I feel like a walking failure, especially with regard to time management and domestic chores,” wrote a woman with depression. “Hating that my house is a mess. Feeling desperate, in crisis, and feeling guilty for staying in front of the computer until late at night instead of taking time to sleep and rest.”

“My lowest point was when my freelance work dried up,” wrote one woman in Brooklyn. “As a single person living alone, work gave my day some structure and context for time. Once I was alone with endless hours on my hands and no certainty about the future, I went into a week-long depression and my anxiety spiked like crazy.”

Your Most Positive Takeaways from the Pandemic

ADHD brains see things differently, which means we are sometimes able to find goodness or hope where others may not. We noticed this tendency in the 962 responses to our survey prompt, “Please share your most positive memory or takeaway from the pandemic.” Here are a few of our favorites.

“The greatest takeaway was being diagnosed with ADHD for the first time in my life,” wrote a woman in Washington. “I feel like a floodgate of understanding has been opened up for me. I have been doing intensive therapy work with my therapist and I am looking back over my life. Wearing an ADHD lens makes me feel NORMAL for the first time in my life. I am 56 years old. If nothing else comes from this diagnosis, which is highly unlikely, I am able to understand choices I’ve made over the course of the years and how I really could not help the choices I was making… I also have learned that what matters is not what I thought mattered before. I give grace to myself easier now.”

“As both an adult with ADHD and the parent of two college-age ADHD boys who had to unexpectedly move into my new tiny 2-bedroom apartment, I’ve been through many stages since this all began,” wrote one woman in Ohio. “But my biggest takeaway… is that I LOVE coming home to them at the end of every shift; I LOVE having the house full of their presence; I LOVE that they try to cook dinners and wait until I get home to eat and I especially LOVE that we’ve all have actually enjoyed each other, listened to each other, supported each other and survived this craziness together! Some days we literally do nothing but pile up on the pull-out couch and veg all day… I know it’s probably the last chance I’ll ever have to have them this close!”

“Most of the children on our three suburban blocks have been outside almost every night playing as we parents did as children!” wrote one parent of two. “Gone are the busy afternoons and evenings of sports practices and games, or other scheduled activities! Kids are able to just be kids and play with their friends. It’s almost a relief to see.”

“Just all the time I’m able to spend with my family is great,” wrote one young woman in Canada. “I have 5 younger siblings and we’re fairly close. Board game nights with all six of us and my parents, watching Harry Potter and seeing my parents get invested, being around my family. I got to help my 17-year-old brother with a big school project. I’m thankful. And then last night two siblings and I were talking until 1:30 am about really significant stuff and it was just so awesome.”

“The stress-free mornings have been wonderful,” wrote the mother of a teen with anxiety and a 9-year-old. “We are able to break up our daily assignments to achieve maximum attention for school work. Our break time has been filled with hands-on experiments and nature walks. We have even been able to work on emotions, which we could never achieve before. My children are actually talking to me about everything. It’s great. We have a routine but not a strict schedule, so the adults are not stressing to rush home from work fit in all sports, make a healthy dinner, do homework, do bedtime ritual, and get ready for the next day.”

“I was really worried about my son’s lockdown birthday, but he said it was the best birthday he ever had!” wrote one mother in Tennessee. “Turning 12, Marvel figures might have seemed like an odd request, but without his friends there to make him feel babyish he was just really happy being himself. It’s also wonderful to watch him playing with his little sisters and I think this time has really strengthened their bond.”

“The monotony of going into an office every day was really starting to take a toll on my passion for my job, as well as my relationship,” wrote one young woman with ADHD. “Working from home has done wonders. I am less stressed. I found my passion for my work again. My relationship has grown so much stronger. I’m keeping up with my bills, remembering to make doctors and maintenance appointments, getting housework done, and spending more time with my loved ones. Instead of having the pressure of remembering to do all of the above, instead of letting the house get messy because my medicine wears off by time I get home from work, instead of getting into silly fights just because I’m cranky and feeling combative….I’m truly at peace for the first time in a long, long time.”

“I am more connected to each of my kids now than before, and we were already close,” wrote one mother of three children with anxiety. “But now, I can see the whole scope of their abilities in every area of their development, and so support them better in each. We have tried out new sports and worked on the skills for them individually and then in pairs and groups together, which has brought new respect for each other as efforts are appreciated, and it’s brought humility and grace into their sibling relationships as well. They are more willing to make mistakes, try new things, share true feelings, and have a sense of humor. We get more one-on-one time together, which they still want more of, and they are appreciating each other more as well, since if they mistreat one another there is no where and no one else to go to. They all earned a new pet bird as well, and since we are home, have time to connect to it and care for it fully. Overall, we as a family are closer and less reactive, more confident, and more empathetic.”

[Read This Next: How This Pandemic Triggers Trauma Responses in the ADHD Brain]

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