The Benefits of ADHD in a Crisis: Hyperfocus, Creativity, Resilience & More
ADHD brains kick into high gear with the slightest injection of adrenaline, delivering focus, decisiveness, and clarity in times of emergency that confuse and fluster others. So what are the benefits of ADHD during this strange, prolonged crisis? Plenty.
April 17, 2020
Perhaps it’s the innate hyperfocus. Or the adrenaline rush. Or the years we’ve spent working hard to ignore buzzing, beeping, unimportant distractions. For maybe all of these reasons, and many others, ADHD brains tend to shine in times of emergency.
We hear this anecdotally from our readers. There was the woman who kicked into high gear as a hurricane approached, able to coordinate supplies, family members, and contingency plans while the world around her panicked. There was the Army aviator who coordinated an emergency rescue mission requiring hours upon hours of life-or-death air traffic control. And many ADDitude readers are feeling it now — during this pandemic that lacks the heart-pumping thrills but none of the dire consequences of a true emergency.
In a survey of ADDitude readers fielded last week, 39.9% of 1,977 respondents said they view their ADHD as an advantage right now. Some cite their ADHD brains’ uncanny ability to shift from first gear straight into fifth with the slightest injection of dopamine. When news of the pandemic’s severity first broke, they responded swiftly and decisively while neurotypical brains struggled to come to terms with a new, changing reality.
“In the initial crisis, I was able to act quickly and aggregate a huge amount of information in order to advocate for us to close/move to online gatherings before the general public did,” wrote one parent of a young child. “Being activated by a sense of urgency and my capacity to hyperfocus served me well. In the following weeks, my ADHD has been a disadvantage as I struggle to maintain the routines and support that I previously used to treat my ADHD. However, even here, I have advantages in adapting to working remotely over my colleagues, because (of necessity) I had already built myself systems of accountability, collaboration, and support with fellow ADHD folk and now these serve me well.”
This theme of using hyperfocus for good emerged time and time again in the survey comments.
“Hyperfocus lets me absorb a lot of information about things like viruses, the immune system, and epidemiology,” wrote another reader with ADHD and PTSD. “Some folks might find that daunting, but for me, connecting all these dots gives me greater understanding about our situation, and that keeps me more grounded and calm.”
Though hyperfocus and adaptability may seem strange bedfellows, many ADDitude readers also heralded their ability to shift and modify strategies quickly and nimbly as new information unfolded during this crisis. The energy, creativity, and resilience associated with ADHD, it seems, has proven invaluable.
“I can adapt and modify ‘on the fly;’ I’m open to change,” wrote one reader with ADHD, anxiety, and depression. “The typical daily grind is exhausting, but this ever-changing Corona-world is less exhausting. I’m not sure why.”
“I love that we have had to come up with new ways to do things,” wrote another. “Change doesn’t bother me, I adapt. But, honestly, it seems that the world is now more suited to me and I don’t have to work so hard to fit in, or cope.”
This theme of finding peace and calm amid the pandemic surprised us as we encountered it time and time again in the survey comments. Many readers expressed gratitude for the opportunity to slow down and engage in the self-reflection and self-care that is so commonly postponed in ‘real life.’
“The rest of the world has come to a stop, so I can now focus on my world without guilt,” wrote one middle-aged woman with ADHD. “I am learning a lot about myself. It’s as though I’ve been able to take a learning workshop on me.”
Others are using their energy and time to pursue joy inside the hyperfocus that their brains crave — but could rarely enjoy with so many daily responsibilities lying in wait prior to the pandemic.
“For the first time in my life, I don’t feel like an outcast, I don’t feel so alone, and I feel like the world is now moving and experiencing the same slowness that I’ve been stuck in for 2 years,” wrote one women with ADHD, bipolar disorder, and PTSD. “I am a part of the new normal and, for once, I am allowed to just be me. I feel like I don’t have to catch up to the rest of society anymore. My distractibility used to take up so much time, but now we’re in limbo and time doesn’t exist. I get to relax while I am in a hyper-focused creative state – there is no more rush… it feels glorious some days – I feel free.”
Indeed, half of the adult survey respondents said they are using “unstructured time” to pursue hobbies, explore creativity, and tackle long-standing projects. This was true for adults both with and without children at home with them.
“I’m free to be creative, working on artistic projects long delayed, without distractions or pressure of any kind,” wrote an older woman with ADHD and anxiety. “For an ADD creative, with no concept of what it’s like to be bored, this is all weirdly ideal. As an artist, I’m blossoming.”
The majority of survey respondents said they are keeping busy with household projects they’ve long avoided; the most common one is clearing clutter to make sheltering in place more calming (and roomy). These organization projects are not easy by any stretch of the imagination; nor are they neatly tied up with a bow. Almost all respondents who reported tackling home projects said these projects are largely unfinished or in a state of flux; they chip away at them slowly and try to feel good about the daily steps in the right direction.
“Organizing spaces is helping me find calm in the storm,” wrote one mother with three young children at home. “I have to focus on one small space at a time or I get overwhelmed. And I can’t do it every day or it’s too much. I’m learning to show myself a lot of grace right now.”
“I got a good start on two areas (with my husband’s help), but can’t get them finished,” wrote a mother at home with two teens. “Some of the challenge is there’s nowhere to take the things to get rid of them. Also, I cannot get motivated to work on any home projects by myself even though there literally has been no other time in my life, and never will be again, that’s better suited to getting home projects, house cleaning done.”
That sense of guilt — over knowing you should be completing home projects right now, but just can’t get it done due to the distractions, the stress, and the work-life rebalancing going on earnest right now — was also a prevailing theme of the ADDitude survey. More than 11% of respondents said they just don’t have time to take on new projects right now; 10% said they are prioritizing self-care and emotional health over productivity; and nearly 28% said they haven’t embarked on any new projects and they feel guilty about it.
“I keep saying I want to get so much done around the house, but then my panic, extreme stress, and lack of sleep do not help,” wrote one parent of elementary and middle school students with ADHD and autism, respectively.
“I feel overwhelmed by how much I have to do in the home, so I focus on other things, even though I want to organize, and I feel guilty for not doing so,” wrote a young adult with ADHD.
The theme of overwhelm was — well, overwhelming, in the answers shared by the 55.77% of survey respondents who called their ADHD a disadvantage during the pandemic. Overwhelmed with all of the change. Overwhelmed with the myriad daily work and parenting responsibilities being constantly interrupted. Overwhelmed with the choices about what to do with unstructured time. All of it resulting in a feeling a paralysis that drives readers to spend too much time on social media or watching mindless shows (the Hallmark channel was cited a lot) or nervously reading the news.
It’s interesting to note that parents with children at home who were also newly working from home were the most likely to call their ADHD a disadvantage right now.
“This is a new experience, so it has placed a strain on the techniques I use to manage my ADHD,” wrote one middle-aged woman. “The sheer amount of information has been overwhelming to the point that I am immobilized by the overwhelm.”
“I finally have all this free time to do all the things I have been neglecting around the house, and yet at the same time, there is so much to do that it is overwhelming, so I find myself defaulting each day to reading and other enjoyable tasks so that I do not have to deal with it — not good,” wrote one parent of teens living in a big city.
“I often feel paralyzed and find it difficult to move forward with projects or tasks,” wrote one mother. “I’m able to make sure my 7th and 9th graders get schoolwork done, which typically does not take up more than 2-3 hours of their days… I’m doing more numbing activities, reading or streaming programs. I read too many daily updates.”
Filling unstructured time with productive, healthy tasks is another common challenge among the respondents struggling to manage their ADHD right now. Many told us they find it difficult to structure their days without the anchors of external obligations like meetings, classes, and social events. They recognize the importance and benefits of structure but feel wholly incapable of creating that structure out of the gaping void in front of them.
“Seemingly unlimited, unstructured time means I veer off into too many rabbit holes and before I know it the day is over, and I haven’t completed any of the professional or personal projects on my to-do list!” wrote one reader.
“Home life is totally unstructured, distracting, and overwhelming,” wrote a woman with ADHD, anxiety, and depression in Seattle. “I try to make a to-do list and get going on it, but it’s so long. Prioritizing and managing it is really difficult. It tends to shut my brain down with overwhelm. I go into some kind of procrastination mode… I usually end up bouncing back & forth between many different tasks that I come across in my path. The end of the day always comes too fast. Then I realize that I still hadn’t started on my to-do list.”
Distractions remain a daunting opponent for many ADHD brains trying to work at home. Some readers report being pulled away from work by children and spouses who need their attention during the day. Others struggle to self-regulate their technology use during the day — having social media and YouTube and news just a click away at all times is sucking up a lot of time. Still others report exhaustion from poor sleep and from feeling compelled to work all the time since the office is just down the hallway.
“Distractibility is having a more severe impact, as I can’t change my environment (e.g. by going to the library) and I have to work in the same room with my partner, usually at the same time,” wrote one readers. “Work never seems to end and is “everywhere” — clear starts and ends are very difficult to maintain — and I don’t have less work than before.”
Routine and boundaries are difficult for parents as well, but in a different way. Three-quarters of parents report that their family’s morning and/or evening routine is less stressful than it was before schools closed. But nearly 25% of parents surveyed said they continue to face hardship with the following:
- Getting a child to adhere to a set class schedule on Zoom or other video learning platform, especially when classes begin early in the day
- Getting kids out of bed and organized for a day of learning before leaving the house for work
- Managing pent-up energy and aggravation at the end of the day, which leads to dysregulation and poor sleep
- Children who think they’re on spring or summer break and fight relentless against bedtimes
“It’s impossible to get my child out of bed to sign in for a virtual class – he does not see the point,” wrote one parent. “After signing in, he claims – that’s it for that class and does not do the work. Nighttime is not any easier. My son is reveling in the combo of not having outside activities and unrestrained screen time. If we cut the screen time off, he threatens to leave the house at very late hours (He is a teen). As a result, he is staying up later than he was before.”
“Humbly, I share that the only reason that there is less stress is because I lower the bar, which is not good,” wrote another parent. “As an adult, now understanding that I have ADHD, I know how incredibly important structure and/or routine is to my and my children’s success in developing competence and confidence. I am not currently successful at this with them. The external structure of school was helpful, and I am struggling now.”
So what is helping? Empathy, support, and community.
“I just like to know I’m not alone in my feelings and struggles in our ‘new norm.’”
So thank you for sharing your unfiltered emotions, struggles, and strategies, ADDitude readers. Your voices matter.
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Updated on April 24, 2020